Once upon a time in the deep waterside south

20:21, Aug 12 2012

Dunedin and its outlying districts have continued to preserve much of their 19th-century character.

Port Chalmers, as far as shipping and economic activity goes, was practically dead during the 1990s, except for the occasional logging truck with a load of Southland beech (perhaps that should be pinus radiata) headed for Japan and the woodchip market. The port is now a moderately resourced container terminal of the southern hub, with two cranes handling the bulk of the freight from Timaru down.

It was first successfully petitioned for by the Otago business community in 1973, with the assistance of the local private radio station, 4XO. Vans broadcasting support for a container terminal through loudspeakers cruised the streets of Dunedin and outlying districts, using the techniques one associates with an American election campaign.

Messages broadcast in public places were "sped up" by a few revolutions to give the message a sense of urgency - not that you would consciously notice the change.

Your basic propaganda technique in a pre-digital age, at one remove from subliminal advertising - and, therefore, not at risk of legal infringement upon the somewhat illusory freedoms of the individual. Quaint, really, when compared to today's multimedia globalised advances. I am only too aware of this ploy, because I worked as a journalist and newsreader at 4XO at the time and observed the entire process first-hand.

One hundred years to the decade after my great-grandfather arrived in Dunedin, I had lived for four years in Otago. During my brief marriage in the extended romance of youth, this was the first and last occasion when I had a hand in buying property - a rambling old twin-gabled house built completely out of kauri, right down to its 13-inch weatherboard blade, including the original tree stump piles riddled with long-toothed borer (peculiar to the southern regions), resulting in an undulating floor, particularly noticeable in the front and side rooms.


It was at the top of a gravelly cul-de-sac off Noyna Rd in Sawyers Bay, perched grandly above the ancient tannery (now demolished), a Dickensian shambles unchanged since the days of the Industrial Revolution.

From the elevated front rooms of this five-bedroom mansion, large casement windows commanded a 160-degree view over the road skirting the bay with its small railway station, and out across the Otago Harbour channel to the Portobello settlement on the other side.

Anyway, the 4XO promotion, a comparatively upbeat campaign, was orchestrated by the then programme manager, Auckland voiceover and marketing whiz the late Mike Baker, one of the original Radio Hauraki "Good Guys" in the days of illegal broadcasts from somewhere in the Hauraki Gulf.

Nevertheless, the container port was finally voted in as a result of overwhelming support through a public referendum organised by the radio station. Ratings and advertising skyrocketed. Mike Baker was duly appointed to the board and made station manager. The container port was finally established in the mid to late 1970s.

No great surprise, really, in a city desperate to create jobs - regardless of the environmental cost to the maritime area under consideration - yet the "success" of this manoeuvre probably had little to do with Mike Baker and his slick sales pitch. Anyhow, once you get past the rock'n'roll hype, the DJ is little more than an unemployed car dealer, every one of them a salesman and record company stooge.

Timing was all. This was the burgeoning Age of the Container Terminal, and soon cranes were to rear up, giant stick insects in all their cantilevered glory, throughout every major port in the country - like some Orwellian nightmare proclaiming the evils of progress.

These days, the fortunes of container terminals, or "hubs", as they are known, do not appear quite so inviolable. They once were the promise of secured employment on the waterfront, with a strong maritime union. We have seen how Australian freighting magnate Kerragan dismantled the waterside workers' union in that "wide, brown land" in the 1990s. It is likely to happen here, too.

The process of dismantling is done by degree. First, incorporate contractual employment, then change the terms of employment according to economic forecast.

Auckland's container port has suffered ongoing industrial unrest for years, with considerable loss to New Plymouth. What happened to the casual labourer on the wharf, the "seagull"? Much like the alternative lifestyle of the 70s - long gone. Though it does linger on in Dunedin in a neo-fashionistic miasma tempered by the student population in season.

Thankfully, no-one calls their children "Malcolm David Gabriel Gramophone" any more. And no one drives around the streets of Dunedin with a van blaring workers' rights through a megaphone, more's the pity.

Stephen Oliver has published several volumes of poetry, including Harmonic and more recently Apocrypha. He resides in the North King Country.

Waikato Times