The Alcoa plant, he said, was a “giant battery” that was critical to the reliable operation of Victoria’s entire power grid.
The smelter, which is Victoria’s single biggest electricity user, could be powered up or powered down depending on the level of use by the rest of the state, easing pressure on the system when required.
But all is not roses for Portland’s heavy industry.
While the smelter workers were saved for now, just down the road 42 employees of Portland’s engineering firm, Keppel Prince, were packing their jobs away, while another 100 feared for their futures.
Keppel is the only manufacturer of wind towers on the Australian mainland.
But it has missed out on winning a contract to supply towers to a large wind farm near neighbouring Port Fairy, which is being built using Chinese steel, with towers believed to be manufactured in Vietnam.
The blow meant 16 Keppel workers took voluntary redundancies, and 26 were sacked from the wind tower division.
Morrison, who had come to Portland with Trade Minister Dan Tehan and Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas to announce the rescue package for Alcoa, wasn’t so comfortable answering questions about whether his government should mandate the use of Australian materials and labour for significant projects to save companies like Keppel.
“It’s a reminder, and a very good reminder, of the fact that even in an economy like Australia’s – that is coming back better than almost any other advanced economy in the world – we still have our great challenges,” he said, before tossing the issue to Tehan, the member for the seat of Wannon, which includes Portland.
Tehan said he was still holding talks with the multinational companies that were developing the wind farm at Ryans Corner, near Port Fairy, and “it would be fantastic” if they were to decide to use local content.
“I call on them, quite openly today, please think about the jobs here in Portland; think about the local community, think about the responsibility you have as companies building renewable energy projects to also support renewable energy jobs here in Portland,” he said.
But Tehan cautioned that a federal government policy to mandate the use of local labour and content would risk Australia’s own position as an exporting nation if trade partners imposed their own local content rules.
Meanwhile, exporters in Portland and surrounding district are having their own problems with trade restrictions imposed by Australia’s biggest trading partner, China.
Crayfishers have lost their market with China, sending prices plunging, great piles of logs rejected by China sit growing dry and unusable on a wharf, and vignerons are left with stockpiles of wine – all apparently the result of China taking umbrage at Morrison’s early call for an investigation into the genesis of the coronavirus.
Asked if Australia was making any headway with persuading China to relax its restrictions, Morrison said Australia wanted a strong relationship with China.
But he said he believed Australians, including those doing it tough in south-west Victoria, “understand that while we are a trading nation, we never trade our sovereignty, and will never trade our values”.
By midday on Friday, the Prime Minister had flown away and relieved workers at Alcoa, at least, were celebrating with a barbecue in the smelter’s vast grounds.
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Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.