Slings and Arrows: Coke gets in your eyes

Is it time to pore back over the circumstances of Coca Cola’s sale of its city fringe site? And should workers have the right to disconnect from their email over the weekend?

The February 2017 announcement by Coca Cola Amatil that it would close its Port Road bottling plant at Thebarton was quickly (without much supporting evidence at the time) presumed to relate to nothing else than skyrocketing South Australian power costs. But the Coke folks insisted that it had arisen from a thorough, Australia-wide business analysis concluding that Adelaide was now logistically in the wrong place for them. The bottling will now be done in Queensland. Logistical? There may have been more to it, but no-one took any notice of a few locals who reckoned they’d worked it out. Former SA Labor Planning Minister, John Rau, had spent the years between 2012 and 2014 radically revising development plan rules for inner-city-rim suburbs, and Thebarton’s Port Road zone is one that saw major new allowances for buildings of greater height and density, exploding development potential there. Overnight, property and land values for such sites skyrocketed. Coke’s site was 5.2ha. It was revalued at $17m, a lot more than before 2012. That sudden revaluation would have figured large in the Coke folks’ business analysis. Windfall asset sale potential, straight to the bottom line, making the decision to cease running the bottling plant even more tempting. Part of that land was recently sold for a multi-storey residential development.

There may have been other reasons for Coke’s business decisions, too. The plant sat over a pristine water aquifer (as does nearby business South Australian Brewing Co). This is vulnerable to contamination. Years earlier, it was acknowledged that a park-land-edge site a few kilometres east (old rail yards and nearby dumps) contained high-level contamination (hydrocarbon, arsenic and lead, etc). Nine years ago a city council aquifer recharge idea (collecting and storing winter River Torrens stormwater) was resisted by both Port Road businesses because it was feared that it might spread contamination to Thebarton. Although the plan was eventually dumped, the concept would have been listed under potential future ‘Threats’ section of any fizz business SWOT analysis. Years later, in May 2017, news broke of government warnings of Thebarton groundwater contamination (TCA, a cleaning solvent heavily used before the 1960s). The Coke factory site was one of the identified sites. While there’s no suggestion that any local fizz products were, are, or are likely to be contaminated, it’s difficult to assume that the Coke folks didn’t know about all of the past and present groundwater issues below their site.

Goes to show that when a long-established employer decides to leave town, although power costs might be a powerful impetus, there are often other reasons behind the scenes.

Quote of the month

If you’re thinking about buying off the plan to live in a new Adelaide city apartment tower, or moving into one very recently constructed, this might be of interest. Ash’s March 2019 column discussed the SA planning revolution under way, the matter of building surveyors or certifiers, and new procedures and rules under the ‘development assessment framework’. Some disturbing city council observations came to light. Buried in a more recent city council discussion paper was a link to a major nation-wide review, the Shergold Weir report (‘Building confidence’, February 2018). Here’s but one paragraph plucked from a long, fine-detail shocker of a report on Australian building regulatory compliance – or lack of it.

“It is apparent to us that deriving the maximum benefit from a performance-based approach to building regulation depends on two fundamental requirements. First, there needs to be a high level of awareness and understanding across the building and construction industry of how compliance can be achieved … Second, there needs to be strong public trust that the performance requirements are being met and, in particular, that health and safety [of buildings] is assured. At present, as this report elaborates, neither of these requirements are being fully met.”

Problems exist with accuracy of design and documentation; quality control and assurance; competencies of practitioners; integrity of private certification; inspection regimes; auditing and enforcement practices; and product importation and chain of custody.

Adelaide City Council’s best quote (because of its brevity) emerged from its Strategic Planning & Policy Development Committee’s 25 February 2019 special meeting agenda paper. “The [new, 2016 SA] Planning, Development and Infrastructure Act has primarily concentrated on reforming the planning system in SA and has largely ignored the legislation surrounding building control.” Before you sign the tenancy or purchase papers, perhaps you might ask for a briefing from the state opposition. They passed the legislation.

It’s in hand

Last month’s festivities saw thousands descend on day and night events around town, as everyone appeared to be ‘on leave from the office’. But the plethora of iPhones left on during many performances said something profound about work pressures that get taken home (or continue elsewhere) after the sun goes down. It’s a global phenomenon. If you’re in a responsible job, the assumption is that you need to be contactable 24/7. Most South Australians accept this as part of the contemporary work deal. But in France, workers are more bolshie. Things suddenly changed in January 2017 when a new law allowed a ‘right to disconnect’, creating an obligation for firms to negotiate with staff to make sure that out-of-hours communications with them can be ignored with impunity. The law initially aimed to apply to all workplaces, but last-minute lobbying by international groups saw it restricted to workplaces of 50 or more. Should a law like that ever get up in SA, the same limitation might apply. That would exempt the just-surviving backbone of SA industry – small businesses, generally with fewer than 50 employees. Tough luck. By the way, contemporary Adelaide high flyers whose phones are surgically grafted to their bodies and left on 24/7 are all said to suffer from ‘hurry fever’. You could see it in their eyes all through the Fringe and WOMAD’s festivities.

*Ash Whitefly is Executive Director of the Adelaide Whitefly Institute of Diplomatic Studies.

Header image:
A Coca Cola factory in Angola (Photo: Shutterstock / Andre Silva Pinto)

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