Working only minutes from the Illawarra coast is a far cry from Moray Ralph’s previous role in one of the country’s most isolated and remote communities.
The general manager of Port Kembla’s Our Community Project is about to celebrate his first year in the job, and the first time in five years that he’s been this close to the east coast.
Moray (pronounced Murray) spent four years as CEO of Paupiyala Tjarutja Aboriginal Corporation in the Western Australia part of the Great Victoria Desert – “very remote and very challenging”.
He said he “used every skill he had”, plus learned a whole lot more, including the local pidgin language as the older members of the community don’t speak a lot of English.
The closest town was Kalgoorlie, 650 km away via a dirt track. His job was pretty much running the community – the medical service, aged care centre, the airport and roads.
While the area was dry 90 per cent of the year, Moray had only been in the job for six months when a massive rain depression swept in, cutting off the community for six weeks.
“The whole place was like a lake and you couldn’t move,” he said.
“I was in Kalgoorlie at meetings and I’m getting phone calls from emergency services saying you better get back to community now.
“I just jumped in the car with two other staff members and we loaded up food for the store.”
Moray also had to deal with the COVID years and ensuring the community overcame its fear and suspicions about vaccinations.
“Getting key people in was always challenging and trying to convince traditional people that COVID was a real threat,” he said.
“Eventually we got the Flying Doctor Service involved and we got community up to 98 per cent double vaccinated before Stage 2 really came along, so I was pleased with that.”
Moray is happy to again be close to the beaches of his childhood.
“Being in the desert for so long I just wanted to get to the coast,” he said.
“As a kid I used to come down here all the time from western Sydney, so it’s a bit like coming back to the stomping ground of my teenage years.
“Port Kembla has changed so much – it’s not as industrial as it used to be, but the beaches are still beautiful.”
Our Community Project (OCP) is a not-for-profit community development organisation, with a vision to “build vibrant, creative, and resourceful communities that value people and the planet”.
It oversees a number of local projects and services, including Tender Funerals Illawarra, Culture Bank, Jam n Bread and the Southern No Interest Loan Scheme (NILS), which offers affordable finance to low income earners to purchase household goods and services.
“Our challenge is to make sure we have enough cash to keep quite a large organisation moving, although we’re still very much a project-based organisation so it’s different to how a lot of others operate,” Moray said.
OCP manages the Port Kembla Community Centre which will undergo the second stage of renovations in the coming year, including a new community office, upgraded toilets, roof replacement, landscaping and upgrading of the forecourt.
The centre is home for a large variety of community groups but Moray says there’s still room and scope for other groups and activities to use the facilities.
He says the Port Kembla community is facing similar challenges to the rest of the Illawarra, with homelessness and affordable housing at the top of the list.
“As we deal with an ageing generation, it gets really difficult for people who have been renting all their lives and their incomes haven’t increased or they’re on pensions and they simply can’t afford the commercial rents.
“There’s a striking difference now in Port Kembla between semi-professionals and professionals who’ve moved in and basically the people who’ve been here for a long time – the battlers.”
Moray believes the changing face of Port Kembla and the shift away from a predominantly industrial base offers a raft of new opportunities. The OCP Board has been included in discussions with BlueScope around the plans for the company’s 200 ha of non-steelmaking excess land adjacent to the steelworks.
“I look down the track at growing that arts community into something even more profound, because I think those opportunities are definitely there,” Moray said.
“You know, they’re pouring millions of dollars into the film industry in Sydney and the Gold Coast and we could do it pretty well on the smell of an oily rag if we wanted to.”