Vote for Leigh Creek and Electricity Trust of South Australia in 1946 upsets the conservatives

A train hauling Leigh Creek coal to the Playford power stations that started operating at Port Augusta from 1960.

Tom Playford’s bill to take over Adelaide Electricity Supply Company and replace it with the government-owned Electricity Trust of South Australia passed the Legislative Council by a one-vote majority in 1946.

It hinged on months of campaigning to change the mind of one Liberal and Country League member, Jack Bice. He voted in favour with five other LCL members and the only four Labor members of the council. The other LCL members, fiercely for free enterprise over undue government intervention, had tried to water the bill down to allow government control of Adelaide Electricity for only a brief time.

The decision to nationalise Adelaide Electricity and develop Leigh Creek proved prescient. In early 1947, mines in New South Wales were again crippled by strikes with a worse one, in 1949, forcing prime minister Ben Chifley to send in the armed forces to extract coal. While the other states suffered industrial power rationing, reducing their manufacturing output with more unemployment, South Australia escaped as the miners at Leigh Creek worked around the clock. 

Within four years, Leigh Creek mine was operating at a surplus and the town was further rewarded with federal funding. From 1947, until the end of Playford's leadership in 1965, the mine’s output rose tenfold to almost two million tons a year. Transport infrastructure was improved, European immigrant workers were recruited and twin power plants at Port Augusta were completed in 1960 and named after the premier.

The new power plants exclusively used Leigh Creek coal and, by 1970, the whole state was self-sufficient for electricity. ETSA and the mine were generating enough revenue to maintain the town—“Uncle Tom's Baby”—and mine of Leigh Creek and making a profit.

From 1946-65, South Australians connected to electricity increased from 70% to 96%. The struggle for Leigh Creek was critical to Playford's premiership. The successful passage of the nationalisation bill enhanced his image and gave him enduring control over his party but it angered some staunch LCL conservatives in Legislative Council who refused to talk to him for a long time.

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