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How the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built

February 4, 2021

A century ago the Australian Government led by example to use home made materials to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

It issued a directive to used local procurement and local steel that had a transformative effect on Australia’s fledgling steel industry.

The AWU is calling on our leaders to make the same commitment today – insist on using Australian made products in infrastructure projects across the nation to help us rebuild post COVID-19 and help restore our sovereign industrial strength.

By the early 1900s the construction of a bridge across Sydney harbour had become possible due to the engineering advances and developments in the local manufacture of prefabricated steel and reinforced concrete.

It led to the creation of the Sydney Harbour Bridge Act in 1922 which required the tender to use as many materials made in NSW as possible. “The works authorised shall as far as practicable be constructed of materials produced and manufactured in Australia at the date of closing of tenders. The constructing authority shall afford full opportunity to local industries to manufacture; or arrange for the manufacture and supply from Australian industries or production in fair competition with imported materials.”

At the time The Australian steel industry was still in its infancy – country wide there was just a small Lithgow steel milll (founded in the early 1900s) and BHP’s Newcastle Steelworks (opened in 1915).

But, the decision to use home grown products had a huge impact for decades to come and one that the Australian economy is still benefiting from.

A review of the tenders show that all carbon based steel on the bridge, mainly in the deck and the approach scans, was produced locally at the BHP steelworks in Newcastle. Fabrication of the steelwork was carried out in two large temporary workshops on the north side of the harbour where the Olympic Pool and Luna Park now stand. In all 1600people worked on the bridge’s construction during the height of the depression.

Approximately 10,500 tonnes of steel was sourced from BHP Steelworks in Newcastle. In all just over 20 per cent of the steel used in the construction was produced in Australia and granite for the piers and pylons was quarried at Moruya on the NSW south coast.

Whilst the remainder of the steel was procured from overseas, the directive to use locally based steel in the harbour bridge (nicknamed the Iron Lung) propelled the development of Australia’s steel industry. The Whyalla steelworks opened in 1938 and during WWII there was a huge demand for Australian steel. It’s now the most efficient steel manufacturer in the world employing more than 100,000 people.

Daniel Walton, National Secretary of the AWU, said: “A century ago our political leaders backed our manufacturing industry to the hilt and helped created one of the most important industries this country has ever seen.

“We need to regain this faith in Australian made products and recognise the craftsmanship, the innovation and the contribution they make to this country.

“We once had a manufacturing industry that was the envy of the world. It’s time to get that back and there is one sure fire way we can do that. We need to once again insist we use Australian made products in all our major infrastructure projects and stop relying on cheap imports from overseas which are threatening our jobs.”

A recent poll conducted by the AWU showed the country overwhelming backs our campaign to champion Australian made products.

You can help us rebuild our economy and create even jobs by joining your union today.

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