It has been more than 10 years since former Labor minister Craig Emerson stood in the Senate courtyard in Canberra trying to dispel concerns about a carbon tax.

His method went down as one of the most bizarre stunts in modern Australian political history. 

His ode — “no Whyalla wipe-out” — sung to the tune of Skyhooks’s 70s hit “Horror Movie” was intended to signal that the South Australian steel town would not be wiped out by the new tax, as had been claimed by its critics. 

Labor’s carbon pricing scheme was repealed two years later, but Whyalla residents want to make it clear a “wipe-out” has never been on the cards.

“Every town talks about, it’s got resilience. We’ve proved it over and over again. We’ve survived every time,” former mayor and Labor MP Lyn Breuer said.

No wipe-out, but difficult decades

One of Whyalla’s first big knocks was the end of shipbuilding in the 70s.

Following the closure of BHP’s shipyards, Whyalla’s population went from 35,000 to today’s 22,000.

Whyalla’s shipbuilding industry ended in the 70s.(ABC News: Brant Cumming)

“It had a major impact on the town, and I think that was our first big lesson in ‘we can’t rely completely on being a one-company town’,” Ms Breuer said.

“But we diversified and we’ve survived.”

Whyalla survived, but steel remained central to the city’s fortunes, something that was made clear when steelworks owner Arrium went into administration in 2016.

Lyn Breuer says Whyalla cannot rely on being a one-company town.(ABC News: Brant Cumming)

It was a blow felt by many locals, including Wesley Fisher who lost his job at one of the local mines.

“My crew and the opposite crew were made redundant,” he said.

“That was a bit hard for us, we were on a good wage and to see our jobs go, that was a bit harsh. It took me around a year to recover, a year to find another job.”

A major marketing campaign promising prosperity

The Arrium scare ended when billionaire industrialist Sanjeev Gupta took over the steelworks and kept them operating.

And now, the state government is in the midst of a major marketing campaign, promoting what it has said will be an industrial renaissance in the region.

Sanjeev Gupta took over the Whyalla steelworks to prevent it from closing.(ABC News: Nick Harmsen)

It has pledged to spend more than half a billion dollars building a plant that will produce hydrogen to generate electricity.

It is the centrepiece of the state government’s so-called “state prosperity project”, which comes with the promise of thousands of jobs.

The government has also signed a preliminary agreement with the steelworks, to provide hydrogen as part of its plan to create green steel.

The South Australian government has pledged to build a hydrogen plant at Whyalla.(ABC News: Brant Cumming)

Wesley Fisher may have lost work in the mines, but he still has confidence in his community, and has recently bought a business on the main street.

But like many in Whyalla, he is cautious about putting too much hope in what is being planned for the city.

“We’re still hoping, but we do feel sometimes like we’ve been promised a lot and then forgotten about and it shouldn’t be the case,” he said.

“I like the idea of calling them promises because I believe it’s a positive outcome, hopefully.”

Wesley Fisher says he is cautious about plans for Whyalla’s future.(ABC News: Brant Cumming)

The cautious optimism is largely because it is not the first time there have been big promises for Whyalla that locals are still waiting for.

In 2018, the city held the what was called the “big reveal” with then prime minister, premier and opposition leaders joining Sanjeev Gupta to outline a vision that included expanding the steelworks into one of the largest in the world.

That has not yet happened, nor has promises for a new foreshore hotel, a major horticulture project and projections the city’s population would quadruple to 80,000.

The government says the “state prosperity project” will create thousands of jobs.(ABC News: Brant Cumming)

“We don’t use the term anymore, ‘big reveal’. If you were doing that again, you would do it vastly differently,” Mayor Phill Stone said.

“Perhaps it wasn’t told sufficiently that it was going to take several years before the big changes would occur.”

Questions about steelworks future

It is not just the lack of follow-through on the ‘big reveal’ that has people concerned.

Questions remain about plans for the steelworks conversion to green iron and steel, following the collapse of Sanjeev Gupta’s key financier and an ongoing fraud investigation into GFG in the UK.

The company said it had big ambitions for the Whyalla plant and plans were underway for a new electric arc furnace.

Phill Stone says he hopes the government’s commitments will make locals feel positive.(ABC News: Brant Cumming)

But the state government said its plans were not dependent on the steelworks, and the hydrogen it produced would be used to power the grid.

“The key difference is that when it comes to the hydrogen jobs plan, the big one that is the most imminent, we are not sitting around waiting for permission from anybody,” SA Premier Peter Malinauskas told media during a recent whistlestop tour to the Upper Spencer Gulf promoting the plan.

The government says the hydrogen Whyalla produces will be used to power the grid.(ABC News: Brant Cumming)

“This is money that the government has in its budget, contracts are being awarded to actually start building a $600 million facility in Whyalla that will be the world’s largest hydrogen electrolyser and power plant,” he said. 

It is the kind of talk, the mayor said, that was helping locals feel more positive about the future.

“People I talk to now that were sceptical are totally the opposite,” Mr Stone said.

“They do accept that change is happening. It’s going to be fantastic.”