Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Transition time for coal
The mining and energy union sees the writing on the wall


A new report by the University of NSW, commissioned by the CFMMEU, sketches two futures for the 8000 direct employees in Australia’s 23 coal-fired power stations: one is a just transition into new jobs with no forced redundancies, emulating Germany’s Ruhr district; the other is the entrenched poverty left by market disruption in coal districts like Appalachia in the US, where pointless ideological warfare takes the place of proper planning. Given that 10 coal-fired power stations have shut down in Australia without a transition plan since 2012, and the Coalition’s science-deniers are in charge of energy policy, still trying to stave off the inevitable decarbonisation, this country is on course for the latter.

The report has been written by the UNSW Business School’s Industrial Relations Research Centre, and calls for an Energy Transition Authority to plan for the closure of Australia’s remaining coal-fired power stations over the next two-to-three decades. Peter Sheldon, the report’s lead author, told Fairfax today that companies should pay their fair share of the transition costs, and that this shouldn’t be viewed as a welfare program. The report was launched today by former ACTU secretary and climate-change minister Greg Combet, who said in a statement that ignoring the challenges associated with transitioning to a low-carbon economy would not make them go away.

Under the new federal energy minister, Angus Taylor, the Coalition is scrambling to prop up the coal industry, by proposing to subsidise construction or extending the life of a “fair dinkum” power generator in a rushed tender before the next election, and may offer an indemnity against future carbon liabilities, which could cost taxpayers billions. Labor has already pledged [$] to honour any contracts signed before the election, so maximum scrutiny will be required between now and the election, lest some friend of the government makes a windfall gain at the public expense. The former prime minister’s son, Alex Turnbull, wrote in The Guardian on the weekend that the Coalition had now embraced the “worst possible energy policy” – he described it as “economic vandalism” – and warned that Sunset Power, owned by Brian Flannery and former National Party candidate and LNP donor Trevor St Baker, may be interested.

In his foreword to the report, CFMMEU national president Tony Maher writes that “it is unlikely that the economic case for investing in new coal-fired power stations in Australia will stack up.” Of course, new coal-fired power could be made to stack up if enough public money is thrown at it – just like the giant Adani coal mine in Queensland – so that could be a bet each way.

The report’s call for an Energy Transition Authority follows the recommendation of a Senate inquiry into the retirement of coal-fired power stations in 2016–17. In the final report, the Coalition members dissented, pointing to a number of policy processes that have since collapsed in a heap, such as the Finkel Review, and concluded “[we] do not believe that the best way to achieve an effective transition is to force the exit of coal fired power generation from the electricity system”.

On the Coalition side, the debate has gone backwards since then. But the dysfunctional debate doesn’t stop reality. As Peter Sheldon told me today, his research is based not on the politics but on what the power station operators are themselves saying: “None of us can know who’s going to be in government in a year, two years, three years, four years, but we do know that the power stations are going to close. Unless the government is going to build a government-owned power station for every power station that’s going to close, there’s still going to be a transition question.” 

Sheldon argued that the workforces in the more vulnerable power stations and their communities deserve policymakers who look dispassionately at the problems and set to work to organise a just transition: “Hazelwood closed despite what anyone said. Liddell’s going to close whatever anyone says. Port Augusta closed, despite what anyone believes about coal; it closed. A whole lot of other power stations, including Morwell, Anglesea, Munmorah … these all closed despite any debate about energy policy because the owners made hard-edged commercial decisions to close them. That’s the reality.”

Hazelwood was the prime example of what not do: the Greens argued for years for a just transition, but the major parties at state and federal level were in denial. Suddenly, when the time came, workers got short notice and power prices spiked across the National Energy Market, even though the closure was completely predictable. Now, says Sheldon, when AGL does the right thing and flags that it will close Liddell in 2022, “it gets canned for it”.

Greens Leader Richard Di Natale today said an independent authority to manage the transition away from coal has been his party’s policy since 2014. “Most coal workers know what’s coming and they want a plan,” he said. “Which is why we are committed to support and help them transition to the industries of the future.”

since this morning

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has declared [$] that Medicare will be the biggest issue at the next election, as he announced leading doctor Brian Owler, a former president of the AMA, is Labor’s candidate for the Sydney electorate of Bennelong.

In The Australian, columnist John Durie writes [$] that the ACCC “seems set to clear Nine Entertainment’s takeover of Fairfax next week in a decision driven by the growth in the media platform giants”.

Coalition backbench energy committee chair Craig Kelly has told The Guardian that the government should consider reducing the petrol excise tax and expanding forced divestiture powers to break up petrol companies in an attempt to reduce prices.

Australia’s east coast has been compared to the Amazon as a “deforestation front” in a new global report by the World Wide Fund for Nature that underscores the threat to populations of koalas and other native species.

in case you missed it

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has insisted that any decision Australia makes about shifting its embassy in Israel will be in the national interest, not with an eye to placating allies, after Malcolm Turnbull highlighted Indonesia’s concerns about the move.

Federal leadership turmoil has derailed the Victorian Coalition’s election campaign, according to a fresh Newspoll [$], with Labor opening up a winning two-party-preferred lead of 54 per cent to 46 per cent, four weeks before the state election.

Fairfax Media reveals that government MPs have spent more than $9000 buying 614 copies of a book – Robert Menzies’ The Forgotten People – that is published by a Liberal Party think tank and available online for free.

National Farmers Federation president Fiona Simson has been urged to run as an independent candidate against Barnaby Joyce in the seat of New England.

by Megan Davis
Free speech has never been ‘free’
The idea that all arguments should be ventilated is misguided

by Richard Cooke
Age-old hate
Anti-Semitism is on the rise

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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