Climate change campaigners are organising to protest at Hazelwood power station in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley to highlight the need to transition from coal to renewable energy. As the Australia Institute notes “Hazelwood has the distinction of being Australia’s largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions”.
Despite the need to urgently reduce carbon emissions, power stations like Hazelwood will be allowed to continue to pollute well into the future under the government’s CPRS.
Campaigners have talked about the need to “withdraw the social license of coal”. That is important, but not enough. Recent polling found that 88 per cent of Australians support investment in renewable energy, but passive support will not be enough to make it happen.
We face enormously powerful vested interests, not just from the coal industry, but the ruling class as a whole in Australia sees coal as an important competitive advantage. As Terry McCrann argued in the Herald-Sun “we have a comparative (competitive) advantage in the production of carbon dioxide. Not because we specifically want to produce CO2. But because we get 85 per cent of our electricity from cheap and plentiful coal.”
This is why the Hazelwood protest’s commitment to civil disobedience, even if largely symbolic, is important. It points to the need to take disruptive action which can force governments to act.
But the location of the protest at a power station means relating to the workers inside is particularly important. The movement needs to win not just the support, but also the active involvement, of ordinary working class people if it is to win a serious shift to renewable energy. This is firstly because movements draw their power from mass participation—and working people make up the overwhelming mass of society. But workers organised in trade unions also possess potential power to change society that street demonstrations and direct actions alone do not have. Workers who create the coal fired electricity, also have the power to turn it off. Workers in the building industry have the power to ban construction of any new polluting power stations. Union action can hit big business where it hurts by cutting off their profits. That might not be immediately on the agenda, but it needs to be part of our longer-term strategy.
Campaign for jobs
The Latrobe valley has been decimated by privatisation which saw the loss of 16,000 jobs and an increase in contract labor. Unemployment in towns like Morwell is the highest in Victoria, already at 12 per cent in December last year. Climate campaigners need to make sure the campaign is one for jobs and social justice. Otherwise we will never win over people in regions like the Latrobe valley.
The power station bosses and the government want to falsely present us as the enemy of jobs. They play on fears about there not being jobs to replace those lost when the coal industry is forced to close. Because of their lies, there is a danger that the “Switch off Hazelwood” slogan could be misinterpreted as an attack on jobs.
So every time we talk about closing Hazelwood we need in the same breath to talk about the alternative, a just transition for the Latrobe valley, and thousands of green jobs. We should fight for guaranteed unionised jobs at the same rate of pay, for every worker currently in the power industry.
The Latrobe valley is also well set up for manufacturing. Making wind turbines, water tanks, solar panels, or solar hot water heaters are possibilities for skilled workers in the power industry.
In their submission to the CPRS Green paper the owners of Hazelwood, International Power, said they would be prepared to close Hazelwood early if paid to do so. They are also under pressure to refinance loans in 2010 because they paid too much for the power station. The government should close Hazelwood, but rather than compensate the owners, the government should directly invest in jobs for the Latrobe valley.
Practically of course we need renewable energy capacity to be built before dinosaurs like Hazelwood can be switched off. In recognition of this, and to take up the wider question of coal rather than just targeting Hazelwood, the main banner of the protest will read Switch On Renewables, Switch Off Coal.
By Chris Breen