Confronting climate change: public ownership essential

February 10, 2008

The following is the second part of an interview between John Parker, secretary of Gippsland Trades and Labour Council, and Green Left Weekly's Zane Alcorn. The first part was published in GLW #737.

@question = The New South Wales government is seeking to privatise electricity because it says it can't afford the $15 billion to upgrade to a cleaner grid, while BHP Billiton makes more profit than that in one year. Is it fair that such wealth is considered off-limits for investing in the transition to a sustainable future?

I think its obscene that a company gets that amount of profit anyway. I think big business, especially in the oil and mining sectors, are certainly being given a free ride ... I would have thought governments should be taking a lot more off those companies.

@question = Do you think that state and federal governments should be thinking outside the square when it comes to confronting climate change?

Absolutely. I think they need to look at not just the initial costs, but at what the offset of those costs is. The cost of having people sitting at home on the dole would be offset against the workers' wages. [They could] place factories in remote areas and specifically target them to create employment.

And the country is desperately in need of re-skilling in a lot of areas. [So] you would get three impacts: re-skilling, reduced unemployment, and regional development.

@question = What if wind turbine and solar panel factories and associated component-making factories were set up in coalmining areas? Do you think a section of coal miners and power-station workers might be interested in changing to manufacturing jobs? Or is the main thing that they just have decent, secure jobs?

The main thing is that they have decent, secure jobs. If it was the SEC [the old State Electricity Commission of Victoria] they would have at least controlled the manufacture of turbines, although they would have contracted some parts of it out. With private enterprise, they will build the turbines wherever they want to [e.g. interstate]; they'll ship them in from China if they want to.

@question = How seriously do mining and power-station workers take the threat of climate change?

I think in the Latrobe Valley they take climate change quite seriously. The difficulty people have is [that] they try to rely on politicians to make sure that these things are being addressed... and unfortunately they don't get addressed. And it's the average person who winds up wearing the cost, when people like this treasurer of NSW ... sell things out for [their] own short-term purposes.

@question = Climate change has obvious repercussions for miners and electricity workers. If this industry is to be phased out, workers could be adversely affected, with major job losses. Has there been any precedent where whole mining communities have had that industry shut down?

The Latrobe Valley [when it was privatised] didn't have the whole industry shut down, but there were thousands of workers put out of work. As a result, the Latrobe Valley had over 17% unemployment; many of the shops closed and the social fabric started to unravel. We went from a society which had very few social difficulties to an area which developed some of the worst drug and alcohol abuse in the state, child abuse went up, crime was at a [high] level.

@question = Do trade union leaders feel a responsibility to provide leadership on issues like climate change — in particular in developing a contingency plan for if mines or power stations are to be phased out? Or is the main priority to reflect the needs and interests of the membership?

I think it's [both]. It's the responsibility of any activist to see things that need to be focused on for the future and bring that to workers' attention. And I think that climate change is probably one of the biggest dangers that we face in the world. Now that [ex-PM] John Howard is gone.

I don't think we've got as long as people think. I think within the next 10 years we need to be well down the path [of addressing the problem]. We know we can stop it, so we should just get on with it and do it. And I reject what the NSW treasurer says about the cost. It could be zero emissions — [it's] affordable — within the next 10 years. I think people expect [governments] to do that. And I think they can.

@question = Can climate change be stopped without the active support of trade unions?

I don't think necessarily the union movement itself is the only thing that can stop climate change. But I don't think climate change can be stopped unless activists really get behind it and talk it up. Unions have a lot of activists and they need to be the ones motivated to bring about the change, and lead the charge.

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