Latrobe Valley suffers capitalist neglect

March 8, 2018
Workers leave Hazelwood Power Station in the Latrobe Valley after the last shift is completed.

I live about 10 minutes' drive from Morwell, a town that simply feels like decay. Unemployment is among the highest in Victoria, the stress of losing jobs or homes is fuelling a drug crisis and it seems as if things can only get worse.

It’s hard to walk down empty streets with boarded up shopfronts and not feel worried about Morwell’s future. Following news that Target in Mid Valley, Morwell's largest shopping centre, would close, that future is more uncertain than ever.

Morwell, and other towns in the Latrobe Valley, were in the news this time last year when Hazelwood Power Station shut down permanently, and everybody suddenly looked around to ask “what now?”.

Target’s closure is the next hit in a long line of failed businesses. It is not just worrying for the 40 people working there, but for all of Mid Valley.

In the US, as these large chain stores pack up and leave, the entire shopping centre dies with them. If this phenomenon comes to the Valley it would be devastating. Youth unemployment already hovers around 15% and the loss of all those entry level jobs, along with the older workers employed at Mid Valley, might very well push it to catastrophic levels.

I am sure the Latrobe Valley is not unique. Regions all across Australia have had to deal with closures like this, because the economy is not structured correctly. Capitalism is broken. Fundamentally, the system does not work. There is no such thing as a community institution under capitalism and there never will be.

Out here in the community it is easy to see Target, Big W and the other major chains that operate in Mid Valley as anchors of the community. After all, they are responsible for keeping traffic flowing to Mid Valley, and through that helping the smaller businesses and chains stay profitable.

But to the shareholders and directors, Morwell Target is not a lifeline for hundreds of jobs in an already struggling area. It is a statistic; a cost. The moment that cost gets in the way of their bonuses and dividends, the lifeline will be cut off.

What happens then? We end up with higher unemployment and less money circulating in the local economy, so more stores close, leading to higher unemployment and less money circulating in the local economy. You see where this is going?

Insidiously, this cycle of decay leads to the rise of right-wing parties who make the situation worse. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation came back in force in 2016, claiming our society would be torn down by immigrants and Islam. While they were right that the problem originates overseas, the foreigners do not need to come to Australia. They sit in air conditioned offices in the US, France, Japan, China and Britain, buying shares in Australian companies that become legally obliged to create value for these shareholders and shuffle money out of the country.

One Nation’s strategy is to blame the powerless, those who come here with nothing but hope for a better life, instead of the ludicrously wealthy, who build their wealth from exploitation around the world. They have a hand in every pot, accepting generous subsidies and tax breaks from governments on every continent, only to squirrel away the money and leave with stuffed pockets.

Since One Nation’s economic policy is to side with the Coalition and their corporate welfare ideology, they only accelerate these systemic problems while demonising those who bear no responsibility.

However, there is a better way. With worker cooperatives, money doesn’t get thrown overseas and community impact is carefully considered. When responsibility for running a business lies solely with the people who live in the region the business operates in, it is impossible to overlook what your decisions mean for that region.

Who would dump toxic waste in the very river they fish in? Who would cut their own pay to give a $400,000 bonus to somebody they will never meet? Who would willingly throw their own community into peril to make some shareholders on Wall Street happy?

If the Morwell Target were a cooperative store, its 40 workers would see the money that normally lines the pockets of owners instead going to them. And you can bet they would be spending it in the Valley, not on buying a yacht in France.

The amount of money that would be freed up by an entirely cooperative Valley is astounding to think about, the sheer scope of it near incomprehensible. We’re talking $1 billion moved overseas by the power industry alone, and that's just what we know about. If that kind of money stayed here, Target wouldn’t be closing, it would be hiring more staff to keep up with the increased demand.

Make no mistake, the shareholders who own traditional media understand this. They know things are getting worse thanks to their own actions, and that there are two options. Either they back the cooperative option and support a leftward push that would end up redistributing their vast wealth back into local communities, or they back the scapegoating politics of the Australian Conservatives and One Nation.

As one option takes away their obscene luxury and the other leads to deregulation that will let them loot all the natural resources and cheap labour they can, it is obvious which horse they will back.

It is now more important than ever for people to dream of an economy that is organised for people, not profit, and to challenge the stranglehold corporations have on media and discourse.

If they don’t, Australia’s future is one of Morwells littered across the country, of closed Targets and empty shopping centres.

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