Community organisations and unions demonstrated their support for the Hunter Offshore Wind Farm wind power project on February 4, with more than 800 people turning out to the Hunter Workers’ action. Another pro-offshore wind rally was organised in the Illawarra on the same day.
The Hunter wind farm project came about after a blue collar union-led campaign, supported by the Hunter Jobs Alliance and Rising Tide. Last year it won federal support for a 5 gigawatt offshore wind zone (which can power 6.6 million homes).
In response, far-right groups, including the Liberal and National Parties and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, launched a campaign to stop the project, spurred on by the Murdoch media and some charter fishing and tour boat operators based in Port Stephens.
Their well-funded disinformation campaign, based on conspiracy theories, has been stoking fears. An anti-renewables rally in Canberra on February 6 attracted less than 500 people and a grab-bag of reactionary speakers.
The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and Electrical Trades Union sent strong contingents to the Muloobinba rally, which was also supported by a number of social and environmental organisations.
Members of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union (AMWU), United Workers Union (UWU), New South Wales Teachers Federation, National Tertiary Education Union and Public Sector Association also attended.
Support also came from the Greens, Socialist Alliance, Communist Party of Australia, Australian Conservation Foundation, Hunter Community Environment Centre (HCEC) and Doctors for the Environment.
Several NSW and federal Labor MPs came to support, as did Labor Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes and City of Newcastle Labor Councillors Declan Clausen, Elizabeth Adamczyk and Deahnna Richardson.
Richardson, a Wiradjuri woman and the first Aboriginal councillor elected to City of Newcastle, told the rally: “We can’t keep taking from the earth without consequence. Offshore wind is an opportunity to ensure we have good jobs for the future.”
The project is “an opportunity” to put in place “procurement policies that include Indigenous identified positions”.
“It’s only fair that after two centuries of being robbed of our country’s riches, that some of that wealth is returned in the form of employment opportunities for First Nations people.”
Rally chair Leigh Shears, Hunter Workers secretary, said the community was sick of the renewable energy transition being politicised by the right.
Shears urged the community to remain united against the opposition campaign, that he said would likely seek to follow in the footsteps of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s campaign against the carbon tax and Opposition leader Peter Dutton’s “No” campaign during the Voice referendum.
Steve Murphy, AMWU NSW secretary, acknowledged in a rousing speech “all those comrades in the union movement” and “all those activists in the environmental movement” that have come here today to stand together.
Murphy warned against the right’s false “jobs versus the environment” pitch. “Every single day workers get exploited and the environment gets exploited — for private profit. We know who our common enemy is — it is private capital.”
Murphy said federal Labor should support the local production of new appliances, vehicles and infrastructure that could be a part of the renewable electrification as fossil fuels are phased out.
“There is always going to be change in the economy,” Murphy said. “Workers have to have a say in how it impacts them … We’ve got an opportunity to make sure … our energy is publicly owned.”
“There is an opportunity to make sure that the federal government puts together a package that ensures that workers get a shorter working week, that we’ve got the best conditions in the country — that our wages and conditions aren’t going backwards.”
A win for young workers
Young maritime workers Joanna Tavita and Jasmine Loades were well received.
Speaking on behalf the MUA, Tavita said: “Like so many people our age, we worry about affording to buy a house, keeping up with our bills, the rapid increase in the cost of living.
“Given that we work in the resources sector, we also worry about the future of our jobs as the world transitions away from traditional energy sources that are currently the lifeblood of our industry.”
Loades, a fifth generation wharfie, told the crowd that offshore wind “has the potential to not only create thousands of jobs, but to ensure future employment opportunities for workers to transition from our region’s traditional energy sector into our new clean energy sector”.
“We think it is an absolute no brainer — a win-win for our industry. It is a win for jobs and, most importantly, a win for our environment.”
Tavita and Loades also debunked myths about offshore wind and talking up the potential for more women working in the well-paid offshore wind industry.
There was a palpable sense of pride from the crowd towards the two young women.
Jo Lynch from HCEC said the offshore wind farm was critical and would help decarbonise the economy. She said that global heating posed a far greater risk to the environment than a wind farm.
Lynch said wind farms do have an impact in the environment, particularly towards birds, and appealed to supporters to “aim high” and assist HCEC to ensure world’s best practice measures were implemented in the planning, construction and operation of the offshore wind farm. She said this would minimise its impact on migratory shorebirds, some of which are endangered.
Lynch also made an appeal to support strengthening weak state and federal environmental protection laws, notably the Environmental Protection, Biodiversity and Conservation Act.
Teresa Hetherington, chair of the Hunter Workers Women’s Committee, who spoke on behalf of the UWU, said “climate action is union business”.
Hetherington, an aged care worker, said “extreme weather exacerbated by climate change most severely impacts people who experience structural disadvantage, lower income, insecure work and housing scarcity”.
She related her own experience of “struggling to perform multiple domestic assistance shifts in a single day in above 30°C degree heat while clients refuse to turn on fans or air conditioning because they can’t afford the power bill”.
During the recent Queensland floods, Hetherington said UWU members “many of whom are women, already impacted by low pay and undervalued” were unable to find work or lost pay and were forced to use up leave.
“This will continue to worsen if we don’t transition today,” she said.
It will take many years to complete the Hunter offshore wind project and the region’s restructuring around renewable energy.
Meryl Swanson, Labor MP for Paterson, who did not attend the rally is sitting on the fence. She does not seem to be able to counter the illogical myths about wind power, which are being pushed from section of her constituency.
While the campaign to ensure the wind farm proceeds does not hinge on her support, Swanson’s indecisiveness and unwillingness to link up with supporters of the project may lead to her being turfed out in 2025.
It is politically significant that, after decades of debate around “jobs versus the environment”, the rally drew large numbers of union members.
Many are concluding that the region needs alternative jobs as the global coal industry starts to decline. Meanwhile, climate activists are aware of the need to work with unions.
While the union movement is reluctant to campaign for an accelerated phase out of coal exports (as Rising Tide advocates), the need to start the transition is now widely accepted and actively supported.