Solar, not coal, the future for Newcastle

Issue 
Steve O'Brien.

Steve O’Brien is standing as a candidate for the Socialist Alliance in the Newcastle byelection on October 25. The sitting Coalition MP, Tim Owen, resigned in August after he admitted he lied to the Independent Commission Against Corruption about accepting an illegal $10,000 donation from a property developer.

O’Brien said: “A strong vote for a socialist would send a powerful message to the political establishment that Newcastle is not for sale and that Newcastle people support the public sector.”

This is a speech he gave to the Planning Assessment Commission that met in Newcastle on August 27 to discuss the proposed new coal loader, known as T4.

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A number of submissions to this Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) on the proposed T4 loader have emphasised that the current decline in coal prices and exports is not cyclical, but structural.

This fundamental shift is being caused by the rise of the $250 billion a year (and growing) global renewables industry. Significantly, China has clearly stated that it is starting to reduce its coal use as it shifts to renewables. The global oversupply of coal is a symptom of this development.

However, none of the coal companies are willing to cut production to balance the supply and demand of coal.

I remember going through the experience of working in a declining industry during my 11 years at the Newcastle steelworks. I know what it is like to work in coal chutes, holding bins, transit stations. It was hard and dirty work, but it also had great camaraderie.

At a certain point I received some good advice from a foreman. He said: “You are a young bloke. This industry has no future, so retrain while you can.” I eventually took that advice and was fortunate to be able to make the transition out of blue-collar work.

So I think of this when I see a number of workers here today at the hearing. I don’t see coal workers, especially those here today, as opponents, but allies. To me, your presence here shows that you are rightly concerned about your jobs and future. I want to talk about a different future to that of coal.

Look at this electoral map published in 2000. If you check here on Kooragang Island, the map says “proposed site of fourth blast furnace”.

I am not proposing that a steelworks should be built, but rather making the point that Kooragang was originally promised to the people of the Hunter as a site for manufacturing jobs. Let’s not forget that. It was not proposed as a coal loader with a handful of jobs.

What we need is a strategy for the local manufacture of renewal technologies. In the light of the looming unemployment likely to occur as coal winds down, we need to plan for new jobs in the fast-approaching post-coal future.

Trains, wind turbines, solar panels and education are where we need to be putting resources, not T4.

Because the coal industry is extractive and creates few jobs, will not in the long run create wealth. In his recent book Capital, Thomas Piketty says there are more equitable ways to create wealth. He says: “Over a long period in time the main force in favour of greater equality has been the diffusion of knowledge and skills.”

In other words, it is not the supposed trickle-down effect of a rich coal baron’s luxury spending, but education and training that will create jobs and community wealth.

Newcastle and the Hunter could be a manufacturing hub for wind turbines, which could then be sent by ship and rail to the construction sites of new wind farms right across the east coast. There will be life after coal and it will include wind farms and other alternative technologies. The reintroduction of rail as a dominant form of transport and the manufacture of solar panels, such as that being initiated by the EarthWorker Cooperative, are the sort of investments we need.

We should set Newcastle up to be part of this new sustainable expansion. We should get involved in the new economy instead of clinging to a dying, destructive industry. Unions and community groups could campaign for super funds to invest in the sustainable technologies and insist on government support through public investment.

A manufacturing hub on sites such as that of the proposed T4, combined with investment in vocational and university education programmes, would help assure a future for jobs.

I suggest that the PAC reject the T4 proposal, and instead recommend a transition plan be drawn up as a matter of urgency to ensure the livelihoods of workers are protected as the sun starts to set on the Hunter coal industry.

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