Renewable energy, not coal!

July 19, 2008

An anti-privatisation rally calling for the expansion of "renewables, not coal" was held outside NSW treasurer Michael Costa's Newcastle office on July 14.

The 150-strong protest was part of the Camp for Climate Action's "decentralised action day", which also included an anti-nuclear demonstration and lock-ons at both the Carrington and Kooragang coal loaders. Participants included various climate action groups attending the climate camp, plus members of the Public Service Association, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the Greens, the Socialist Alliance, Solidarity, Resistance and left ALP members. Also present were Arthur and Peta Ridgeway, traditional custodians of the local Kattung nation.

Shortly before arriving at Costa's office, the protesters were told by police that special powers like those used last September to limit protests during APEC had been invoked and the street facing Costa's office was now a "declared area". This gave the police the power to direct the protesters to leave, and to stop and search anyone "of interest".

Two police buses and at least 60 police in riot gear formed a line around Costa's office and along the footpath leading to the office. The protesters used a megaphone to inform the police that they did not intend to cause violence, that it was a democratic right to protest on a public street, and that high profile political figures (including NSW Greens MPs John Kaye and Lee Rhiannon, former ALP member for Newcastle Bryce Gaudry and Newcastle councillor Michael Osborne) were present.

Despite this, one activist carrying a small pair of scissors that had just been used to make a placard was stopped, searched and fined $500 for carrying a "weapon" into the declared area. Police did not, however, attempt to stop the protest gathering outside Costa's office.

Speakers explained the urgency of tackling carbon emissions and the importance of keeping the electricity industry in public ownership to allow a transition to clean energy. Graeme McNeill, a union activist at Liddell power station, outlined the unions' campaign to stop the privatisation. Kaye said that what is needed, and expected by the community, is for governments to actually deal with the problem of climate change, rather than try to bury it or spin it.

ALP member Joan Dawson said that the majority of ALP members have always been and are still opposed to electricity privatisation, as shown by the vote at the party's May state conference. She added that her rank-and-file members' group, which she dubbed the "radical wrinklies", had submitted a motion calling for investment in clean energy to be an ALP priority, and quoted party policy calling for the "democratic socialisation of industry" to eliminate social disadvantage.

Gaudry, whose rank-and-file preselection for the seat of Newcastle was overridden by the ALP head office just before the last NSW election, said that the key to defeating the privatisation was a mass campaign, and that people should take to the streets.

Graham Brown, a retired coalminer from the Hunter Valley, called for the creation of alternative jobs in communities like Singleton and Muswellbrook so that coalminers could get out of the industry. He said that miners are aware of the adverse health effects of mining and would likely be willing to change jobs if they did not have to take a major pay cut and the new jobs were skilled, permanent positions, rather than unskilled or temporary.

Peta Ridgeway told the traditional dreaming story of where coal came from. She said that coal had been part of the Kattung economy before colonisation and the European exploitation of this resource without the traditional owners' consent was theft.

Ridgeway said that Indigenous people should support the establishment of clean industries and trade on their lands, but that this should occur in accordance with Indigenous protocol. Dialogue with Indigenous people is crucial to ensure a genuinely just transition, she added.

The protesters marched down Hunter Street before ending in Civic Park with chants against privatisation, for green jobs and for Costa to be sacked.

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