The time for action on climate change was yesterday. The time for a just transition is now

Nicholas McCallum

It's time to stop lying to coal-power workers and filling communities with unrealistic hope. It's time for a just transition. 

Australia has wasted the past decade by failing to take action on climate change and it’s cost us a lot more than higher energy bills.

Inaction is slowing Australia down on renewable energy projects and it’s hamstrung local manufacturing that should be constructing the solar panels and wind turbines that will power local communities through the decades ahead.

Inaction has cost valuable time and preparation in our inevitable transition away from fossil fuels and coal-fired power.

That’s why the Electrical Trades Union is backing Labor and the creation of a national Just Transition Authority that brings together government, industry and unions so we can set Australia up to be a renewable energy super power. Because, let’s be serious, with the right policies in place Australia will do that easily.

The Federal Liberal Government’s policy neglect has cost our coal-town communities more than anyone else. They’ve been fed lies by politicians who say the 19th Century energy technology that currently sustains their livelihoods will continue to power Australia through the 21st Century.

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These lies have given many workers and their families unrealistic hope. I started my electrical career in the coal mines of Queensland and my father worked the coal mines too. So I understand what workers and their families in these communities are feeling.

But anyone who tells them there’s a future in coal-fired power is lying.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten announcing ALP's energy policy, including plans for a just transition.

The best thing Australia’s Liberal and National politicians can do for these communities, is stop lying to them and help them prepare a just transition away from burning coal for power as we and the rest of the world take up cleaner and increasingly cheaper renewable energy technologies.

This is the reality we need to face and adapt to right now.

A recent report from the Australia Institute found that nearly 60,000 jobs will be created in Australia over the next 10 years. These jobs will come across the nation through to 2030, from manufacturing, to construction and installation, and to the maintenance and facility management. Many will be in regional Australia, where many coal miners live and work now. The numbers, drawn from the Australian Energy Market Operator, show the renewable energy boom will mean more opportunities for workers in our regions.

It’s a great sign, but the balance must be right. We cannot allow Australia’s renewable energy industry to run like the Wild West, overrun by cowboy contractors like RCR Thomlinson that went into voluntary administration this week and left workers in the lurch. Our union is currently fighting these opportunists in almost every state where businesses have rushed to fill the energy policy vacuum.

On renewable energy jobsites across Australia there are unskilled and unlicensed workers doing jobs that should be done by licensed tradespeople. There are too many jobs going to labour hire firms and too many contracts getting nabbed by firms that undercut the competition by tens of millions, only to abandon their workers when the payroll comes due.

Labor has a solid plan with the $10 billion clean energy package and a commitment to invest in battery storage for 100,000 homes. But the ETU will not allow a repeat of the pink batts scheme, where rogue operators swooped in to make a quick buck. We’ll ensure the proper safeguards and standards are in place so that only qualified and licensed electrical workers do the work on Australian homes and the proposed renewable energy hubs. And we have the skilled workers ready right now.

The policy paralysis has cost Australian coal-energy workers who could have been upskilling and entering new roles. The lack of leadership has harmed industries that have had to second-guess and readapt their plans every time the Federal Liberal Party has redrafted policy before abandoning it.

And it’s hurt communities already in Victoria, where the sudden closure of the coal-fire powered Hazelwood brought on several waves of business shutdowns and unemployment knock-ons.

ALP's Mark Butler, Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen.

This is by no means the end of Australia’s coal industry. Coking coal is a key element in steel production and we will see coking coal exported through the years ahead as nations around the world continue to adapt to the renewable energy future.

But these fossil-fuel energy jobs are dwindling, down to 8000 at the last census. It’s time these workers had responsible leadership and realistic policies at the national level to help them move into new roles and so their communities can adapt with a planned and just transition. 

With unions and industry working with state and Federal governments and a Just Transition Authority overseeing the implementation of the right renewable energy policies, Australia can be a renewable energy super power. Now we only need the leadership and the ALP announcement is a big step in the right direction. 

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