Communities cooperating to kick coal


Brown coalMick spent years working for the State Electricity Commission in Morewell, Victoria , until privatisation saw massive job losses and the outsourcing of many remaining jobs.

Many of Mick's mates never worked again, and the early days of hope created by good redundancy payments petered out into years of forced idleness, low self-esteem, financial troubles and family stress. Mick got casual work with a maintenance contractor, but for three years was given on average two months a year work.

Mick's experience has made him sceptical of politicians and others coming down to talk about opportunities from the transition to a low carbon economy. With Morwell and other towns of the La Trobe Valley still dependent on brown coal burning power generators, action to tackle climate change sounds more like a threat than a promise.

The task faced by the Gillard Government, and others interested in real action on climate change, is not persuading people like Mick that climate change is real — it's making sure they aren't cast on the scrap heap during the process of economic restructuring, and ensuring that they are properly involved in this process.

There is no point pretending that action to reduce the threat of climate change will have little effect on the structure of the Australian economy. The issue is not about how to protect industries and communities from change: it is about how to manage change in a socially just and democratic way.

A first step might be to acknowledge the political and institutional impediments to a just and sustainable transition. As the controversy over the Government's carbon price policy has demonstrated, our political system and media are unable to deal with complex long-term policy issues maturely.

The exposure of the political system to lobbying and manipulation by narrow interest groups such as mining companies and other major polluters impedes the development of sound policy.

The Australian business lobby has shown itself to be adept at rent seeking, but reluctant to engage with the possibilities of the transition to a low-carbon sustainable economy.

The Government will need to think carefully about industry restructuring and community transition. Leaving it up to 'the market' and those who have most power in the market — business — is a recipe for further rent seeking based on manipulation of adjustment funds. There will be no guarantee that money intended for industry restructuring will be used to help workers, rather than for redundancies or to off-shore business activities.

Industry restructuring must be seen broadly, and not just involving particular businesses. Restructuring must involve whole communities. This requires the widest possible engagement with communities, and the implementation of effective governance arrangements, particularly around allocation of restructuring funds.

Along with efforts to price carbon pollution and invest in renewable energy, we need to start devising governance structures to enable the transition. In regional areas that are highly dependent on heavy polluters, this might take the form of Community Transition Authorities (CTA).

These would engage with stakeholders: businesses, unions, local governments, community organisations, local people, community service and infrastructure providers and so on. Representation on the CTA would be determined by a mixture of appointment (by businesses and unions, for instance) and direct election.

The CTA would establish goals, which might include a vision for the type of economy (perhaps the preservation of a focus on manufacturing; or transition to high-tech services; or an increase in tourism), as well as population and social development targets.

The primary purpose would be to allocate and manage funding for transitional programs broadly conceived and not restricted to industry. Specific industries seeking funding for restructuring would apply to the CTA, which would consider the application against a number of criteria: need; effectiveness in achieving the goals of the CTA; contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and ameliorating other environmental destruction.

CTAs would replace the Government's Regional Development Authorities. RDAs have little direct democratic input and operate according to a consultative model rather than a participatory democratic one. They provide advice on how to get government funding, rather than democratically controlling its distribution.

CTAs would operate according to deliberative democracy principles. Plans, proposals and applications adopted by the CTA would be subject to public deliberation, during which proponents and experts present their cases in open public forum and can be questioned and challenged. Such forums could be streamed on the CTA's website. The members of the CTA would consider the information and decide on appropriate action.

It is important that we begin to develop such new approaches to governance. People like Mick must be part of the nation building exercise that creating a clean economy could be — not its victims. 

Colin LongColin Long is Victorian Secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union. 


Topic tags: Colin Long, cimate change, renewable energy, community transition authorities



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Existing comments

An insightful and idealistic expression of the difficulties in achieving much needed change. Similar consideration is also needed in other areas, such as the problems facing adolescents as they face the changes necessary, in a changing world, to become responsible adults. Even more difficult is the need of religions to face the changes necessary to prepare for, and to adjust to the emerging realisation that many of the assumptions and practices that were adopted when there was not the knowledge available to form definitive understanding of many of the elements of human life and of religion.
Robert Liddy | 22 May 2012

Good comment Robert Liddy. And this is an issue long with us, not related to any carbon economy element. The ability of employers to dump employees with little discussion or preparation, like the latest QANTAS dumping for instance, but they are hardly the only ones, is a disgraceful denial of 'the national interest'. It may well be a legitimate company decision, but it is not in 'the national interest' to have people unemployed when they could be doing something beneficicial to them and the nation. Keating tried to have employers pay a training levy but that soon went. Governments used to train apprentices to fill private industry jobs but that soon went when governments sold off their business activities. These days it seems that employers, crying about skill shortages, still expect every employee to have all the required skills and experience before getting a start. Even the lowly roadworks lollypop person has to have a portfolio of trumped-up skills and Cert 2/3 tickets plus safety cards before having a chance to get work. Either there is a skills shortage, or like every other whinge and moan from employers, it is yet another excuse from them not to have to spend their money of training staff.
Andy Fitzharry | 22 May 2012

Only God knows when the end of the world will come, but there are always those pundits who reckon they are clever enough to warn us of catastrophic times ahead. Men canot control the climate, they can't make it better or worse. The only problem with coal I can see is selling it overseas for a quick profit now instead of leaving it in the ground for future Australians to use.
Trent | 22 May 2012

1. Perhaps Mick's (God help him) retrenchment from a bloated state bureaucracy meant that the privatised energy industry was that bit more efficient, which led to "Tom" and maybe "Sam" finding jobs elsewhere in the economy? One needs to account for "That which is seen and that which is not seen" as Bastiat coined it in his brilliant essay of the same name, before leaping to judgement on these matters. 2."The Australian business lobby has shown itself to be adept at rent seeking." True...alongside the union movement, the public service, politicians, artists, community groups, scientists (especially those who can stick "global warming" into their project submission) and so on. Wherever the government (eg. this current lot, par excellence) creates rental distortions through shoddy regulation and indiscriminate handouts, there you'll find a rent seeker. Turn off the tap and they'll go back to honest work. 3. Those CTAs sound eerily like the Soviets. No thank you.
HH | 22 May 2012

Why does everyone who comments on contentious political issues have to take either the left or right side of politics AND religion at the same time? Wouldn't it follow that those who are pro-life/anti-abortion would also be pro-life for our one and only God-given earth?
AURELIUS | 22 May 2012

I agree with this analysis, especially the statement that our political system and media are incapable of understanding and managing change in a mature way. Most of the popular mainstream media and especially the ABC radio and TV stations 774, ABC1, and ABC24 coverage of news and current affairs is mediocre and superficial. Most of the content of radio stations such as 774 is trivial and celebrity nonsense. Also most the public servants who work in policy areas in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney have little understanding of the lives of people in regional, rural and outer suburbs. We have developed into a society of secular materialism where people live in the moment of consumerism with very little interest in the future and the lives of other people. Most of our industries and education services have been deregulated and governments at all levels have little input into planning and governance. People such as Mick need to take responsibility for their lives and go back to school to get a trade or professional qualification and if necessary move to other parts of the country or overseas to get a well paid job.
Mark Doyle | 22 May 2012

I think it depends on when you're forced to leave your job. If you're still young to adapt the change and go for a different career, that's not bad. However, deciding which industry might give you a job is not easy task I think.
AZURE | 22 May 2012

Trent, you say "Men can't control the climate; they can't make it better or worse." The first part is probably true; the second part is not. They can influence it, for example by cutting down al the forests. It seems that a majority of the relevant scientists believe we can improve the climate by putting less carbon dioxide into the air. We are fools if we don't follow their advice. Remember that God helps those who help themselves.
Gavan | 22 May 2012

It's not the media's job to "manage change in a mature way". It's merely their job to report to the public as accurately as possible what the stakeholders in this changing are saying and doing. Anything extra is just comment/opinion. I have no problem with the media being superficial, as long as they report the facts about who say's what where when and how, then the rest is up to us to digest and analyse.
AURELIUS | 22 May 2012

Aurelius, spot on re. the media's job. But re. your interesting earlier question: my experience is that the right/left politics/religion breakdown is asymmetrical. "Rightwing" Catholics can be either pro left or right on political issues (barring, of course, pro-life questions). I know many of the Latin Mass Catholic communities in Australia and there is significant diversity there. Go to a big traddy wedding (as I did a couple of weeks ago) and you'll see Labour and Coalition identities amicably worshipping together. Indeed, in the ACT, last federal election, had the preselections fallen otherwise, you would have had the Labour and Liberal candidates for one of the ACT seats attending the same very small-congregation traditional Mass, plus ACT parliamentarians and party hacks of both sides. Internationally, well, there's the late, great Michael Davies, admirer of Archbishop Lefebvre (and Joseph Ratzinger) who was an ardent UK/Welsh Labour supporter all his life. But left wing Catholics? All my life, I've not aware of any I know personally that vote on the right. Nup: for them it's always been "Laissez-faire!" for the Church, yet "Government know best!" for the state.
HH | 22 May 2012

Let us keep investigating whether this slight increase in carbondioxide will actually change our climate significantly. Acting without knowing what we are dealing with is foolish. It is unfortunately not an "uncomfotarble truth". Just a hypothesis!
Theo verbeek | 23 May 2012

Acting without knowing is foolish yes! And we are acting - we are digging up mountains of coal and burning it. Just like the tobacco debate, where's there's smoke, there's fire and even when there wasn't 100% failproof evidence that smoking is bad for you, I think human intelligence would tell you that smoking, like fossil fuels, is not healthy.
AURELIUS | 23 May 2012


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