Jobs versus the Environment

Art by Beray Uzunbay

If it’s true that you should judge a day, not by the harvest you reap but the seeds you plant; the Australian Labor Party have had some very bad days since their federal election loss. They’ve continued to foster a right-wing thicket that increasingly encroaches on their ability to move to the left, when it occasionally suits them of course.

In the wake of their election loss, Labor has decided not to split with their habit of tailing the Liberals, instead moving further to the right. They blamed their loss on those to the left of them, namely Bob Brown’s Stop Adani convoy, while the Queensland Labor government promised to fast track the mine. But it’s exactly Labor’s weak position and track record that gives credence to the viciously pro-coal Liberals.

It’s not the role of the Left to play by the Right’s logic, but that’s exactly what the Labor party has done particularly well on for the question of jobs and the environment. The logic is not just offensive, but plainly wrong. Jobs do not have to be counterposed with the environment, but instead, are intrinsic to the only strategy whereby a government could achieve a rapid transition to renewables.

A recent Guardian article by Jeff Sparrow compared the debate over Adani with the struggle over the Franklin Dam in the 1980s. Politicians and union officials pitted environmentalists against workers, citing the high unemployment levels in the community as an argument for the dam. But it was the method of disruptive mass protests that won –  the then Prime Minister Hawke changed his position and stopped the dam.

There’s another piece of history that’s worth looking at. It teaches us a darker lesson, showing what’s likely to happen if protestors don’t stop Adani going ahead.

It’s the Hazelwood mine and power station in the Latrobe Valley, formerly closed in 2017. It was one of the world’s most polluting coal mines and processing plants, pumping 1.56 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every hour. Each year hundreds of thousands of kilograms of chemical pollutants leaked into the air and water. Eighteen people are estimated to have died in the area from the air pollution alone.

Hazelwood workers died on average 15 years younger than the average Australian. The rate of pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma, in other words cancer, was seven times time the national average.

A fire started – blatantly due to corners cut by the plant’s profit-driven owners. For 45 days an out-of-use part of the mine, which should have been sealed, was turned into an inferno stretching six by two kilometres. To make matters worse, the sprinkler system had been removed.

The rural area came to depend on the industry, not out of natural affinity but pure lack of choice. Successive governments from both sides of politics told them this was all they’d ever get, so they’d better be grateful.

Then, with almost no notice and next-to-no assistance, the community had the toxic rug pulled out from under them. The mine and plant were closed down with a few months’ notice because it was no longer “economically viable”. Suddenly it became obvious that all the infrastructure “invested into the community” was actually siphoned away from them into the pursuit of coal-fired profit. Hundreds of workers lost their jobs, and the region has since turned into a rural ghetto.

This is very similar to the image, rightly imposed by activists, of what the Adani mine would look like if allowed to go ahead. There’s plenty more statistics to add to the description that have been aptly covered in other articles – like, for example, the fact that the largely automated mine may only offer as few as 100 ongoing jobs.

It’s a credit to activists that the reality of Adani is so well-known. It’s had an impact on the debate – partly shown in the fact that the majority of Australians oppose the mine, as discussed in a previous Lot’s Wife article.

In terms of Australia’s left-wing parties, the Greens publicise the gross reality of the Adani coal mine and campaign against it, and often someone in the Labor Party – whether an MP or a student politician – will concede some of those truths while maintaining a green light for the mine.

But the image painted begs an unanswered question: why has the premise that jobs are counterposed to the environment not been properly challenged? Why has Labor been allowed to get away with such a shocking political ploy?

How are these industries really in workers’ interests? Is it the cancer and early deaths? The pollution of their communities? The fact that, once they’ve been used to make enough profit, their cancer-ridden, polluted communities will be left to fend for themselves as the industry they’ve been forced to rely on seals the mines and decommissions the plants?

In one of his first moves as Labor’s new leader, Anthony Albanese told the country that the fate of Adani, and any new mine, actually has nothing to do with the government. Apparently, it can only be determined through the market.

After around four decades of continuing privatisation, it is legitimately hard to imagine a non-neoliberal world. For example, people my age have never lived with any large, entirely nationalised industry. Even so, polls continually show that reversing privatisation is a popular platform amongst young and old people.

But someone like Albanese, from the Left faction of the Labor party, knows that it’s possible – if for no other reason because of the role the Labor party has played in privatising the country’s once nationalised industries.

In fact, it is only an interruption of market mechanisms that will get us anywhere in tackling climate change.

Markets are not about planning, they’re about short-term profit. Some of the richest people in the world make their billions from fossil fuels, and they’re not going to give that money up today to invest in an industry that might be half as profitable in some decades.

Only 100 companies are responsible for more than 70 per cent of global emissions. And it’s not because they don’t realise the problem, or that they realised too late. Companies like Exxon and Shell commissioned some of the earliest definitive studies on climate change in the 70s which concluded with, for example, that the consequences of climate change caused by fossil fuels would be “catastrophic”. How did they use this information? They set up material and ideological infrastructure around climate change denialism, massively restricting climate crisis understanding and perpetuating already devastating environmental practices. These companies not only knew of the effects of climate change before the rest of us, but actively made it worse and plotted the best way to lie about it so they could keep making profit. Remember that the next time someone says it’s the backwards mine workers – the unwashed masses – holding us back.

This example is just one of many that show the fundamentally insidious nature of the private sector. It will always prioritise profits over environment. But the most evil part is that a workers’ party would go out and lobby for that prioritisation and suggest it necessitates more jobs for the average worker. These practices do not create long term jobs and stability, but are detrimental to basically everyone but those profiting from them. There will be no benevolent fossil fuel profiteer who gives up that profit.

The only way you could achieve a rapid transition to renewables is by reversing the privatisation of the energy sector. The government could mandate the introduction of renewables, while offering concrete retraining programs and employment to those workers currently in the fossil fuel industry.

In Victoria, the energy sector was privatised in the 90s. Privatisation in NSW was completed only a few years ago, and in Queensland, while most of the sector is privatised, there is still some public ownership.

It’s not just a question of state ownership, but of politics too. You could win mass approval with this project. It would provide more stable, healthier jobs while taking a real step towards grasping the planet back from an apocalypse approximately 12 years away. And as is constantly shown by current environmental disasters and projections for those in the future, it is the mass of ordinary, lower earning members of society – i.e. the working class – who will suffer the most from those crises.

That’s why one of the most unnerving moments of the election was watching the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and One Nation align over the question of Adani. The union’s mining division held a pro-Adani, anti-Greens protest during the election complete with CFMEU placards which read “I support jobs and rights for coal miners”. You’d think that, when Pauline Hanson took part and brandished one of those placards, something would have dawned on the union officials responsible: any unionist worth their soul knows the far right and unions belong on different sides of the barricades.

Australian unions have a radical history. It was the work of an Australian union, and rank-and-file workers, that actually started the Green movement. The world’s first ever Green party was named after the Builders Labourers Federation’s (the CFMEU’s predecessor) Green Bans. – It was an industrial action that swept the country in the 70s, and sought to protect parks and natural environments, as well as public housing, heritage properties and more, from reckless, profit-driven developers and politicians. Just as it’s not the role of the Left to tail the Right, it’s definitely not the role of unions to set the lowest bar possible and defend it from the right. Before long you’ll be staring into the vile eyes of the far-right and shaking their hands.

There is no natural affinity between rural working-class communities and coal, but there certainly can be dependence. The system we live under is work or starve, and if an entire community might survive (in the short-term) on the one industry offered to them, of course they become protective off it.

When you’ve been complicit in that development, you’ve supported the idea that an economically and environmentally destructive industry is the best thing for jobs. Flicking a switch and arguing the opposite may seem hard, but it’s the only thing that can redeem Labor. Their legacy, if it continues on the same path, will be one of shame: sowing the seeds of a cancer plaguing the planet, and then standing to toast its triumph.

Art by Beray Uzunbay
Meg Hill

The author Meg Hill

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