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Adjournment Speech: NSW needs to plan away from coal

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 17 Jun 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:28): There is something strange happening in New South Wales. Every day we are hearing stories about the decline in the coal industry. We are hearing about job losses, the falling price of coal, the need for mining companies to implement efficiency measures. Just today the Australian Financial Reviewran an article headed 'Black days for coal'. At the same time the industry is aggressively pushing mines into communities that clearly do not want them. Any sensible analysis would note a contradiction here. If the profits are falling and jobs are declining, surely increasing the supply of coal is only going to make it worse. So what is going on in New South Wales? Clearly there is a lack of planning from both coal industry itself and the state government.

Worldwide the coal industry is facing decline. The price of coal is now hovering around US$72 a tonne. In mid-2011 it was US$125. The reason for this is simple supply and demand-the supply is increasing, while the demand is falling. China, one of our more recent growth export areas, is capping its coal consumption. US President Barack Obama has just announced measures to reduce emissions from power plants by 30 per cent by 2030. The claim that China and the US were not acting on climate change was always a spurious one, and recent developments are showing that this can no longer be argued with any legitimacy.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, on his recent US visit, fronted up to the coal executives in the US and told them that Australia's priority is 'cheap' energy. He practically begged them to invest here. This is a very irresponsible approach. It is irresponsible for the climate, and it irresponsible for the workers losing their jobs in the coal industry. It is this relentlessly blind push for coal that has got us into this mess in the first place.

We know this only too well in New South Wales, where our two mining regions are suffering because of the coal glut. The ABC reports that, Australia wide, there have been 10,000 jobs lost in the coal industry in the past two years-yes, 10,000 jobs in the past two years. People like me, who speak up on this issue, are regularly abused for destroying jobs, but it is due to the failure of government and the failure of industry. In just the last month, we have seen 700 jobs across the Illawarra and the Hunter region go. In May, 500 jobs were lost at the Integra mines, in Singleton, in the Hunter. Every one of these job losses has such wide implications and such hardship for the people involved. In the Illawarra, 152 workers have been sacked from Wollongong Coal's Wongawilli and Russell Vale mines, and Glencore has announced plans to cut 40 jobs from the Tahmoor mine. Unions and other commentators estimate that there will be more to come.

These are undoubtedly tough times for these communities, which also suffer from rising youth unemployment. In December last year, unemployment figures for young people in the Hunter were grim, with 32.6 per cent of those aged 15 to 19 in the Newcastle district unemployed-6.3 per cent above the New South Wales average. In the wider 'youth' category of 15 to 24, Newcastle recorded a rate of 12.5 per cent, compared with the state average of 11.7 per cent. In the Illawarra, 18.4 per cent of young people aged 15 to 24 are unemployed, which is well above the national average of 12.6 per cent. The region is ranked fifth in Australia for youth unemployment. We are seeing traditional coalmining areas becoming synonymous with record high youth unemployment. These are the young people that the government are saying will have to 'earn or learn'; they will have to enrol in a course in order to receive any sort of benefit. If they are unable to, those under 30 will suffer no payment for six months. This is another indication of the lack of a government plan. Education experts are warning that our already stretched TAFE and university system will struggle to take on these young people, while charities are warning that people will go hungry. Where is the government's plan for the Illawarra, for the Hunter, for these young people?

The coal companies, and their backers in the coalition and Labor, have long used the jobs mantra to justify each new coalmine and each new coalmine expansion. But the future clearly does not lie with coal-and communities are saying as much. With increasing regularity, we hear stories of people being arrested for trying to stop coal developments; of massive protests in regional areas like Bentley, where the community are opposed to coal seam gas; of court cases and counter court cases; of references to the Independent Commission Against Corruption; and of miners overestimating the economic benefits in order to meet approval processes. There is little doubt that the community is up in arms.

And yet, the New South Wales government bends over backwards to please the industry. Two cases in point are the Warkworth mine extension, proposed by Rio Tinto, and Whitehaven's Maules Creek mine in Leard State Forest. The story of the Mount Thorley Warkworth mine extension is an extraordinary one. Nestled near the town of Bulga, the existing mine, run by Rio Tinto, was approved on the basis that Rio would protect the Warkworth Sands Woodland and Saddleback Ridge-the latter shields the town from the mining operations. When I met with Bulga locals and they laid out their concerns about Rio Tinto's plans, the conversation kept coming back to Saddleback Ridge. So many residents had believed that this ridge would be retained as part protection for Bulga from the ravages of coal mining, but Rio Tinto are now proposing to go back on their word. Despite the Planning Assessment Commission noting the impact the mine would have on the town, it approved the extension. After a gruelling campaign, residents went for what many saw as their last chance: they took the company to the Land and Environment Court. The case lasted months, and eventually the mine approval was thrown out. Of course, Rio appealed the decision-with the support of the New South Wales government. And they lost this case too. The New South Wales government has now changed the law, and Rio Tinto, probably not surprisingly, is again attempting to gain approval for the mine extension, this time breaking them into two proposals, presumably so that the impacts might be considered smaller. The new laws have removed the community's ability to appeal the department's decision.

At a time when the government should be showing leadership as the coal industry contracts, there appears to be outright collusion between the industry and the New South Wales government. This raises the question: will we see coalition MPs appearing before ICAC in relation to deals with their mates?

Further afield in New South Wales, at the Leard State Forest, protesters have been camping for over a year to stop the Maules Creek mine, a large open-cut mine run by Whitehaven. I have previously spoken in the Senate about this mine and the devastating impacts it will have if it is allowed to go ahead.

I again visited this area last week-I actually arrived a week or two after the clearing of the forest for this mine had begun. What I saw was extraordinary. From a lookout point on the property of Cliff Wallace, a local farmer, we could see where much of the forest had been flattened, some cleared down to bare earth. Dust clouds were rising up. So much for the rigorous environmental conditions which, I understand, are supposed to limit the amount of dust that comes off these mines. That is one of the most ridiculous aspects of these conditions.

Cliff, who had generously opened up his farm to those who were protesting and trying to bring balance and protection back into New South Wales planning, is a wonderful person. One of the issues Cliff and some of the people staying on his land raised with me was how they had no faith in the laws. One protester described to me how Whitehaven is favoured by government processes. The company quickly had its biodiversity management plan changed so that it could clear the forest in winter. This is when a large number of the animals in the forest are hibernating. I found this a real concern. All those reptiles, all those marsupials-those unique creatures that make up the wildlife of our country-would have already been killed in the clearing.

The resilience of the community protecting the forest was an inspiration. Many of them were very pained by what was going on, but their work was fantastic. Despite the destruction of the forest, despite the ongoing police presence and despite being spied upon, they are standing strong. I was shocked to hear that people employed by a company contracted by Idemitsu, which also has a mine the in the region, engaged in spying on people opposed to the mine. I have written to the New South Wales Police Commissioner urging that this matter be investigated. The ABC last Wednesday reported that police are investigating allegations of spying at the Maules Creek protest camp. Some people gave false names at the camp and attempted to gain the community's trust. While this has alarming implications for our democratic processes, it also speaks volumes of where the coal industry is at and what they will resort to.

Meanwhile, we hear the Minerals Council trumpet that the activists are carrying out illegal activities. Now we can put it on the record that, for all of the abuse from the Minerals Council, the protestors have been vindicated. The day after I left the Leard forest, we heard the fantastic news. A court challenge brought by the Maules Creek Community Council to the Land and Environment Court against the winter clearing was successful. Whitehaven have been ordered to stop the clearing of the forest, at least until September when the case can be heard in full.

This will not restore the forest that has already been destroyed, but it shows what can be achieved. What a relief that people did protest, engaging in some of the most creative direct actions that I think Australia has ever witnessed. Yes, some protesters took illegal actions, and I congratulate them for doing so. If not for the brave actions of those people putting themselves on the line and protecting the forest, much more of it would have been destroyed. We will eagerly await the full hearing in the court and hope the New South Wales government does not change the law to try and help their mates.

So while the government does nothing, the communities-the people of New South Wales-are at least trying to deal with the transition out of coal dependency. People know that there is another way. They want governments to have political courage and to provide leadership on clean energy delivery and manufacturing and to stop the destruction that is part and parcel of coal industry operations these days. There is no doubt that the people want change-not just protesters. A recent Australia Institute survey found that 83 per cent of Hunter residents do not want the coal industry to expand, and 41 per cent went as far as saying they would like to see it decrease.

To return to my earlier points about the downturn of the coal industry, there are many levels on which the situation in New South Wales does not make sense. It is the people of New South Wales who are paying the price for the lack of forward thinking by the coal industry, who are paying due to the negative health impacts from air pollution, and who are paying because of the downturn in jobs because of the associated downturn in the economy.

The industry, for its part, appears to be taking advantage of the favourable political circumstances. The easy ride the industry had under New South Wales Labor, now exposed at successive ICAC hearings, is in a repeat performance by the New South Wales coalition government. The New South Wales government is pushing through approvals that work for coal companies but offer no consideration of community needs. For the state of New South Wales, this lack of planning and forethought is extremely concerning. The community are asking for a new direction-one that does not ruin our environment and does not involve tenuous employment-and we need to wind back the coal industry to address runaway climate change.

What New South Wales needs is a plan for a diverse, sustainable economy, where the government works with communities that were once dependent on jobs in the coal industry. The coal industry and coalminers were once the backbone of the economy in New South Wales-I certainly acknowledge that. Areas like the Hunter and the Illawarra have strong communities because of the hard work of coalminers, their union officials and their union. And it was not just in the coal industry itself. Many of those people and many of those union members were instrumental in building the schools and the hospitals in the early days of those areas-not just the Hunter and the Illawarra but also in Lithgow. But the era of communities relying on coalmining to provide jobs is over. This is what governments need to face up to, and they need to look to where employment can be expanded.

The Greens' New South Wales policy calls for the phasing out of the coal industry and its replacement with a jobs-rich clean energy economy. For near on 10 years, I and other Greens members who have spoken out about planning for this transition have been abused by government MPs and coal industry spokespersons as destroying jobs because we did not support the coal industry. What we were doing was calling for governments not to leave communities high and dry with shrinking job opportunities but to plan for where the next generation of jobs would come from.

Now that the coal rush is petering out, governments should act; otherwise those communities who have been given false job promises will be effectively discarded by governments tainted by their closeness to the coal companies.

We must not allow the young people of the Hunter and the Illawarra to be left behind with few job opportunities. We must not allow regions like Warkworth and Maules Creek to be trashed by bulldozers. As the world turns its back on coal, we must not allow Australia to be the last resort for greedy coalminers relying on compliant governments to squeeze profits out of a product the world no longer needs.


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