Coal industry workers facing jobs cuts in Western Australia are demanding the federal government takes action to secure a future for regional communities. It’s going to be a long road ahead, those involved say.
In the Western Australian town of Collie, coal has provided jobs and security to local workers since the early 20th Century.
Today, about 1,250 people from across the region drive the Coalfields Highway each morning to work at the town’s coal-fired power stations and two open-cut coalmines.
But times are changing.
The uptake of residential rooftop power has reduced the demand for traditional coal-fired baseload power generation in the state’s South West Interconnected System.
The local workforce has for years feared what a reduction in demand for coal could mean for Collie – layoffs, redundancies, pay cuts, and plummeting housing prices.
In August, those fears were realised when WA Premier Mark McGowan confirmed up to 80 jobs would be phased out at WA’s largest coal fired-power station between 2022 and 2024.
Rod Roe, 50, has worked at the state government-owned Muja Power Station as a station controller for nine years after transferring from one of Collie’s privately owned coal-fired power stations. He doesn’t know if or when he will lose his job.
“We knew the announcement was coming … it had been in a lot of blokes’ minds for quite a while,” Mr Roe tells SBS News.
“Some people have worked there all their life, you’ve got generations of families that have worked there. The toll that it takes pulling people out and telling them to do something else … it’s very difficult.”
A spokesperson for Synergy, the WA government-owned electricity generator and retailer which operates the Muja Power Station, said the process of identifying impacted roles will be undertaken through an employee transition process starting in early 2020.
“All employees and their families are able to access the support of a free employee assistance program, in addition to direct conversations with their manager or a health and wellbeing representative,” the spokesperson said.
It’s a painstaking period that Synergy and its workforce appear committed to working through cooperatively, but one that will inevitably mean difficult choices.
“There will be those that would like to take a redundancy and those that want to stay,” Mr Roe says.
“I will put my hand up now and say that ‘I definitely need to stay’. I’m 50 years old. I’ve got a young son who’s 14, finishing school. My wife works in Collie. It’s very concerning.”
Across Collie and the southwest region, confirmation of job cuts and the prospect of more to come is seen by some as a crisis, and others as an opportunity.
“There are people across our community at all different stages of acceptance,” Shire of Collie president Sarah Stanley says.
“There are people who would like to see coal-fired powered generation continue … right through to the people who have already moved on and completely accepted [that it’s winding down].”
Locally, conversations around the development of new industries to replace coal are nuanced, a far cry from the ‘coal wars’ that dominated the 2019 federal election.
Kim Praetz, 40, grew up in Collie from the age of six. He drives haulage trucks and graders at Collie’s Premier Coal mine.
“Everyone has got a different opinion about coal, and all the states are different. Queensland’s a good example, the southern half are dead against coal, but northern Queensland want the jobs,” he says.
“I think WA is a little bit of both; we understand that coal is being phased out, but we still want the work.”
Uncertainty is not limited to the coal-fired power stations. Amid the rise of renewable technologies, the long-term viability of Collie’s two coal mines have also been called into question.
Like many others, Mr Praetz, who has a mortgage to pay and an unwell father, wants to see the town supported by policies that will ensure it has a future, with or without coal.
“Basically, we just need long-term solutions, not short-term ones. Guys like us don’t want to be left behind; we want to be informed. We just don’t want it to finish overnight and be told, ‘sorry, you don’t have a job’,” he says.
“We know that coal is dying. The energy mix, solar and wind farms are increasing. Coal usage is going down. It’s not worth flogging a dead horse.”
Since 1 October, the WA government’s Collie Delivery Unit has held weekly meetings with local government, businesses, unions and the Chamber of Commerce in Collie, under the direction of newly-appointed program director Peter Terlick.
WA Energy Minister Bill Johnston says the state Labor government has committed $60 million towards the Collie Industry Attraction and Development Fund, $20 million for the Collie Futures Fund, in addition to other funds to guarantee the future of the town.
SBS News understands the WA Government has written to the Commonwealth Government to outline opportunities for federal investment in the region.
Federal Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor did not respond to questions from SBS News about the government’s policies for transitioning energy workers amid the rise of renewable technologies, or whether the government supports the establishing of an energy transition authority to mitigate the negative impacts on regional communities.
Mr Taylor said the federal government will rely on the Liddell Taskforce, a committee formed in partnership with the NSW government to manage the closure of the Liddell Power Station, to develop a framework for how the commonwealth works with states, the private sector and communities on coal-fired generator closures.
“The commonwealth has a productive relationship with the WA government on energy matters and is prepared to work with the state, private sector and communities on this issue,” Mr Taylor told SBS News.
In 1979, Allan Jauncey started work as a station controller at the Muja Power Station, a position he still holds today.
“I know Muja Power station like the back of my hand,” he says.
“When I first started there, it had 750 full-time employees. Today, I think Synergy’s full-time workforce is around 265.”
As an Australian Services Union delegate at the Muja station, Mr Jauncey is part of Synergy’s transition committee, helping negotiate a way forward for employees and the business.
But he is critical of what he says is the Morrison Government’s absence of a policy on energy transition and regional communities.
“The one piece of this jigsaw that is missing is leadership from the federal government,” he says.
“For the last five years, since it has become apparent that Australia is facing this challenge and needs some leadership, [the federal government] has been dormant.
“That is leading to the uncertainty, because people what to know where we are as a community, what is the plan going forward?”
Locally, that conversation is already happening.
“When we’re looking at industries to replace [the coal industry] they need a really long lead time,” Ms Stanley says.
“We aren’t just sitting on our hands, ten years isn’t very long when you’re setting up large scale projects.
Ms Stanley says the local government, in partnership with the WA government, is exploring the possibility of a range of new industries, from steel production and aluminium smelting, to protected cropping and professional services.
“For the most part, people are just worried about jobs. If they can see something else for their future, then that starts to take the anxiety away.”
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