The inevitable has happened; the French owners of Victoria’s Hazelwood brown coal power station have announced the plant’s closure. Several hundred jobs are expected to be lost. While expected and in many ways welcome, the closure is a body blow to the Latrobe Valley—a region already struggling with entrenched poverty and disadvantage.
It’s not the first time the Valley has faced tough times. From the privatisation of the State Electricity Commission in the 1980s and its subsequent social and economic fallout, to the Hazelwood Mine fire of 2014, the region has often been called upon to demonstrate its strength and resilience.
Today, the local community is again steeling itself for a fight. They’re a resilient bunch, but they can’t do it on their own.
The Victorian Government, the Commonwealth and industry leaders all have a role to play; acknowledging the Latrobe Valley’s past contributions, recognising its strengths and challenges, and providing an innovative and collaborative way forward. (you can read our media release here.)
Victoria has already made a strong start, establishing a taskforce to help the region transition away from coal. We encourage the government to ensure broad and local representation on this taskforce.
Here are four additional measures that should be adopted to support a post-Hazelwood Latrobe Valley.
1) STRENGTHEN HEALTH AND COMMUNITY SERVICES.
Hazelwood’s closure will drive a spike in demand for support services. A diverse range of strong community organisations must be retained and enhanced to support communities. This will provide choice for people accessing services as well as increasing the sector’s ability to reach vulnerable and marginalised individuals and communities.
The Victorian Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry and Royal Commission into Family Violence each found there is a need for a fundamental shift in the way public, community and social services are delivered so they are better ‘joined-up’ and people don’t ‘fall through the cracks’. They also highlighted that primary prevention needs to be prioritised, and that solving complex social issues needs to start with empowering individuals and communities.
This will be a critical consideration for communities facing massive change as a result of the closure of Hazelwood.
Planning for communities that will be impacted by the closure of coal fired power stations must recognise the unique contribution the community sector makes, not only in ‘welfare’ terms but as a large and growing industry with significant social and economic benefits. The value the sector brings to the community includes, among other things, its ability to amplify the voice of people facing disadvantage and to build relationships with those who most need support.
2) FOCUS ON JOBS
Comprehensive workforce plans must be developed for each community, to identify the skills and strengths of local employees and match them to new opportunities in areas including decommissioning and rehabilitation, renewable energy, energy efficiency and health and social services.
The existing skills of workers are clearly matched to power station decommissioning and mine rehabilitation. The renewable energy sector also uses skills that workers already possess. The ACF/ACTU report Jobs in a clean energy future estimates hundreds of thousands of new jobs would be created in Australia based on the implementation of pollution reduction and clean energy policies.
New job opportunities can also be created through household efficiency programs. These will create quality jobs for people, use their existing expertise, provide retraining opportunities as well as act as a stepping stone to new jobs and industries, including clean energy. (They will also bring households up to higher efficiency standards, significantly reducing household energy bills.)
Laid-off workers should also be encouraged and supported to seek employment in health and social care. This sector is set to grow by almost 19% over coming years—outstripping the economy as a whole.
Programs to support young people who are disengaged or at risk of disengaging from education, to finish school or engage in some other kind of training or employment are also crucial.
3) LISTEN TO LOCAL PEOPLE
Many communities across the Latrobe Valley, including Moe and Morwell, are already facing significant disadvantage.
Research shows disadvantaged populations often have less capacity to engage in or access political processes to influence decision makers to best represent the interests of vulnerable groups, meaning there is a tendency for important community voices to be lost or remain unheard.
As such, all residents of the Latrobe Valley should be engaged in decision-making about their future. The development of place-based social and economic plans, devised with the involvement of local communities, are crucial. (Our recent report, Communities taking power, provides further information and evidence on place-based approaches.)
It is also critical, therefore, that the community sector—a trusted conduit for people facing disadvantage and vulnerability—is involved in early planning for communities that will be impacted by closure of industrial assets.
4) POWER INDUSTRY LEADERS MUST STEP UP
Power station owners have made a lot of money over many years extracting resources and processing them for profit. These operations became ingrained in local communities. Now the party’s over, industry leaders cannot simply walk away.
They have a responsibility to help with the recovery.
At the very least this includes the responsible decommissioning of plants and the rehabilitation of local areas. But it goes further than that. ENGIE, Hazelwood’s French owners, must also invest in supporting and retraining the workers who have served them so diligently.∎
*- This article originally said ENGIE was “poised” to make an announcement on Hazelwood. That announcement has now been made.
Image: Jeremy Buckingham/Flickr