Announcements about renewable energy and climate change action have been flowing thick and fast in recent weeks. The election of the Albanese government has changed the character of the discourse on climate in Australia – and not before time. Greater ambition is still needed, but at least we no longer have a government determined to stop renewable energy in its tracks. Nine years of energy policy failure under the Coalition created the conditions for the energy price shocks we are now experiencing – a major cause of the inflationary surge.
In the years of Commonwealth failure and sabotage, state governments have led the way on climate and energy policy, and they are continuing to do so. Recent announcements by the Queensland and Victorian governments have set new targets for publicly owned renewable energy, enhanced CO2 reduction targets, and launched programs to look after the interests of workers transitioning from fossil fuel industries.
In this context, Victorian Trades Hall Council’s Hitting Targets: a union agenda for a sustainable future conference, held in early October, was perfectly timed. The event was opened by Jenny McAllister, federal Assistant Minister for Energy and Climate Change, who confirmed the Albanese government’s commitment to honouring its new emission reduction targets and ensuring that renewable energy can be rolled out at the scale required. This means a big expansion of the electricity transmission grid, which the government is promising through its Powering Australia plan. Union representatives in the audience continued to advocate for the creation of a Just Transition Authority at a national level.
Lily D’Ambrosio, the Victorian Minister for Environment and Climate Action, Energy and Solar Homes, also spoke of her government’s ongoing commitment to boosting renewable energy generation and cutting emissions. When asked about public ownership, she revealed that she believes privatisation of the State Electricity Commission (SEC) by the Kennett government had been a disaster for Victoria. Within weeks of the conference, she and Premier Andrews announced their government’s commitment to recreating the SEC, with a mandate for at least majority public ownership of an initial 4.5GW of renewable power generation.
The conference was primarily designed to amplify the voices of unionists engaged in the energy transition.
For such a transformation to be fair for workers and ordinary people, unions must step up and lead the charge.
Steve Murphy, National Secretary of the AMWU, gave an impassioned plea for energy transition policies that put the interests of workers at the centre. He pointed out the important role that these workers have played in Australia’s prosperity for generations, and argued that they must not be left behind in the shift to a sustainable economy.
Ros Morgan from the ANMF, and Godfrey Moase from the UWU, spoke about the health and safety implications of climate change. For nurses and other health professionals, the effects of extreme weather and ‘natural’ disasters are already being felt, including increased exposure to extreme heat. This adds more pressure to the already stretched health system.
Godfrey spoke of the UWU’s response to the 2019–20 bushfires, which drove the union to establish disaster relief for its members. With recent floods, and the likelihood of continuing climate change-induced disasters, the union’s climate disaster organising has become a permanent feature of its work. This includes the provision of training on managing extreme heat to large numbers of its delegates and members.
Michele O’Neil, ACTU president, set out the ACTU’s agenda for worker-centered climate action, including the need for a just transition authority at the national level, the need for improved labour standards across the renewable energy industry, and the need for sector and supply chain planning to maximise benefits to Australia from the boom in renewable energy.
A “rapid transformation of societies” is now needed.
Michael Watson from the ETU, and Elizabeth Doidge and Joe Myles from the CFMEU Construction Division, also spoke about the need to improve labour standards. There are huge opportunities in the decarbonisation of construction, and the CFMEU is already working hard on programs to retrofit large commercial buildings to improve their energy efficiency, with many jobs in this type of work likely to be created over coming years.
George Bath from the CPSU spoke about the implications and importance of emission reduction targets in the public sector. Unions support these targets but want to be involved in decision-making about how they will occur, through enterprise bargaining and joint management–union committees.
UN climate change bodies have just this week sounded the alarm about the failure of the world’s governments to cut emissions at a rate necessary to avoid catastrophic climate damage. A “rapid transformation of societies” is now needed. Australia has made some improvements, but it is clear that far more needs to be done. For such a transformation to be fair for workers and ordinary people, unions must step up and lead the charge.
To keep up to date with the latest climate-related news from VTHC, go to weareunion.org.au/climate_jobs_justice