REAL AUSTRALIA

Voice of Real Australia: Change hurts in Victoria's fading coal industry

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Engineer Christ Barfoot says the only way to ensure the valley's future is for new industry to fill the void left by the power plants' closure. Picture: Tom Melville

Engineer Christ Barfoot says the only way to ensure the valley's future is for new industry to fill the void left by the power plants' closure. Picture: Tom Melville

Australia is mired in a rancorous debate right now. On the one hand, coal is clearly on the way out - it's polluting, and increasingly expensive, and there are cheaper, greener alternatives. On the other hand, governments at various levels seem keen to underscore the importance of coal - its mining and its use for electricity generation - as the backbone of Australia's economy and energy mix for years to come.

Stuck in the middle are the forty-odd-thousand Australians who currently work in the sector. They're well-paid, sure, and they and their communities have benefitted from our reliance on coal for - in some cases - more than a century.

But many in the industry in places like the Hunter Valley in NSW, or Collie in Western Australia, are pondering uncertain futures.

For this week's Voice of Real Australia podcast I visited the Latrobe Valley, in the Gippsland region of Victoria.

This is a community that only exists because of coal. The Victorian Government set it up in the twenties to power the state, a task it did with distinction for a century. Now, its ailing coal generators are being retired, and the jobs are going with them.

Ultimately, as one of the people I spoke to remarked, change hurts.

Latrobe resident Wendy Farmer says the area has become depressed since mass job losses. Picture: Tom Melville

Latrobe resident Wendy Farmer says the area has become depressed since mass job losses. Picture: Tom Melville

But does it have to? In Latrobe there's a sense that they're being "chucked on the scrapheap", forgotten about as the world forges ahead without them.

None of the people I met were climate deniers, although they failed to see how a solar farm with a few dozen workers at most could replace the jobs lost at a power station with several hundred. All wanted some certainty as to what the future was for their community.

The country is littered with forgotten towns and villages - each with its own stories of boom times past. The people of Latrobe want what we all want - a job, and perhaps ongoing opportunities so the kids don't have to move too far away.

For years that job had a lot to do with coal. Those days are gone. And while we might welcome that from an environmental standpoint as a key step on our journey to reducing carbon emissions, it's an existential threat for the people of Latrobe.

Latrobe is just one example, a warning even.

There are 21 coal-fired power stations around the country and even more coal mining hubs. Currently, there is no plan to help the tens of thousands of workers employed in Australia's fossil fuel industry transition to new jobs as we move away from coal. There's no timeline to retire coal power stations, and no framework to ensure retrenched workers are looked after.

For them, it's like being trapped in no man's land in a culture war: sceptical of what the promise of a green revolution will mean for their communities, but acutely aware - even if governments appear not to be - that the transition away from coal is already underway.

On the Voice of Real Australia podcast, we spoke to Latrobe community members about their hopes and anxieties for the future of their home. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred podcast platform. Just search Voice of Real Australia.

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