Should We Stop Adani?
Queensland goes to the polls on Saturday and one of the key campaign topics is the Adani coal mine. The LNP wants to go full steam ahead with the largest coal mine in the southern hemisphere while the ALP sits on the fence, vetoing federal funding for the mine but still championing the jobs that might result from the mine. The Greens of course are firmly against the mine.
Beyond the polarising debates on talk back radio, this topic represents a pivotal issue for Australia’s future. Where will the jobs of the future come from? Far North Queensland (FNQ) is suffering from the downturn of the commodities boom that helped Australia blast through the GFC unscathed. Towns like Bowen and Townsville that prospered when China was buying up all our iron ore are now floundering. It’s understandable that these communities see a whopping big coal mine as their saving grace. Involuntary unemployment is never fun especially if you were previously raking it in from lucrative mining contracts. Adani is promising 10,000 jobs from the Carmichael mine which would be a boon to the region if it’s true.
Green groups have fiercely attacked these job figures, pointing to evidence Adani presented in court that there will actually only be 1464 direct and indirect jobs from the mine. In a post-truth era, their protests seem to fall on deaf ears. It’s one side against another and Townsville folk are far more likely to listen to Adani-boosters like Matt Canavan and George Christensen than latte-swilling hipsters in Sydney who seem hell-bent on keeping them stuck in poverty.
The class dynamics here are ominously similar to the situation in the US that led to Trump’s election. Blue collar workers in FNQ feel they are being left out of the economic fairy tale that Australia has enjoyed. One Nation offers an alluring if insular narrative that promises to restore them to dignity. Green groups on the other hand seem to focus on the negative. It’s “Stop Adani” – not “Create green jobs”. Perhaps that’s part of the problem.
Envisioning a Positive Future for FNQ
How can we change the narrative? Although I’m sure there are many people in FNQ who will struggle to afford Christmas presents this year, the earth really can’t afford the Carmichael mine to be built, let alone the new coal power station that Turnbull wants to build in Queensland. I think we need to shift away from “Stop Adani” and start echoing the words of Jigar Shah – “climate change represents the biggest wealth creation opportunity in our lifetime”. In some ways we should be welcoming Adani – they’re on track to build hundreds of megawatts of solar in Australia.
Those solar farms don’t build themselves. ACF reckons there will be tens of thousands of jobs in renewable energy in Queensland. The great thing is that these jobs don’t have to go to a new generation of Sydney-based, kombucha drinking hippies. It’s quite possible to retrain mining workers to work in industries of the future. That’s what has happened in the US. Solar and wind are one of the fastest growing employment sectors right now and quite a few of the newly-employed have come from the coal industry. There’s no reason why the same can’t happen in FNQ.
Taking Advantage of the NBN
We love to throw cuss-words at the NBN (Australia’s fastest fraudband network) but the reality is that it is still opening up opportunities that didn’t exist before. If you live in a regional area, you no longer have to move to a big city. If you have the right skills, you can work remotely and arguably be better off than someone slowly drowning in the rising seas of the Sydney rental market. If you don’t have the right skills, that’s not an obstacle either. It’s never been easier to learn something new. Udacity, Udemy, Open Uni, TAFE Digital – hell, even YouTube is a great resource.
The Robot Proof Fence
Even if the Carmichael mine gets approved, it’s pretty unlikely that it’ll be a major long-term employer. As demand for coal drops, the only way the mine will be competitive is if they automate as much of the process as possible. Self driving trucks, self driving coal trains, autonomous blasting units – the mine will be much safer and more productive without humans in the pit. To safeguard the careers of Australians, we need to develop new skillsets. Software, advanced manufacturing, biotechnology – these are the growth areas for 2020 and beyond. Instead of throwing $1bn at a railway line to a mine, how about using the money to kickstart a mass retraining program? Building a coal mine is a bandaid fix. In five years, FNQ communities will be in a worse position before because robotics and machine learning will have advanced exponentially while they stay stuck in the past. Robots learnt to do backflips last month – most humans can’t do that!
You can’t achieve much in a four-year term. Perhaps that’s why QLD politicians (and politicians in general) seem to have such a short-term focus. But that doesn’t help people prepare for the future. Let’s hope that when Queensland votes on Saturday that they choose a leadership team that is going to bear their long-term interests in mind. Regardless of how it goes, my hope is that the “Stop Adani” campaign starts providing well thought-out solutions for solving the employment crisis in FNQ as well as protesting against the Carmichael coal mine. Stopping the mine isn’t enough. We need to help FNQ develop a positive future for themselves.