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Investigative journalist Marian Wilkinson on the race for Hunter, what the parties are promising people there and what that means for all of us.

The Vote: Fighting for coal votes

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Sometimes the contest for a single seat can be about more than who wins.

Hunter is just that; it’s a seat that spans some of Australia’s oldest coal mines, and the questions in Hunter have huge consequences for us all. How seriously we are taking the climate crisis, how quickly we can transition to renewable energy and whether workers in these industries will be looked after.

Today, investigative journalist Marian Wilkinson on the race for Hunter, what the parties are promising people there and what that means for all of us.

 

Guest: Investigative journalist, Marian Wilkinson.

 

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media and 7am, I’m Ruby Jones, and this is The Vote.

Sometimes the contest for a single seat can be about more than who wins.

The fight for Hunter is just that: it’s a seat that houses some of Australia’s oldest coal mines, and so what happens in Hunter has huge consequences for us all.

The contest there is raising questions about how seriously we’re taking the climate crisis, how quickly we can transition to renewable energy and whether workers in these industries will be looked after.

Today, investigative journalist Marian Wilkinson on the race for Hunter, what the parties are promising people there and what that means for all of us.

It’s Monday May 9.

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Marian, you’ve recently been spending time in the electorate of Hunter in New South Wales, which covers much of the areas inland of Newcastle throughout the Hunter Valley. So can you tell us, what drew you to Hunter and what’s at stake there?

MARIAN:
Yeah, I think Hunter's a very interesting place. It's a place that's really on the front line of change in the big energy transition where we all have to go through. And it's also hugely contested ground for both sides of politics, especially Coalition versus Labor. So it's a very difficult place, I think, for the locals who were going through all this. But it's also an electorate that in the past has been dominated by coal mining, dominated by big coal power plants, dominated by nearby heavy industry, powered by coal plants. So that's why I really wanted to go there and test the mood on the ground.

RUBY:
And it's been a Labor seat for more than 100 years, I believe. But the current member, Joel Fitzgibbon, he is stepping down this election. So what does that mean for the seat? Can you describe the battle that's that's happening right now? 

MARIAN:
Yeah, you're right. Hunter is or was the Labour heartland until the last election. Joel Fitzgibbon held the seat in. I think his father before him had the seat. But the last election saw Labor's primary vote essentially get slashed when a local One Nation coal miner stood against Fitzgibbon and garnered a lot of blue collar votes. And what's happened as a result is that the seat is now really marginal. It sits on a 3% margin and Labor is really fighting to keep the seat this time around from a threat from the Nationals more than One Nation. 

RUBY:
Hmm. And so can you tell me a bit then about the candidates that are standing?

MARIAN:
Yeah, it's an interesting field. 

Labor, of course, has come up with a former coal miner.

Archival Tape -- Dan Repacholi:
“We need more good, secure local jobs and we need to protect the jobs and industries already here. I'm a Federal Labor candidate. Dan Repacholi.”

MARIAN:
He is a very affable character. He's an Olympic sport shooter. 

Archival Tape -- Dan Repacholi:
“Labor's made in Australia plan means making more things in Australia to create more jobs, especially in areas like the Hunter.” 

MARIAN:
And I think they're really trying to reconnect with their roots after the blue collar vote really plummeted at the last election. The Nationals are running a very serious campaign, but they've got a young candidate. 

Archival Tape -- James Thomson:
“Hi, I'm James Thompson, your Nationals candidate for Hunter. I live here, I work here and my wife and I are raising our family here.” 

MARIAN:
A guy who used to work at the Maitland Christian School.

Archival Tape -- James Thomson:
“Our region has so much going on for agriculture, small business, mining and tourism.” 

MARIAN:
But he's now appearing in the hive is hard hat around the electorate in a lot of his advertising. 

Archival Tape -- James Thomson:
“If those things matter to you, I need your support at this election. Vote one. James Thompson.” 

MARIAN:
The One Nation candidate, I think will find it tougher this time around. 

Archival Tape -- Dale McNamara:
“Good afternoon, everybody. I'm down to one nation. Just look behind me here and you see the old Liddell power.”

MARIAN:
Station and Del MacNamara, the candidate, is well known. He used to be in the mining services industry himself. 

Archival Tape -- Dale McNamara:
“So let's build a new clean coal fired power station and keep the lights on and help the economy of the Upper Hunter.” 

MARIAN:
And he's now the owner of quite a few pumps in the seat. So he will be running a pretty strong campaign. 

RUBY:
Okay. And so a 3% margin, it certainly sounds like the contest is very tight. It really could go in any direction. So does that mean that the the campaigns are getting a bit vicious, Marian?

MARIAN:
Well, I think they're getting very fruity indeed. I mean, Thompson has now been seen around the electorate, both with Matt Canavan, of course, and with Barnaby Joyce. Matt Canavan, as you know, is the big climate sceptic from central Queensland who wears his heart on his sleeve on this issue. So it's interesting that Canavan came to the electorate and also has been in photoshoots with Thompson, where Thompson is in his hardhat and his high vis vest, making a pitch that basically says only the Nationals will protect your mining job. 

RUBY:
And is there any truth to the attack that's being run? Is there a chance that people will lose their jobs, or is it more likely that they would under a Labor member? 

MARIAN:
Look, I think the conversation in the Hunter, especially in the heat of this election campaign, is a difficult one to have about the future. There are a lot of people dependent on the coal industry, not only people that work in the mines, but people who service the mines and people who work in the big power stations.

The problem, I think, is that, people are beginning to realise that this change is coming quicker than anyone expected and they're being asked, I think, by the Nationals to believe that a Coalition government can slow down this change. 

There are coal mines closing there already, in part because the Hunter mines coal for electricity generation and companies, even the big coal miners themselves know that because of the reality of climate change and the reality of the transition to clean energy, they have to get out of thermal coal. 

The problem is that there's a sort of scientific reality of climate change and there's a reality of the global stock market and the local stock market moving in the other direction.  So, yeah, it's a hard conversation, though, when your daily life depends on these jobs. 

RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment. 

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RUBY:
Marian we've been talking about the campaign in the seat of Hunter. It sounds like Labor is worried and nervous that they could lose the seat. It's a slim margin and that's because the Nationals and also One Nation are going in hard on this this line that that jobs will be lost. But we know that that is already happening in the region. We've seen multiple announcements in recent times of closures and the loss in the future of mining jobs. So can you just run me through what is actually happening in the Hunter at the moment on the ground? 

MARIAN:
You're absolutely right. You can see in the electorate itself that big coal fired power plants are closing down. So there's a real sense, I think, from people in the community that they know the change is afoot. 

Archival Tape -- ABC:
“Eraring has been powering the state for 40 years, for about the same amount of time Jim McKenzie has been working as a power plant operator… Just yesterday he was told his career was ending early.”

MARIAN:
Just recently in February, we saw the big Eraring power plant, which is on the shores of Lake Macquarie, saying that it was going to close down probably by 2025. That will put hundreds of people out of work. 

Archival Tape -- ABC:
“Around 400 people work at the plant halfare contractors, adn many more people are employed indirectly.”  

MARIAN:
The CEO of Origin Energy, Frank Calabria, said bluntly, It just can't compete with the falling price of renewables.

Archival Tape -- ABC:
“Another blow for the government’s push to have AGL extend the life of its Lidell power plant in the Hunter Valley.” 

MARIAN:
The gas station up the valley in Liddell, owned by AGL, that's closing too. 

Archival Tape -- ABC:
“The energy giant again, seemingly committed to closing the 45 year old coal fired plant in 2022.” 

MARIAN:
So I think this change is really happening throughout the electorate. 

RUBY:
But it's not a simple picture, is it, Marion? Bec ause while there are closures coming, there are also plans for New mines to open. 

MARIAN:
Yeah, that is the amazing thing when you're up there is listening to people talking about the plans for the expansion of coal mines there. 

Glencore, one of the biggest miners in the valley, it's planning to expand its Glendale mine. Now they argue, look, we're having to close other mines, so we need this mine to keep up a certain level of production and to transfer workers over. That's all well and good. But if you look at what the IPCC is saying, the reality is that we need to be actually closing more mines and not doing any more mine extensions or new developments. So that is a clash that is going on right now in the Hunter. And I keep wondering how long that contradiction can go on for. But I mean, we're doing exactly the same with gas developments in Australia as well. And sooner or later the shareholders of these companies, the shareholders of Glencore, the shareholders of the big gas companies are going to be putting more and more pressure on their boards to actually not only slow down, but stop these extensions of mines and the opening of new mines.

RUBY:
Mmm Yeah. It's interesting hearing you talk about this because you have these, these politicians of all stripes, I suppose, trying to convince voters that they won't lose their jobs under them. But we know that mines and power stations are closing and jobs will go. So is there an alternative future being offered as well? 

MARIAN:
Well, this is I think the most interesting thing in the story for me is, of course, there are a lot of very serious people working out how this change is going to be managed. But they're mainly in things like the state government, the local government, the community amongst some of the unions. They're the ones who are looking very seriously at this. As you may know, the New South Wales Energy Minister and Treasurer Matt Kean is at the forefront of pushing renewable energy in New South Wales. The New South Wales Government is looking at a renewable energy zone for the whole Hunter region and even the Federal Government. Angus Taylor, the Energy Minister, and Scott Morrison, talk a lot about a new hydrogen energy hub for the Hunter. But the trouble is, everyone I talk to says there is not enough serious integration of what Canberra is doing, what the Federal Government is doing with what the State Government is doing, or for that matter, private companies and communities who are trying to work on the transition.

RUBY:
And what sense did you get from speaking to people in the electorate about whether there was acceptance of a future in the Hunter without coal mining?

MARIAN:
I think that's a really difficult question for a lot of people in the electorate because like people everywhere, they live week to week, day to day, year to year, trying to build a family, build a life, pay the bills. 

I think it is very hard in that electorate to have a blunt conversation about how quickly this change is coming. 

In the Hunter, they want answers and they want a serious conversation that brings everyone together. And the one thing I did find when I was up there is no one believes that's happening at the moment.

RUBY:
Marian, thank you so much for your time.

MARIAN:
Thank you. 

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##RUBY:
Also in the news today,

China’s leadership has doubled-down on its Covid-zero strategy.

Over the weekend, officials from the Chinese politburo said the party would “fight” any speech that questioned or rejected the strategy of Covid-zero.

Shanghai, the country’s biggest city, has been effectively locked down for six weeks.

And a Liberal-National Party candidate is facing the prospect of a federal police investigation over electoral fraud.

The Australian Electoral Comission said on Sunday that it has referred a complaint to the AFP over Lilley Vivian Lobo, who is the LNP’s candidate for the seat of Lilley — there are allegations Lobo provided a false address to the AEC.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Marian Wilkinson is an investigative journalist and author of The Carbon Club.