Net Zero Authority to play job angel for coal workers

Image: AAP/Jonothan Searl. Greg Combet

Part of the new Net Zero Economy Authority’s remit will be to match old-industries workers with new economy jobs – or offer early retirement, says chair Greg Combet. 

The authority will offer older workers of shuttering coal power plants the opportunity to retire and others to reskill, and then negotiate on their behalf with the likes of transmission companies or renewable developers for new jobs. 

“It’s important to think about the workers who are involved who work for those companies, and the many other workers in these regions where the power stations are located,” Combet said following his National Press Club address on Tuesday.

“We’ve tried to think very carefully about their interests as well as the interests of the companies involved. Consult with them, and come up with a framework that we think will provide for good collaboration to ensure that everyone’s interests are attended to.

“It’s often pointed to, for example, that the closure of the Hazelwood power station in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria was very disruptive. And that was on the back of course, the privatisation of the assets in the 1990s. And there’s a lot of scars there.

“The community has been deeply impacted for a very long period of time and it’s iompacted people’s standard of living, their security, but also things like their house values and the like.

“I just think that we have to do a lot better in navigating this period of change, and seek the cooperation of the energy companies it’s not meant to be an adverse adversarial setup.”

The government’s role will be to ensure no one is left behind and minimise absolute job losses by moving people from the coal industry into the green, he says.

The redeployment scheme, or Energy Industry Jobs Plan as it’s known, is voluntary for companies to participate in.

Net zero by July

The new body was announced in May last year and legislation to enshrine it was introduced to Parliament last week. 

Combet hopes the new authority — the current iteration is an agency — can be in place by July.

That legislation will give it the power to cut through the usual silo’d approach to information more normal in Canberra, placing it directly under the responsibility of the prime minister’s office rather than a department. 

Combet says the new body must coordinate across different bureaucracies and government agencies, given it’s tasked with working across state, territory and local governments, existing regional bodies, unions, industry, investors, First Nations groups and others, to support workers to access new employment, skills and support.

Hamstrung by negotiation?

The authority will not initially be accompanied by its own funding arm, and to participate in any big ticket equity funding rounds will need to go cap in hand to existing bodies.

The government is committing $189.3 million over four years, and $53.3 million annually after that to the authority, but it will initially lean on existing commonwealth funding bodies, from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to the National Reconstruction Fund and others.

Combet says the authority may however take equity stakes in projects deemed too important for the country not to do yet too risky for private investors to back — such as Snowy 2.0.

But he is also convinced that the authority, legislated and under the direct purview of the prime minister, will not interfere with the investment independence of those existing bodies.

“The authority will have would have the right to… consult with them. What we’ve been had in mind in that regard is, respecting their investment mandate, their independence, but being in a position to take to them a project… and to say does this fit with your mandate?” Combet said.

“It’s certainly not intended to compromise their independence or their investment mandate as it currently stands.”

Rachel Williamson is a science and business journalist, who focuses on climate change-related health and environmental issues.

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