Last Friday the pot lines at Alcoa’s Point Henry aluminium smelter near Geelong were switched off. In coming months up to 800 workers will be seeking new employment. On Wednesday the owners of the Energy Brix power station and briquette factory near Morwell, built in 1949, announced that both facilities would be mothballed and that 70 workers are no longer required.
Both of these industrial facilities have a proud history of providing well-paid employment in regional Victoria. However both have been overtaken by newer, more efficient technologies and changed market conditions.
Over the past two decades we have seen industry sectors like manufacturing and electricity generation decline in their share of the Victorian economy. That doesn’t mean they’re not important industries – manufacturing remains our second largest industry sector after financial services in Victoria. But it does mean that a new industrial vision and new policy approaches are needed to guarantee the future strong performance of the Victorian economy and protection of jobs.
State and Federal government economic development policies have failed workers at Alcoa and Energy Brix as well as taxpayers. Both Alcoa and Energy Brix have received large handouts on multiple occasions from both governments to keep the doors open despite the fact that the writing was on the wall for their closure.
In June 2012 Alcoa received $40 million from the Federal Government and an undisclosed sum from the State Government to keep Point Henry smelter operating. The same day Energy Brix received $50 million to continue manufacturing briquettes from the Federal Government. In neither case was there recognition that retirement of these ageing facilities was inevitable and that a new economic plan for the State and these affected regions is necessary. Handing out wads of public money was ultimately unsuccessful in preventing plant closure and loss of jobs and most likely would have been better spent supporting other industries in those regions
It’s interesting to contrast the support for these old industrial facilities with the lack of government support for the rising industries of the 21st century in Victoria. Two of the fastest growing industry sectors globally, the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries, are currently being discouraged in Victoria despite their track record of creating thousands of jobs and billions of dollars’ worth of investment.
In State Parliament this week the Coalition will move legislation to scrap Victoria’s energy efficiency target. This program, funded by electricity retailers via a tiny levy on electricity sales, is reducing energy bills for households and businesses and reducing energy use and emissions. Draughty homes are being weather-proofed, lighting is being upgraded and decades-old water heaters are being replaced with the latest efficient (and in many cases locally manufactured) technologies.
The program has also been directly responsible for the creation of 2500 jobs across the state, most of which will be lost if the government’s current legislation passes through Parliament next week. Many Victorian industries are being buffeted by global pressures such as exchange rates and labour costs. If these jobs are lost however it will be a direct result of the Coalition choosing policy settings that pull the rug out from under the feet of workers in the energy savings industry.
Similarly the Napthine Government has repeatedly chosen policy settings that discourage investment and job creation in renewable energy in Victoria. Since coming to office the Coalition has introduced the world’s strictest anti-wind farm planning laws, reduced solar feed-in-tariffs five-fold, cut solar water heating rebates, scrapped the State’s greenhouse pollution reduction target and most recently called for the Federal Government to weaken the national renewable energy target.
The cumulative effect of these decisions is to stifle the opportunity to diversify the State’s economy and make the State more reliant on a declining and in some cases outdated industrial base. These actions also prevent Victoria from participating in the clean energy investment boom that is happening globally.
Victorians are rightly concerned for the workers and their families at Alcoa and Energy Brix who face great uncertainty and potential hardship in the months ahead. We all hope that they find alternative employment quickly and cope well with what could be a hard transition.
But let’s also consider the less visible, decentralised workers being made redundant by government policy; the plumbers who install or manufacture solar water heating, the wind turbine engineers who design wind farms, or windmill tower manufacturers in Portland or the tradespeople who weather-proof homes. They may not be working in factories that have been operating since the 1950s but their jobs are currently disappearing as a result of State Government policy that tells them they are no longer required.
Mark Wakeham is the CEO of Environment Victoria