Published in the June 2010 edition of Meanjin Quarterly. On climate change at the ground level, exploring the painful but constructive dialogue that is taking place in the Latrobe Valley between coal workers and activists.
Taegen, Sunday night
In early September, a week before the protest, Taegen Edwards and her partner Pablo pedalled to Smith Street in Collingwood, not far from the centre of Melbourne. It was ten o’clock and rain had begun to fall. Taegen uncoiled a roll of posters.
They had come to spruik trespass in the name of justice. The Australian climate movement was entering new territory. In seven days, scores of protesters – fingers-crossed – would be arrested at Hazelwood Power Station in the Latrobe Valley.
The young couple began taping the red and blue bills to light posts. The street was lined with opshops, cafes and bars; they were on sympathetic ground. Nevertheless, it was late, wet and difficult to stave off a sense of futility.
Pablo perked up as they came upon the office of a local politician. “Oh we’re definitely leaving one here,” he said, his bike helmet swinging from his backpack. An experienced campaigner, he was pleased at the thought of an office assistant tearing their poster down in the morning.
“Happy now?” asked Taegen, who wore a smart, charcoal jacket. She was 26 years old, a graduate of arts and economics at Melbourne University, with honours in management. Pablo smiled and she laughed, three crinkles lining each cheek.
In July, she had found herself, a little surprised, making a speech in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens before a large crowd carrying placards. “Until recently,” she began,
“I wouldn’t have imagined speaking at a rally. I come from a long line of moderate mainstream lefties – the kind that read The Age and work as teachers and social workers because they care about people. The kind that have outraged discussions over coffee about racism, war or the treatment of refugees, but would still be more likely to go to the footy on a Saturday than take to the streets.
“But I’m here and it’s because, like many other people who haven’t got a long history in activism, the way the climate crisis is being treated by our so-called leaders has pushed me over the edge.”
Months earlier, at a summit in Canberra, representatives of 150 grassroots climate action groups, Taegen included, had voted to make September the national month of action. The summit had galvanised the disparate groups. Many people felt, for the first time, that they were part of a movement, a great global tide of truth and justice that could only swell as more scientific evidence rolled in.
Soon enough, however, plans for the month of action wavered. New South Wales would hold its climate camp in October instead, Western Australia in December. Victoria and South Australia held firm.
In Melbourne, an organising committee formed and resolved to target Hazelwood, the old brown coal power plant that supplies about a quarter of the state’s electricity. In 2005, a World Wildlife Fund report claimed that it was the most polluting power station among the major industrialised nations, per unit of electricity produced. Although the plant’s owners, International Power, questioned the accuracy of the report, its dirty reputation was set.
On Smith Street, not much farther on from the unsuspecting politician’s office, the couple decided to turn back. Through the open door of a bar over the road, they could see bodies in red silhouette dancing. Taegen had forgotten what normal people did with their spare time. She knew she had no balance in her life, but on the whole, she was pretty peppy. She had taken on a significant role in the Switch Off Hazelwood committee, as co-organiser of the large fundraising trivia night. She was also helping with the media, logistics and outreach sub-groups.
For more than a year now, she’d been employed at Melbourne University’s School of Population Health, researching the likely social and community wellbeing impacts of climate change. At work recently, she had stifled tears as she read a report detailing US plans to protect its borders against climate refugees. She clambered out of despair only by way of her involvement in the climate movement. She had to do something about it.
The tape ran out as they put up the last poster. They unlocked their bikes, wet from the rain, and put on their helmets and lights. It was nearly eleven o’clock. A small rally had been organised for eight-thirty the next morning the steps of parliament house, to launch the protest to the press. Pablo would be the media spokesperson.
It was going to be a nerve-wracking week. Taegen had no doubt that the action was right, but her mind skittered uncomfortably over the thought of arrest. She had never been to Hazelwood. Although she knew she would have to jump a fence, she could not imagine gripping it and pressing over. Nor could she envisage the moment, adrenaline and fear coursing through her body, when a man in blue would seize her and march her away.
Trevor, Wednesday afternoon
Trevor Birkbeck sat in the office of the local Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union headquarters. It was nearly five o’clock and he slumped in the chair, his bald head pale against the high backrest. It was a long meeting. The Mining and Energy division executive meetings were always long, but not always so willing. Today they had wrangled over a plan to start a workers’ cooperative to manufacture solar hot water tanks. Uncertain of their industry’s future, they would try to make their own bloody jobs instead.
The union office is a low-slung, brick building set into the hill overlooking Hazelwood, its unfashionable interior – shiny wood-veneer walls and faded Venetian blinds – a reminder of decades past, better years for unions.
It was only four days until the Switch Off Hazelwood rally. Before the protest came along, Trevor had more or less accepted that the climate science was settled and that change would eventually come because of it. But a flyer had been circulating among the workers, advertising a public forum to be run by the protesters that evening. It listed John Parker, an official from a different wing of the CFMEU, as a speaker. “One of the blokes from the power station come up to me saying he wanted us to stop John Parker going tonight,” Trevor told Gerry, the rep for the mine workers. “They’re all bloody angry, you know.”
Trevor was a senior employee and the union delegate for the plant’s workers. He considered himself a conservationist, of the common sense, each-man-for-his-family kind. A former dairy farmer and the son of a dairy farmer, he now lived on a small property out of town where he grew veggies and kept chickens and a few cows and pigs. Lucy, the big sow, had become a family pet.
He had turned 60 on the weekend. His blue eyes still bore their glint, but their lids had grown fleshier and his jowls slacker. He was tiring of shift work and union battles and thinking instead of how he could make his property more self-sufficient.
When a conversation strayed onto ‘the environment’, Trevor liked to steer it onto the topic of built-in obsolescence. To him, built-in obsolescence summed up all the rest of the shit. A product that was planned to fail, so you had to buy yourself a new one. It was a symbol of all that was wrong with the world: the greed, the selfishness, the corporate profit at the cost of honesty, reliability and thrift.
The other day he’d talked with his family about the activists. “They’re protesting because they believe in what they do,” he said. He respected that and compared them to the followers of a religion. “They are convinced that they are right. If you believed that this was detrimental to the world, of course you’d go and do everything you could. I would do the same.” But the trouble was, as he’d realised in recent weeks, the global warming debate had moved on without the public.
Now in the office, he told Gerry he’d been paying particular attention to what his members were saying about climate change. “And I haven’t struck anybody who is sympathetic to the CO2 or the green cause. Have you?”
“The mine guys aren’t happy with what the protesters say,” Gerry replied. “It’s a threat to their jobs, that’s what they see it as.” Hazelwood employed 530 people directly and up to 400 indirectly, through contractors. The workers were on good money, many on more than $100,000.
Under an agreement with the state government, signed in 2005, the plant had gained access to enough coal to last into the 2030s. But now the company’s management, locally and internationally, was warning that the business might collapse under the federal government’s proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Philip Cox, the CEO of the British multinational parent company, had written to Kevin Rudd, stating, “the CPRS introduces fundamental uncertainties into our business – namely financial viability, asset life and high financing risk…”
Since it bought Hazelwood in 1996, the company had invested more than $400 million to upgrade the power station and increase its efficiency. Even so, it recently proposed an alternative policy, in which the government would strike a deal to close a number of coal plants on a staggered timetable, paying out the owners for the full value of their assets.
To the unionists, it sounded like cut and run. They’d seen it once already. Before the State Electricity Commission of Victoria was restructured and privatised, beginning in the late 1980s, it directly employed 12,500 workers in the region. Ten years later, the privately owned generators employed 2,200.
Privatisation had devastated the valley. In 2001, a state government taskforce detailed a community in crisis: population decline, property market collapse, unemployment and welfare dependence. In a health ranking of 78 local government areas, the City of Latrobe ranked 72nd for men and 73rd for women. Only in recent years had employment levels risen and life begun to resemble normality. But the demographics had changed – the average age of the CFMEU Mining and Energy Division membership was now 54.
The union was unusually progressive. Its straight-talking president was once a local Greens candidate, and this year, they’d employed a new organiser, Dave Kerin. He was tall and solid, but wore the black-and-gold rimmed glasses of a jazz musician. He’d come with a plan; for years he’d been working on a scheme to manufacture solar hot water heaters in cooperatively run factories.
Today, after a two-and-a-half hour debate, Dave got his resolution. He had support to develop a serious business plan. “It went further than anywhere else in the union movement for the last ten years,” he said afterwards, pleased and tired, leaning against the president’s desk. “We’ll have shift meetings in every nook and cranny to mobilise support solidly behind the idea of jobs. And that we’ll be making the jobs.”
Trevor approved. “When you think of it, if it’s not an organisation like this, who is going to do it? Nobody. No one.”
As well as working on his small farm, Trevor planned to devote a good deal of energy to the social enterprise. He believed in social justice, cooperation and saving resources. The project ticked all three. He did not, however, want to promote the scheme as driven by green jobs, let alone climate change. Upheaval might be coming again to the valley, politicians round the world might agree and Hazelwood might be forced to close. But it might not. He didn’t want concede the fight before it began.
Dan, Wednesday night
Shortly after Trevor left the union office, Dan Caffrey, a high school science teacher, headed out from home. After a hurried dinner, he drove from suburban Traralgon, the eastern-most of the three large Latrobe Valley towns, to the meeting place, the Migrant Resource Centre in Morwell – carpooling with Roland Good, the retired GP who lived down the street.
It promised to be a fiery meeting. The protesters would have a hard time explaining their event to most folk from the valley. Dan had heard about it through the Latrobe Valley Sustainability Group, of which he was a co-founder. Last month, at the group’s executive meeting, the chairman read an email he’d received out of the blue from Taegen Edwards, asking for the group’s support and attendance at the protest. He read slowly and carefully, as though relaying correspondence from outer space. Around the table, the group members agreed that the rally would alienate too many locals. The chairman summarised for the sake of the minutes. “We’ve decided that as a group we won’t be involved, but some individuals may attend.”
Despite his qualms about civil disobedience, Dan decided to attend both the protest and, tonight, the pre-protest meeting. Just before six-thirty, utes and four-wheel drives began to arrive. Men gathered before entering. Inside, the organisers had set out rows of chairs and a projector. About two-dozen people showed up. Just as the proceedings began, a short man entered, complaining loudly that he’d sacrificed his hot dinner and TV to be there.
Dan sat at the end of a row. Slight, with grey hair and glasses, he wore a woollen jumper over the shirt and purple tie he’d worn to work that day. Around him were solid bodies, barrel stomachs. The men were courteous while a retired local school principal explained why she was involved in the climate movement, but began to shift in their seats as a campaigner from Friends of the Earth started his PowerPoint presentation on climate science. A ruddy-cheeked couple in their late forties, both wearing polar-fleeces, muttered to one another. When the campaigner said there was no longer any doubt climate change was caused by humans, the woman spoke up: “It’s all very well to say everybody believes in the so-called climate change, but you read different articles in the paper one day and the next. How are people supposed to make up their minds?”
Dan had researched the issue extensively. When he was in his early twenties, he had left the family farm in Maffra, east of the Latrobe Valley. He had been an odd jobs man – dairy technology, gherkin farming, oil fuel supply, even a few months as a trades assistant at Hazelwood – before completing a science degree and settling on teaching. Since the late 1980s, he had kept up to date with reports on global warming.
The previous year he had taught a subject called Earth Justice at the local Catholic high-school. When he fished through church documents, he found that the Australian bishops advocated stewardship, a belief that we’re entrusted to care for the planet for future generations. As a practicing Catholic, it pleased him he could claim the moral backing of the church, though he decided long ago to seek a scientific explanation of the world and fit his faith around it.
Although Dan was drawn to the science of the issue, recently he’d turned his attention to writing letters-to-the-editor, to great success. In the Latrobe Valley Express, he was conducting a vigorous exchange with the valley’s climate change deniers. “Would Mr Caffrey be kind enough to describe the process whereby human generated CO2 will acidify the oceans?” challenged DJ Auchterlonie, from Trafalgar, on 9 July.
Dan replied the following week: “As it happens, this is hardly a challenge at all.” His writing was assured and well researched, with the occasional rhetorical flourish – as in The Age, 1 July: “People who advocate the expansion of fossil fuel use are like the lemming scouts who lead the others over the cliff. Well, I am one little lemming who says no.”
Not long ago, Dan’s sustainability group arranged for Charlie Speirs to speak at their public meeting. Speirs, a former coalmine manager and now head of Clean Coal Victoria, was the state government’s new brown coal champion. He wore shiny RM Williams boots and spoke warmly. He charmed his audience. “For those who don’t know me, I grew up in the Latrobe Valley,” he began. He was a Baptist and a Rotarian, and had run the kiosk at the local junior footy for many years. He had worked for 40 years at the State Electricity Commission and Loy Yang Power. Some activists joked that he sprinkled brown coal on his breakfast cereal.
“The Latrobe Valley’s had a long history where it’s relied on coal,” he told the audience. “The challenge in front of us is utilising the coal in a sustainable manner. The engineer in me comes out and says there are no problems, just solutions we’ve got to find.”
On one slide, entitled ‘Clean Coal Can be a Reality’, he outlined techniques for reducing the carbon dioxide emissions from brown coal: drying it before burning, improving combustion efficiency, gasification, and carbon capture and storage. He outlined a scenario in which Victoria’s emissions from power generation could be reduced by 63 per cent from 2000 levels by 2050 by employing available and predicted clean coal technology, as well as renewables. Under that scenario, the first carbon capture and storage plant would not be built until the 2040s.
Speirs explained that his role was two-fold: to define the coal resource and plan its next use; and to inform the community about clean coal technology. The state government intended to use all the coal it could.
But when Speirs confirmed that large-scale carbon capture technology would not be possible before the 2020s and even then, would not be retrofitted to existing power stations, Dan felt justified in his belief that the politicians should be funding renewable technology instead. As he had written in the Express, 10 August, “after 2020 … may be too late to help avert irreversible climate change.”
Tonight, however, just four days before the rally, he was attending the Switch Off Hazelwood forum with people who didn’t believe in climate change at all.
John Parker, the unionist who’d angered the workers by agreeing to speak, began by stating flatly that he did not endorse the protest. He wanted a transition plan. “What I’m wantin’ to say to this gathering is what I say to the employers and to the governments: we want people to show us how we’re going to create work for Bill and Jane with the climate change regulations coming in.”
After the speakers finished, questions turned to the protest. The short, combative man who’d missed his hot dinner, set the tone. “I don’t think any of us here have got a problem with renewable technology but what I object to is: you want to shut my power station down and put me on the bloody scrap heap. I’ve been around a long time mate, and I saw what happened with privatisation. All this bloody bullshit about employment opportunities and it didn’t happen. We’re going to have to be convinced otherwise before you chuck me out the door.”
The polar-fleeced woman felt threatened by civil disobedience. “You’re actually putting fear into the staff at Hazelwood. It’s not fair,” she said, voice quivering. “We’re constantly labelled, we’re put down. ‘Oh, you’re the dirtiest power station in Australia or the world’, and ‘The Latrobe Valley, the stink-hole of Australia’. Well it’s not. It’s a bloody good place to work. And I feel that this protest is just reinforcing all those views about the Latrobe Valley.”
After nearly three hours, a tall, young, bearded activist, the only one who’d travelled from Melbourne to listen, stood and asked for ideas on how the dialogue between the groups could continue. “Should we swap email addresses tonight?” he asked. It was naïve, nearly absurd, but somehow, it helped. The great haze of mistrust lifted briefly, and carbon dioxide was exhaled around the room.
The woman, so indignant, was now appreciative. “I think this is one of the more unusual meetings and this doesn’t happen very often. You’ve always got your eye on what you believe is right, but you think, ‘Oh, well he does make a bit of sense.’ The more you hear those things the more your ideas can spread and you accept a bit more. I think that’s the important thing, getting the different groups together.”
Sunday, protest day
Trevor arrived home from night shift not long after seven o’clock in the morning. He sat on his wide verandah talking to Micky, the mother of two children he and his wife fostered years ago and who’d since become a fixture around their bustling house. The chooks were pecking at the grass. He was tired after work and tired of the protest bullshit.
His members continued to spout more evidence that climate change was a hoax. One man said he’d visited New Zealand and the glaciers there had been in retreat well before the industrial revolution. Another said Greenland was green not so long ago and the Thames River had frozen over. Someone else said Al Gore was a secret bigwig in the nuclear industry. And besides, India and China were going ape-shit putting up coal plants. Trevor was worn out, flummoxed. He told his workmates that the governments, the scientists and the greenies had made up their minds and left everyone else behind.
He didn’t know what was true anymore. But he had a Trevorism that helped him deal with situations like this. “When I was twenty I used to know,” he’d say. “Then when I got to thirty I realised when I was twenty I was a dickhead, but thought ‘Now I’m thirty I’m pretty smart.’ Then when I got to forty I looked back on it and I said, ‘Gee when I was thirty I was a dickhead, but I’m glad I’m forty.’ Now I’m just looking forward to the future, because when I’m seventy I‘m going to be bloody brilliant.”
Over a cup of tea, he recounted to Micky the extent of the security measures at the plant overnight. There were more than 100 security staff, plus employees stationed on each corner and cars cruising with flashing lights. The whole plant was lit up like a Christmas tree. Searchlights swept over the mine. Nothing happened.
It was a warm morning, but dark clouds massed to the south and west. Before Trevor went to bed, they both admired the view across to Morwell and commented on the bird song. “There was a good photo to be taken last night with all the lights,” Trevor said. “I dunno whether anyone took it.”
At the campground, Taegen Edwards was already awake. About 200 protesters had spent the night at a caravan park five kilometres from Hazelwood, by the large artificial lake used to cool the water from the plant. She had slept fitfully and then a police helicopter roused her before dawn. She was fully prepared to be arrested for trespass, if she could do it with dignity. The issue warranted the action: there was a climate emergency. Brown coal power stations like Hazelwood couldn’t go on polluting as if nothing was wrong.
In May, she had given a speech to the Future of Local Government Summit in Melbourne. She described the coming decades as “a black hole”, and went on:
“When I hit my thirties, it’s looking increasingly likely that there’ll be no sea ice in the Arctic in summer, which would be abstract enough not to bother me if it didn’t also mean accelerated warming in the region, melting of the Greenland ice sheet, a seven-metre sea level rise, and melting of massive stores of greenhouse gases locked in permafrost. In other words, the first stumbling block on the path to runaway, unstoppable, game-over kind of climate change.
After detailing the likely loss of the Himalayan glaciers by her forties and fifties, and the resultant tragic consequences for billions of people throughout Asia, she continued:
I realise the odds that I’ll reach 117 to see the end of this century are pretty slim, but if I did, I might be one of only 1 billion people still left on Earth, if we see the 4- to 5-degree temperature rise we are currently polluting our way towards. That is coming from Professor Hans Schellnhuber, the head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and scientific adviser to the EU and Chancellor Merkel in Germany. He is actually telling them that we’re looking at losing at least five-sixths of the world’s population.”
Having accepted this to as the mainstream science, Taegen could no longer live as though she didn’t know it.
She believed in the rally’s core message that there must be a “just transition” for people in the valley. It would be no snap of the fingers, but with careful government planning, solutions could be found; the region could be transformed into a renewable-energy manufacturing hub. She understood why the workers were angry about the protest, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t right. They just weren’t thinking about the issue the same way she was.
The night before, from the shore near the campground, the protesters could see Hazelwood’s orange glow across the water, the eight tall thin stacks white against the dark sky, the smoke drifting away. When it was being built, locals called it ‘The Battleship’. Now, five decades later, it was trimmed for the battle.
Just before eleven o’clock, Dan Caffrey and his wife Jane arrived at the gathering point, one kilometre from the power plant’s main gates. The humid early morning had given way to a cool, wet change. Dan wore a long raincoat and a battered akubra; Jane, a purple spray jacket and a hesitant smile. She commanded a smaller space than many of the protesters, with their colourful costumes and placards. There were clowns and wombats, pink and black–clad cheerleaders and a giant owl. There were also young families, retirees and country types.
Of the 600 or so people there, Dan thought there might be a dozen locals. Far from houses, shops and bystanders, the march had the dreamy, absurd quality of a pantomime. The protesters were boxed in. Mounted police lead off and brought up the rear. More police walked alongside at short intervals. Beyond the uniformed chaperones were fences and behind the fences were bored-looking security guards in high-visibility jackets. A police rubber-ducky waited on the cooling pond. The road was closed, the air was still and the huge power station stood ahead of the marchers, benign and inert, like an oversized, old-fashioned toaster.
The marchers gathered on a grassy patch in front of the main entrance. The company had erected extra temporary fencing and that became the trespass line. If the protesters jumped it, they would be arrested. A police helicopter hovered low over the group and drowned out the speakers as they insisted that, symbolically, Hazelwood’s community license to operate had been revoked.
Dan and Jane left after the speeches, at one o’clock. Dan considered it a damn good demo. He thought it would get people talking. On the march, he had noticed a long eagle hovering overhead and told Jan that the Ancient Romans would consider it a good omen – victory was assured.
Meanwhile, Taegen had been flitting around, helping and checking, and had marched with Pablo at the rear of the crowd. The talking was over now and the games began. Police guarded the temporary fence. In front, they stood two metres apart; behind, they spread out, ready to tackle.
For a while, not much happened. Then, at one-thirty, the protesters linked arms and spread along the fence-line. The opposing sides faced each other, football teams waiting for the siren. The more radical activists clumped on the hill and began to push at the fence. For a mad half hour, the sport turned nasty. Cops and protesters were nearly equal in number. Two-dozen young protesters came at the fence again and again and the mounted police charged hard at them along the line forcing them back in a mangle of legs and arms and fear.
Taegen stayed away, down the hill, worrying about what was happening. She had been helping herd the journalists and TV crews for a press conference. Now she despaired over how the event could be reported. Would it benefit the climate movement, or set it back? An hour passed in a daze. She began several conversations and didn’t finish them. Cheers rang out now and then as another protester cleared the fence and was immediately apprehended.
At two-thirty the protesters gathered on the lawn and decided to end the struggle. A man dressed as a wombat, who had been among the 22 people arrested, put up his hand: “I just want to propose that today was a really kick-arse action,” he said. The hundred people remaining cheered, formed themselves into a ragged human windmill to mark the end of the rally, called out another three cheers, and dispersed.
Taegen was exhausted and overwhelmed. The event, in part, had descended into farce. She was proud of what they had achieved, but journalists, with their simplistic angles, might become the judges of their success or failure. She had not gotten herself arrested this time. But if the situation was right, and it would aid the climate movement, she would do so another day.
As she packed up her tent and debriefed with a few of her friends on the organising committee, Trevor prepared for nightshift. He ate pea and ham soup with his family – the ham from pigs he’d raised in his yard. He swapped his moccasins for his boots and put on his Hazelwood jacket. His wife reminded him to take his glasses. The protest had made him realise that people were still arguing about whether or not climate change was real. He was more confused than ever. But for the time being, he knew he was needed at work. The old plant would keep running 24-hours a day, like it had for nearly fifty years.
The next day, Dan was ready to submit his latest letter to the Express, but he decided to check the paper first. He found a letter from Ron Bernadi, an outspoken, regular contributor who had previously likened climate change activism to a doomsday cult. Today, unexpectedly, he praised the activists’ public forum.
“… I found it an interesting and lively meeting where all who wanted a say were given time to be heard.
The union representative made a very good case for government intervention and funding to create jobs through new renewable industry in the Latrobe Valley and, why not seek more industry for the area?
But further, the union representative added, by ignoring the issue of climate change [and] not seeking renewable industry jobs, policies set by the federal government would cause the Latrobe Valley to suffer another economic shock if power stations were to close.
The climate change issue needs all parties to be honest and upfront, to not engage in mistruths, lies or exaggerations…”
It had been a remarkable week in the valley. Dan recalled his high school English teacher once telling him that the definition of drama was that it never ends. If anything, Dan thought now, this was the beginning.