Ged Kearney address to Transforming Australia conference

Parched mud with cracks

A clean energy future: Australian workers are up for the challenge
Transforming Australia - Jobs, Industry & the Green Economy conference
Wollongong, 25 July 2011

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today and pay my respects to elders past and present.

Thank you for inviting me to address the Transforming Australia conference today.

The theme of this conference is important.

Unions have always recognised the threat posed to our environment and our economy by climate change. But we have never seen action on climate change as a threat to jobs or industry.

Unions have never buried our heads in the sand about the need to tackle climate change and global warming.

Managed correctly – as the government’s carbon price package does – action to tackle climate change will be the springboard for an economic transformation.

Unions are not naïve. We did not expect that “Carbon Sunday” would lead to a sudden change in the tone of debate in Australia. We did not expect it would mean the end of the scare campaign. The government has a job ahead of it to explain what pricing pollution will mean, and what will be the impact on households and communities, industries and jobs.

Everyone in this room also has a responsibility to get out among your communities and put the facts out there. That includes unions, and the ACTU Executive has committed to an information campaign in workplaces around Australia to fully explain these changes to our members.

As I say, we are not naïve to believe that this toxic debate will change overnight. But we do need to push beyond the narrow-minded thinking that equates urgent action on climate change to “a great big tax”.

We need to push beyond scare campaigns, lies and manipulation.

We need to push beyond the dumbing down of the climate change issue to a game of gotcha by our political leaders.

We need to push beyond the attitude that dismisses the work of reputable scientists for the sake of a sound bite for the evening news.

We also need to push beyond non-negotiable positions of intransigence on both sides to find a workable compromise that will be the starting point for action.

So I commend you for organising this conference and trust that it will make a valuable contribution to the public debate.

The union position on climate change is very clear.

We accept the science that man-made carbon emissions contribute to global warming.

We accept the economic reasoning that the most efficient and cost-effective way of reducing emissions is through a market mechanism that actually prices carbon and sends a signal to change behaviour.

And we also accept that doing nothing is not an option if Australia is not to be left behind by the rest of the world.

That has been our starting point, but union support for a price on pollution has never been a blank cheque.

The package announced earlier this month met our three key criteria.

It contains financial assistance, tax cuts and support for affected regions to satisfy our demand that the majority of households not be made worse-off.

The package includes $200 million over seven years in assistance for strongly affected regions and communities including employment and training support, community development and economic diversification and a range of other activities.

The Illawarra should be a beneficiary of this funding.

It includes innovative industry planning to safeguard workers and industries. That is particularly important in a region like the Illawarra, which is defined by steelmaking.

Steel will be looked after as part of the $9.2 billion Jobs and Competitiveness Program, supplemented by the $300 million Steel Transformation Plan.

And the third criteria was that the price on pollution takes advantage of the opportunities to create new clean energy industries in Australia, along with hundreds of thousands of jobs.

And it is that third aspect that I want to concentrate on today.

The argument that the rest of the world is not acting on climate change is simply not true. Globally, 32 developed countries have introduced an emissions trading scheme.

Decisive action is needed now to maximise international competitiveness and to benefits from early mover advantages in clean energy investment. It is a sector that is only expected to grow,

Last year, a record $243 billion was invested in clean energy across the globe, led by China, the US and Europe. This was a $57 billion increase on the previous year. By 2020, the clean energy technology industry is projected to be one of the world’s largest industries, totaling as much as $US2.3 trillion.

And the job opportunities are clear. In the UK, for example, over 900,000 people are now employed in low pollution businesses and jobs. Significantly, these sectors have continued to grow despite the UK’s economic downturn. Similarly in Germany, 140,000 new jobs in the renewable energy sector were created between 2004 and 2006. More than 400,000 people are expected to be employed in the sector by 2020.

Our own modelling – in conjunction with the Australian Conservation Foundation – identifies an estimated 770,000 jobs that could be created across the Australian economy by 2030.

In 2008, we analysed 30 green industries globally and found six sectors for Australia to focus on: renewable energy, energy efficiency, sustainable water industries, biomaterials, green buildings and waste recycling.

These are big numbers and big opportunities, but if we don’t take strong action on climate change and invest now, the economic opportunities will pass us by.

Where we are meeting today, here in the Illawarra – a region known as Australia’s industrial heartland - may be a model for the future. Here we have a community working collaboratively to develop new technology initiatives.

I know the co-generation plant at the steelworks has had its ups and downs, but that is example of what may be possible in the future.

Up the road at Bulli, David Brown Gear is already tapping into the demand for renewable energy.

This is a traditional manufacturing business that has recognised an opportunity and is now repairing transmissions in wind turbines and servicing wind farms in southern Australia.

The opportunities are clear and those who say that the world is not acting are simply not reflecting the facts. This argument is part of the Coalition scare campaign which more broadly is an outrageous and frankly, dishonest, campaign with significant influence from vested self-interests.

Pricing pollution is so important to realising this vision, because it will create powerful commercial incentives to switch from traditional, carbon-intensive solutions to the adoption of low-pollution alternatives.

But pricing pollution is not enough. That’s why from the outset, unions lobbied heavily for industry plans and complementary measures to encourage innovation, and the allocation of a significant proportion of the revenue from a carbon price towards schemes that would unlock this investment.

The climate change package contains three key funding initiatives to help this transformation.

The centrepiece will be the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which will invest in renewable energy, energy efficiency and low pollution technologies.

A business like Bulli’s David Brown Gear could be a recipient of this type of investment, for instance.

The concept of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is similar to mechanism established overseas, such as the UK’s Green Investment Bank. It will drive further investment by the private sector.

Secondly, there is the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, an independent statutory body to oversee $3.2 billion of Government support for R&D, demonstration and commercialisation of renewable energy technologies.

And the third plank is the $1.2 billion Clean Technology Program, a fund designed to help improve energy efficiency within sectors such as manufacturing, while supporting R&D in low pollution technologies.

Of course, these three initiatives will be coupled with the existing Renewable Energy Target of 20% of Australia’s electricity supply coming from renewables by 2020.

Unions will make sure that workers in traditional industries are not left behind through this transformation. There is no reason to fear sudden, major job losses in areas like coal mining, electricity generation or steel manufacturing.

Out of these measures, there is no reason not to anticipate a rapidly growing clean energy sector in Australia, employing hundreds of thousands of workers in decent, secure and fulfilling jobs.

This is about progress, about nation building, about building the infrastructure for the future.

We want to ensure that communities are not left behind. 

This is about protecting existing jobs and creating the jobs of the future.

We need to mitigate the effects of the cost of action on households

We need to counter slogans such as “great big tax on everything” and Abbott’s claim that jobs will be lost. Australia is missing the bus as the rest of the world changes to low-carbon economies.

This is essential to mobilising both workplace and community support. 

Unions are determined that this golden opportunity will not be lost. We recognise that we need to bring along with us our members, many of whom are confused and worried after months of mischievous propaganda by the Coalition and big business.

Australian workers deserve an opportunity to sort the fact from the fiction in this debate.

We will work to provide reassurance to those workers in industries most affected by a price on carbon. Unions will not sugar coat this; we will explain the reality, but we will do it in a calm and rational way, unlike the scare campaigns which have been conducted around the country throughout the year.

And we will also outline the opportunities presented by a price on carbon pollution.

Unions know Australian workers are up for the challenge. Australians have always achieved great things in the national interest. Acting on climate change is no different.

These are big changes to our economy, but a price on pollution is the responsible thing to do.

Let’s get on with the job.