Thursday, 11 August 2011


"Why do you all hate Thatcher so much?" I asked a visiting British academic the other night. He looked at me in disbelief, as if the answer were self-evident. "Look what she did to the coal miners," he retorted. "She deliberately put thousands of them out of work, threw them onto the scrap-heap. Fathers driven to suicide, families plunged into poverty. Twenty thousand working families sacrificed for pure ideology, nothing more."

If this sounds uncomfortably familiar, that's because it is. According to NSW Treasury figures, 20,000 is almost the exact number of coal mining jobs that will be lost – and not replaced – in the Hunter Valley by the carbon tax. Like Thatcher before them, Julia Gillard and Greg Combet are prepared to sacrifice these jobs and livelihoods for the sake of the “greater good.” For ideology.

The OED definition of ideology is “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.” All political parties require an ideological framework on which to base their decisions. The point at which a set of beliefs moves from ideology to a legitimate political agenda is, of course, at the ballot box.

Thatcher never specifically asked the electorate if they wanted her to crush Arthur Scargill and his National Union of Mineworkers. But she never pretended the real battle was over anything other than ideological beliefs. "Economics are the method;" she said, "the object is to change the heart and soul." Gillard is equally clear about the ideology of her carbon tax. "I believe climate change is real," is justification enough. Like Thatcher, she is using an economic tool so we "all change our behaviour." For Combet: "this is a difficult political environment at the moment but this is a critical reform for the future of the country and future generations." In other words; 'even though we don't have a mandate, we have our ideological beliefs.'

Although Combet disputes the figures, the NSW Treasury modeling is unambiguous. The carbon tax will hit NSW harder than any other state and cost at least 31,000 jobs, particularly in regional areas. The analysis shows $3.7 billion will disappear from the annual output of the NSW economy by 2020, rising to $9.1 billion by 2030.

It predicts the loss of 1,850 jobs in the Hunter region alone and 7,000 fewer jobs in the Illawarra, a thousand less in the central west. "The reduction in jobs in the Hunter is absolute, not a mere reduction in growth prospects," it concludes.

NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell says the Treasury predictions are "disastrous" for the Hunter Valley. NSW Minerals Council CEO Dr Nikki Williams concurs: “The federal government said we were scaremongering when we flagged our concern for the 3000 NSW coal mining jobs that are at risk, but the NSW Treasury modeling now shows that loss could be replicated tenfold across the state’s economy,” she said.  “It is becoming increasingly clear that the carbon tax will cripple economic growth and put thousands of jobs at risk, especially in regional NSW."

Aha, you say, but we are sacrificing the coal miners and their livelihoods to save the planet. So our grandchildren will inherit a cleaner world. Those mining jobs would have gone anyway, your argument runs, when coal becomes obsolete, which it must eventually do. Besides which, there will be an equal number if not more new jobs created in the renewables industry.

This "greater good" argument, worthy as it may appear at first blush, is uncannily similar to that put forward by supporters of the Thatcher government to justify the closure of 20 mining pits across Britain’s north in 1984. The greater good, in that instance, was the British economy. The mines were closed so that today's Britons could inherit a more prosperous world. A plethora of jobs were created in London's freewheeling financial services industry as the British economy took off on the back of the defeat of the left-wing unions. London quickly became one of the economic powerhouses of the world. All well and good.

Except it wasn't. Many of the Yorkshire miners never found work again. For decades, poverty, depression and suicide blighted their lives as the booming economy that their defeat ushered in to the south-east failed to have any positive impact on the mining ghost towns of the north. Strange as it may seem, you can't just put down your hard hat and shovel, pick up a calculator, and become a hedge-fund manager overnight.

Equally, just because you were good at digging up coal doesn't mean you'll be any good at putting up windmills.

Combet claims that sufficient money is being set aside to compensate for job losses. Maybe. But these are working Australian families, not just a set of numbers. When do they sell up and move? Now? Should they quit work and start looking for new skills? New schools? Leave behind their homes, history and communities? What about Mum? Do they move her too?  Combet maintains the Hunter will be one of the areas to benefit from a growth in renewable energy sector jobs. Let's hope so. Thatcher made similar commitments about a revitalized north which sadly never came to pass.

Ironically, Greg Combet rose to prominence in the Australian equivalent of the mining strike; fighting on behalf of the wharfies’ unions in the 1998 waterfront dispute, where he famously maintained that "the laws were made against workers, and bad laws have to be broken." It will be interesting to see if he gives the same advice to the coal workers of NSW.

Combet and Gillard have made clear that the carbon tax will go ahead, regardless of adverse public opinion polls, the concerns of those with jobs to lose, and without being mandated at the ballot box. It’s a question, purely and simply, of ideological belief.

"The government is going to stick to its guns," Greg says. Sounds awfully like Margaret Thatcher's "the lady's not for turning."

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