In the 20th century, communities in the Hunter and Latrobe Valleys led Australia in a social revolution.
By providing universal electrification to our cities and towns, you made a confident, prosperous, fair Australia possible. Electric power allowed kids to read and get educated, it gave us high quality health care, and it enabled women to save time and enter the workforce, challenging old prejudices. Now that role isn’t only forgotten – it’s being replaced. Coal power is in decline around the world. But, by preparing for that decline in a smart way, “coal communities” can lead the next great step towards a better, fairer Australia – by trialling a guaranteed adequate income.
I don’t need to tell you what’s happening to coal. You know it better than most, because it affects you more than most. With the global shift to energy efficiency and renewable energy well underway, you’ve seen the export coal price crashing, you’ve seen companies going bust or walking away.
While Americans can (almost) get away with claiming to have been taken by surprise by the collapse of their coal industry, here in Australia we do not have that excuse. The writing is on the wall, and coal plant and mine closures are happening now.
The problem is, there are only two perspectives on what to do. The old approach is to proclaim that there are no alternatives to coal mining for people living in these communities and that those who want to close the mines want to leave them out of work.
Aside from the fact that this is a slur against thousands of skilled people, its only impact is negative. If this is what you’re told, who can blame you for getting depressed, disenchanted, and angry with greenies like me for driving the end of coal?
The second approach is to insist that coal be replaced by similar, high-paying full-time jobs. For many people, this will be important or necessary, and what I’m saying here should in no way be taken as suggesting every effort shouldn’t be made to provide them. But it’s only part of the solution.
Around the globe, there is increasing awareness that automation of jobs, ecological limits and growing post-consumerist behaviour mean there will be fewer and fewer jobs. There isn’t enough work to go around.
But, like the end of coal, that can be a great thing, if we embrace it. After 30 years, we can return to the previous goal of both left and right – freeing ourselves of the daily grind.
In this context, alongside drives for a shorter working week and more affordable housing, health and education, there is a swiftly building push around the world for some form of guaranteed adequate income. Trials are already underway or planned in the Netherlands, Finland, Canada and even the USA, simply providing a living wage to all people regardless of who they are or what they do.
A guaranteed income doesn’t have the stigma of welfare, because it’s universal. Instead of making people feel disempowered and undervalued, it gives people the confidence to take risks – to start that business, to take time out to look after ageing parents or young children, to retrain for a new profession late in life.
Alongside properly resourced community consultations, and investment in seeding new industries and supporting existing ones to grow, this would enable people in coal communities to move beyond coal with confidence, with hope, and with exciting visions for the future.