Our governments are undoing our greatest strength
11 March 2023
As a child growing up in Gippsland, I was acutely aware of how Australia’s prosperity was built on the provision of affordable and reliable energy. From my parent’s property on a ridge above the Latrobe River, I could see in the distance the power station at Hazelwood and the paper manufacturing plant at Maryvale. I recall driving past the great power stations at Morwell and Yallourn with my father as he transported stock throughout Gippsland and to the markets in Melbourne. On trips into the mountains to the north-east to collect cattle, I became aware of the great Snowy Mountains scheme that generated power for New South Wales and Victoria. I was at secondary school in Sale when gas and oil were discovered in Bass Strait off the Gippsland Coast, providing a new source of energy for the state.
The development of the Latrobe Valley was the work of Sir John Monash. While he is rightly celebrated as our greatest soldier who significantly turned the fortunes of the allies in the Great War, his most important achievement in Australia was the creation and development of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria. Ten months after his return from Europe, he became general manager of the newly formed SEC which was to create an electricity supply based on Victoria’s brown coal. Three months later he became the commission’s first full-time chairman. He helped draft the Act which appointed him and he oversaw the development of the Latrobe Valley until his death in 1931.
As another great Australian soldier and engineer, Sir Bernard Callinan, wrote, ‘if you would seek John Monash, you must go to the Latrobe Valley and visualise the vital dependence of the whole state on the power transmitted from there. Then, recall the epitaph to Sir Christopher Wren in St Paul’s Cathedral, London: ‘If you seek his monument, look around you’.
Sadly, Bernard Callinan’s observation, made in 1980, could not be said today. A century after Monash’s great achievement, the Latrobe Valley’s power stations are being closed. Hazelwood has gone, Yallourn will follow, as will Loy Yang. A few weeks ago, it was announced that the paper manufacturing plant at Maryvale would also close.
Opened in 1937, the paper mill directly employed up to 1,000 people, many of them post-war migrants, manufacturing 600,000 tonnes of paper and cardboard annually. Using waste wood from saw log operations, the mill also helped to reduce the hazards of bushfires and regenerate forests.
Writing in 1937, the Forests Commission of Victoria noted that ‘the manufacture of wood-pulp is the most important form of wood waste utilisation, and the advent of this industry should prove of immense economic value to the State.’
For more than eight decades, that observation was correct. But now a failed forestry plan and an unrealistic transition to renewable energy has destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and more than 200 jobs in a region already suffering from high unemployment.
It is yet another consequence of the folly of state and federal governments failing to secure our energy needs. Not only is the Victorian government closing down the power plants, it has banned the exploration for gas.
The paper mill was one of the businesses told to cease operations from time to time on very hot days in order to avoid widespread blackouts in Victoria. Not that Victorians were told that major users of power were paid to temporarily close their operations! With the major sources of reliable power being shut down, the likelihood of power outages is likely to increase in coming years. We will also pay more to import paper which could have been produced in Australia.
The deindustrialisation of places like the Latrobe Valley presents political opportunities for conservative parties in Australia if they can look beyond the inner suburbs. As the Liberal Nationals party demonstrated in the last federal election in Queensland, care for the mining and resources sector and the tens of thousands of jobs in it, was rewarded electorally. Many of the tradies and miners that have been the backbone of the Labor vote since the 1980s have deserted the party.
The Liberal party can attract these voters with sensible energy policies. Instead of agreeing with every fantastic novel proposal, the party needs to start indicating that the current plans to close our traditional sources of energy before reliable and affordable alternatives have been developed at the vast scale necessary to provide a substitute will lead to both higher prices and energy shortages. Crafted carefully, this message will also appeal to the professional women who deserted the party for the Teals.
As a fellow Gippslander, having grown up at Traralgon – just a few kilometres from my parents’ home at Rosedale – the new leader of the opposition in Victoria John Pesutto should understand the plight of the region and the political opportunities it presents. His father, an Italian migrant, was an electrician who worked at the power stations. His mother, also from Calabria, worked as a machinist in a shoe factory.
We only have to look elsewhere in the world to realise that the provision of affordable and reliable energy is one of the most critical issues facing nations.
China has approved the biggest expansion of coal-fired power plants since 2015 according to a report issued a week ago. Since suffering a series of blackouts in September 2021 as a consequence of coal shortages and a fall in hydropower caused by drought, the CCP has redoubled its efforts to build coal-fired stations, building six-times more plants than the rest of the world combined.
Elsewhere, governments are rushing to install nuclear power. Canada already derives 15 per cent of its power from nuclear, and the government-owned investment bank is pumping $1 billion to build more small modular nuclear reactors. The Biden administration announced last week the offer of another round of $1.2 billion to reopen nuclear power plants, saying that expanding nuclear technology was critical. More than 20 new nuclear reactors are being installed in the UK to ensure a reliable supply of power. Across Europe, nuclear power is being bolstered. Yet Australia, with its vast reserves of uranium, still has its head in the sand.
It is not just a question of keeping the lights on. How will we be able to defend the nation in our increasingly dangerous region if we cannot rely on dependable sources of power? What would that that great engineer and soldier John Monash think of our current policies?