LAST night Upper Hunter by-election candidates fielded a range of questions about the future of mining, the transition away from coal, what to do about replacing coal royalties and how to manage renewable waste materials.
During the introduction addresses, pro-coal candidates Dale McNamara, Archie Lea and Eva Pears all said coal is here to stay for the foreseeable future, whilst candidates Sue Abbott, Steve Reynolds, Sue Gilroy, Tracy Norman, Kirsty O’Connell and Kate Fraser all mentioned the potential for industry transition and economic diversification alongside the protection of Upper Hunter coal miners.
Nationals candidate David Layzell and Labor candidate Jeff Drayton did not directly mention mining or the energy industry in their opening statements.
In a nutshell
One Nation candidate Dale McNamara said coal mining is the highest regulated industry and if elected, he will push to create a clean coal-fired power station next to Bayswater.
Independent candidate Archie Lea said if elected, he will focus on keeping coal mines running and asked the crowd to “go home tonight, switch on the light, ask yourself where the power comes from.”
Liberal Democrat candidate Eva Pears said she is skeptical of the government pushing ‘greeny deals’ and “like it or not, coal is the heart of the Upper Hunter.”
Independent candidate Steve Reynolds said he is very supportive of mining but mindful of impacts on agriculture. He said there needs to be a collaborative approach with both industries moving forward.
Greens candidate Sue Abbott said her goal is to speed up the coal-fired power exit and increase spending on renewables. She said the ‘royalty rich Australia’ has been making below-average investments and will soon be left behind as the rest of the world begins to transition away from coal.
Independent candidate Tracy Norman said the Upper Hunter needs to turn its attention towards clean manufacturing industries based on the circular economy. She said if elected, she will focus on protecting natural assets, whilst phasing in a new low carbon economy.
Shooters Fishers and Farmers Candidate Sue Gilroy said “coal puts food on the table” but the Upper Hunter also needs to look at what’s next and if elected, she will support the mining industry through transition, whilst looking towards other energy forms.
Independent candidate Kirsty O’Connell said there is an inevitable transition away from fossil fuels and “we need to be moving on the planning and consultation now.” She said economic diversification will only work with the assistance of returned coal royalties.
How candidates responded to questions about the Upper Hunter energy industry
An audience member requested a show of hands of who will take a clear goal of no more coal and coal transition to Sydney: Candidates Kirsty O’Connell, Tracy Norman, Sue Abbott and Kate Fraser put their hands up.
Kirsty O’Connell said she would pull together a communication team made up of business leaders, industry leaders and other stakeholders before Christmas and begin work on comprehensive social and environmental solutions for the Upper Hunter. Then, before the next election, she would seek further investments for other industries to begin the transition away from coal. Ms O’Connell said she would also get rid of expired expiration licences, particularly ones near wineries and equine farms. She said there’s no point in mapping out prime agricultural land if no one is going to protect it. She said she would set a cumulative impact study for Hunter River water and air quality and seek absolute clarity from coal mine companies about how they will protect their workers during transition.
Tracy Norman said the Hunter Joint Organisation is currently working on projects to do with the transition but she would prefer to call it diversification. She said diversification is possible with some governments and although the government knows transition needs to happen, it’s not committing to one direction when it comes to energy investment. Ms Norman described this as the government putting “one foot there and the other over there.” Ms Norman said creating new mines does not create more jobs, green energies are where the jobs are. She referenced research from the United States, which points towards evidence of more money and jobs in renewable energy. She said trillions of investment dollars are waiting for a region to come and grab a hold of it and that region should be the Upper Hunter.
Sue Abbott said the Greens have developed a clear strategy through the ‘Coal Communities and Environmental Trust Fund’ where 20 percent of coal royalties would be invested back into building renewable infrastructure and industry in the Upper Hunter. Ms Abbott stressed the need for renewable investment before decarbonising all sectors in the Upper Hunter. She said coal-fired gas is “going backward” as the coal market is already “running with its wallet”. Ms Abbott said it will take public investment to get to the next stage of transition, which shouldn’t involve abandoning coal miners but involve building renewable infrastructure for the future production of green steel and green aluminium, which would then lead to green transport and retrofitting houses with renewables.
Kate Fraser was speechless and said it was a rare occasion where she was lost for words. She endorsed the words of the three fellow candidates.
The question ‘how will we keep funding ‘the stuff’ without the coal royalties?’ was posed to the whole panel of candidates, nine responded.
Tracy Norman reiterated she is not advocating for the end of coal tomorrow because the “market is going to determine that.” She said the transition could be sometime in the next few years or couple of decades. “I’m advocating for a situation where we’re ready to have a trained and up-skilled workforce so jobs remain in the Upper Hunter and it remains an economic powerhouse with good hospitals, facilities, education, roads et cetera,” Ms Norman said. She also said the Upper Hunter electorate should create a ‘future fund’ out of returned coal royalties, referencing a similar strategy conducted by the Muswellbrook Council, which has accumulated $80 million in their ‘future fund’.
Sue Gilroy also reiterated she is not advocating to close coal mines tomorrow. “We need to look at what else we need to do at the same time to keep the economy going,” she said. Ms Gilroy emphasised the need to replace jobs and up-skilled workers in order to support miners. In relation to replacing coal royalties she said: “It’s not clear yet. If we had something to move to we’d already be there.”
Dale McNamara said the international world is not stopping in coal. He said more coal stations are being built overseas, including five in Japan. “I don’t have any real ideas on how we’re going to keep Upper Hunter viable if we turn around tomorrow and make some silly decisions,” he said. Mr McNamara emphasised the need to use common sense. He said he is not against renewable energy but he is against people being damaged by silly decisions. “We shouldn’t think we’ve got to do the right thing when the rest of the world isn’t,” said Mr McNamara.
Kirsty O’Connell said the Upper Hunter local government area receives less than five percent of coal royalty shares. “Break it down, $1.1 billion, a share of 50 million given back, that’s less than five percent,” she said. She said out of the 24 mining-impacted local government areas, the Upper Hunter Shire have “never collected a dime,” and the Singleton LGA missed out on royalties for three consecutive years. She compared NSW coal royalty returns to WA, which receive 25 percent. Ms O’Connell then compared being prepared for industry transition to bushfire preparedness, saying the electorate needs to plan now and prepare for the future whilst there’s a window of opportunity.
Eva Pears said “the solution that I see for those coal royalties would be to slash bureaucracy.” She said shrinking the government would be an ideal solution as the government is currently too large and “they would stop wasting taxpayer and ratepayers money if there were less of them.”
David Layzell said the agriculture and mining industries kept Australia safe during Covid-19 and the coalition “managed to keep them both going along.” He said all industries need to be nurtured, but mining is where all the jobs are. “We’ll be mining in this region as long as the world keeps buying our coal, the best black coal in the world,” he said. Mr Layzell said the Upper Hunter could produce coal for another 30 to 50 years. He said the focus should be on growing industries and training new generations.
Archie Lea said coal mining important but also other industries like oil and hydro. He said he supports royalties coming back into the area.
Steve Reynolds said without coal royalties, it will all come down to taxes. “We’ll be paying it out of our own pocket. It’ll be taxes that we’re paying extra, be that in electricity or whatever else,” he said. Mr Reynolds said he is not pro anything. “Everyone seems to think you have to be one or the other and you can’t be straight down the middle,” he said.
Sue Abbott said the Greens solution would be the earlier mentioned ‘Coal Communities and Environmental Trust Fund,’ with 20 percent of coal royalties spent towards training and employment opportunities in a green renewable economy. “We don’t want a repeat of Latrobe Valley,” she said. Ms Abbott stressed that energy transition is inevitable and it is irresponsible to ignore it.
Audience member Gail Bates said she was pro-renewables but questioned: “What’s going to happen to the solar panels, or when the wind farms are broken where are they going to go? I’m told the Council has to pay the State Government for their rubbish, if the panels are in that shire is it up to them to foot the bill?” Six candidates responded.
Kate Fraser said the proprietor is responsible for removing it.
Dale McNamara said One Nation’s Rod Roberts MLC has an upcoming meeting in Sydney to discuss how they will dispose of the panels. He said minerals in solar panels are very dangerous and landfill as a current disposal method is a big problem.
Sue Gilroy said the previously mentioned regulations for proponents are “not tied up” and it is not yet known how renewables would be disposed of. “So I would agree, it is a big problem,” she said.
Tracy Norman said “you call it waste, I call it raw material. This is what the circular economy is about.” Ms Norman said processing renewable materials things into other goods would be the best solution. She said the technology to do so exists. “There used to be a problem with single-use plastics, now used to make chairs and bollards et cetera,” Ms Norman said.
Kirsty O’Connell said no matter how the Upper Hunter produces energy, “there’s always a problem at the end of the day with how we use the leftovers.” She said it’s not wise to start any industry without knowing how to use the waste in the end. “Love your idea, Tracy, make something else with it,” she said.
Archie Lea said solar panels “don’t hold as much energy as your think” and wind farm panels are filled with poisonous gas.
For more information on where candidates stand: Voting 101: Upper Hunter by-election.