The fight for the environment and the fight for blue-collar jobs are one and the same

Van Badham

The Great Australian Bight is a pristine marine environment. It's a haven for humpback and sperm whales, blue whales and beak whales. It's Australia's most significant seal lion nursery and said to be the world's most important southern right whale nursery. It sustains huge fishing and tourism industries – and BP is planning to drill it for oil.

Yes, that BP ‒ BP of the "Deepwater Horizon" oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico back in 2010, in which a well exploded and sank, killing 11 people and creating the biggest oil spill disaster in US history. BP of that leak, 1.6km below the ocean surface, that took three months to fix. BP of the 100,000 barrels of oil leaked into the ocean per day, every day, for 87 consecutive days. BP now paying out $US18.7bn in claims to 400 separate local government entities damaged by a disaster that decimated the fishing and tourism industries of the five US gulf states. Their shores, six years later, still receive the bodies of poisoned dolphins, whales and other dead creatures.

An extraordinary network of community and environmental groups1 across Australia's southern coast have banded together to fight BP's proposed well. The Wilderness Society commissioned modelling on disaster impacts that concluded a spill at a mere 10% of capacity could poison the entire South Australian coastline, reaching as far as Tasmania and Western Australia. The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environment Management Authority (Nopsema) knocked back BP's initial drilling plan, unsatisfied that the company were implementing all its regulatory requirements.

BP is undeterred. They're resubmitting their environmental plan.2 If history is any indication, the four deep-water exploration wells it wants to drill in the Bight – between 1000 and a shocking 2500 metres deep – will gain the political will to go ahead.

The reason why, of course, is the same reason why political will to take meaningful action on climate change withers in the face of proposals to build coal mines on the Liverpool plains, why there are logging operations threatening endangered species in what should be Great Forest National Park in Victoria and why the South Australian government is seriously considering making that state an industrial home for nuclear waste.3

It's a will founded on a promise, however vague, of creating jobs – well-paid, blue-collar jobs that keep working class families and communities alive in the way that minimum wage service industry jobs cannot. You only have to look at Detroit in the US and Sunderland4 in the UK to see this.

And you will get fewer clearer examples than South Australia to illustrate how the intersecting market exploitation of working class people and the environment compounds to the endangerment of both and, ultimately, us all. Unemployment is an electorally potent political reality to working class people in South Australia. Back in June last year, it tipped over 8% and even with a state government whose frantic economic efforts will grow the gross state product by 1.5% this year, unemployment was still at 7.3% in January.

The cut and run tactics of globalised trade have been particularly unkind to the south. Of late, China has been flooding international markets with cheap steel, causing local steelworks operator Arrium to reconsider its operations in Whyalla. With the 1000 jobs that keep Whyalla alive, local Labor MP Eddie Hughes has been campaigning for the federal Coalition to make a commitment to source Australian steel for local projects, like the South Australian government has. Only guaranteed demand will keep Hughes' home town from complete economic collapse.

He's right to worry that they won't. Despite the under-utilised capacity of the Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC) dockyards near Adelaide that's keeping thousands of local workers idle, the last $2bn tender for supply ships from the Turnbull government was given to dockyards in South Korea and Spain; after hundreds of job cuts last year, ASC shed another 100 jobs this March.

All around the state are similar stories of collapse: I wrote about turkey processors sacked en masse six days before Christmas in 2014, but Arnott's Biscuits also cut 120 jobs that year. Within the ensuing twelve months, manufacturers of bathroom and kitchen fittings, glassmakers, dairies, power stations, miners, oil companies, outreach workers, media corporations, SA Pathology, hospital and education staff were hit with job losses in the cumulative thousands.

And all of this in the shadow of the impending closure of car manufacturer Holden and the automotive industries around it which – denied any government support – will take several thousand more jobs out of the state, possibly as soon as the end of this year.

One need only glimpse the desperate circumstances of places like Doveton in Victoria to heed the social misery that takes hold when blue collar jobs are taken away; if you can't bear a visit to a suburb with a present unemployment rate higher than that of the Great Depression, read Dennis Glover's chilling account of what it was like to return to a hometown he describes with the word "murdered".5

I am an environmentalist; it is horrific to see the continuation of lead smelting in Port Pirie6, plans for BP offshore drilling in the Bight or the extraordinary consideration being given by the South Australian government for turning the state into an actual nuclear waste dump. But it's also unconscionable for anyone to stand by as a witness to what amounts to civic murder.

I've come to understand that whenever we are protesting the direct site of potential destruction, it's essentially a rearguard action. What we are really fighting are the implications of our movement's failure to show leadership in proactive industry policy and provide communities and potential political allies with support for a meaningful jobs plan.

I see hope in campaigns like the Yes2Renewables7 from Friends of the Earth in Victoria, whose activism around establishing a Victorian Renewable Energy Target is one of leading a political conversation on job creation and sustainable employment opportunities.

It's the right conversation to have, because we cannot and should not begrudge any working class person the hope that comes with the promise of a job. It's cohesive industrial policy that will enable a just transition for blue-collar communities into the jobs of a zero-net-emissions economy – because the market forces beloved of our Prime Minister are as amoral in their consideration of what it means to take a job away from a working-class family as they are of the possibility of pumping millions of litres of oil into the sea.

We must campaign for jobs with as much fervour as we fight the environmental degradations forced upon us by multi-national corporations – because, as South Australia shows all too clearly, that fight is one and the same.









Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, August 2016

Reprinted with permission from The Guardian, 30 March 2016,