Current Issue #488

Modern Times:
Change is the only constant

Climate demonstrators march past Adelaide Town Hall
Walter Marsh
Climate demonstrators march past Adelaide Town Hall in September

The climate change experiences of this summer should inspire a review of more than just climate policy by our politicians.

‘Jobs’ has been once again invoked as justification for maladdress and inaction on global warming. A democratic swill of politics and ideology is responsible for this pretext for inaction. Proactive labour market policy.

We need collective response, reflective of the urgency and gravity of our present situation, to develop labour market policy that ensures that workers are not the collateral damage of inevitable change. Models of this are readily available. As former prime minister Paul Keating once said, good policy is good politics.

Necessary change will render some jobs redundant in the future. This reality is not unique to the energy sector. Few people deny the inevitability of automation, for example, and its impact on retail and manufacturing industry jobs. And the consequences of automation are significant, but not existential.

In Germany, it has long been understood that coal mining is unsustainable. The country has made the decision to close down the entire sector and has taken measures to do so without adversely impacting those who have relied on it for their livelihoods. The last brown coal site will be closed by 2038. As closures occurred, workers had the option of transferring to another mine, retraining, or receiving a voluntary payout if over 50 years of age. No worker was left behind.

Spain has adopted similar measures. A combination of early retirement schemes and reskilling in green industries for younger workers, and restoration of mining communities, will ensure a just transition for communities previously reliant on the coal industry.

Similar transition arrangements are not specific to the closure of carbon intensive industries, and could be applied to other contracting sectors. Flexicurity, a portmanteau of flexibility and security, has been in place across Scandinavia since the 1990s. Advances in technology will continue to cause disruption to the labour market, and we need to ensure that workers are not condemned to precarious, anxiety-soaked existences as a consequence.

Invariably, successful transition models are founded on pacts between government, business, and union movements. This thoroughly collaborative model is referred to in Germany as Rhinish capitalism. Unions work closely with the private sector, and no major change takes place without significant community consultation.

In Japan, the business sector and the union movement get together each year to thrash out agreements on wages policy and industrial conditions at the Shunto, which translates as the ‘Spring Struggle’. Though more adversarial than the collaborative models developed in Europe, the intention remains for business and organised labour to work together to resolve differences in the national interest.

The unfolding catastrophe of this Australian summer follows a lost decade in respect to public policy. Australia’s narrow, self-interested and adversarial approach to public policy development is inconsistent with the national interest. Urgent, necessary change, achieved with minimal disruption to workers in affected industries, is possible.

But is it beyond the wisdom of the current generation of leaders?

Andrew Hunter

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