Major union tells Labor to get over ‘self-indulgent diversion’ in climate debate

Major union tells Labor to get over ‘self-indulgent diversion’ in climate debate


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One of the country's major blue-collar unions has backed Labor leader Anthony Albanese in the party's widening rift over climate policy, declaring zero sum battles over coal do not help workers keep their jobs.

The Electrical Trades Union, which represents 60,000 members and has more workers in power generation than any other, said in a letter to Labor's shadow cabinet that the market was irreversibly shifting towards renewable energy.

ETU national secretary Allen Hicks believes binary debates about coal are a sideshow from supporting workers.

Its intervention comes days after former Labor frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon quit his opposition ministry after a heated clash with Mr Albanese in a meeting over whether the party should back fossil-fuel industries in a play to win back blue-collar voters.

Mr Fitzgibbon's decision to resign has escalated a climate stoush within the party that it had attempted to cool by endorsing new gas fields and pipelines last month. That move followed a briefing for MPs by the Australian Workers Union and the mining division of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union which put the case that the party should back coal and gas jobs for decades as the economy slowly transitions.

The ETU said it shared the other unions' concerns about workers losing their jobs but argued the party's response should be about improving jobs in the renewables sector and supporting fossil-fuel workers through the transition with dignity.

Aluminium produced by the Tomago Aluminium Smelter in the Hunter, a huge energy users, which Anthony Albanese will visit this week.Credit:Virginia Star

"With respect, the debate of if you are 'for coal' or 'against coal' and talking about the transition like it is some kind of conceptual future possibility is seen by our members as a self-indulgent diversion from the fact that they are losing their traditional stable and secure jobs at an ever increasing pace right now," ETU national secretary Allen Hicks wrote in the letter seen by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Labor's assistant climate spokesman, Pat Conroy, who has clashed with Mr Fitzgibbon on the issue, said the ETU had it right. "This entire debate is confected and it's a bullshit argument to say you're either pro-coal mining or anti-coal mining," said Mr Conroy, whose seat of Shortland in the NSW Hunter borders Mr Fitzgibbon's.

The party should be able to help existing workers in the coal industry by advocating for casual and labour-hire workers to get full-time jobs while also preparing for new green industries, Mr Conroy said.

Mr Fitzgibbon said last week, after he stepped down from his opposition agriculture and resources ministry, that Labor's climate policies had cost it traditional working-class votes, especially in regional areas.

"I support meaningful action on climate change … my point is that we keep over-reaching and losing elections," he said.

Mr Albanese plans to travel to the Tomago Aluminium smelter, which is a massive power consumer, near Newcastle on Tuesday. The smelter lies not far from Mr Fitzgibbon's seat but he will not be present because he is travelling.

Along with the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the ETU is a member of the Hunter Jobs Alliance, a group of unions and environmental organisations that aims to support high-paid and secure jobs in renewable industries.

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