Yallourn and Hazelwood power workers label region a breeding ground for poverty

Decades ago this area was booming. Now, locals say most of the community lives in the ‘poverty basket’ as they face hundreds more jobs being lost.

At first glance, Peter Gibbons does not look like someone who lives life on the poverty line.

Decades ago this area was booming. Now, locals say most of the community live in the “poverty basket” as they face hundreds more jobs being lost.

He is well-spoken, has held roles in local government and worked for decades within eastern Victoria’s once booming energy sector in the Latrobe Valley.

But he is also a reflection of the current population – just getting by in a once booming region that relied heavily on power plants and coal mines.

Forced to retire from the sector 10 years early in 2006 due to the lack of jobs caused by privatisation, he now relies on a pension and superannuation in order to survive, stretching out $100 a week to spend on groceries and bills.

But he insists he is one of the lucky ones in a region plagued by unemployment and vast socio-economic problems.

“It’s been hard, we’ve managed to survive but we might be the exception rather than the rule,” he said.

“I know of families worse off, but we’re all in the poverty basket, the vast majority are.”

Victoria’s Latrobe Valley was once known as the energy capital of Victoria, with a thriving industry that many believe grew the state to what it is today.

But the sector faced an uncertain future following privatisation in the 1990s and the subsequent shutdown of five power plants.

The region’s last standing power plant, Yallourn, will close within eight years, with a 350 megawatt battery to be constructed in its place.

Mr Gibbons said the closures had been thrust on the community with little warning or plan for the future and had resulted in Latrobe becoming “one of the most disadvantaged regions in Victoria”.

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Australian Bureau of Statistics figures have consistently reported high unemployment rates and poor outcomes across a range of social and economic factors.

Thousands of jobs have been lost since the early 1990s, with about 500 more to go with the closure of Yallourn.

Mr Gibbons, who grew up in the area, said there had been no significant private investment in the area for almost 30 years, and the retail sector had slashed jobs.

“A lot of people have gone, a tremendous amount of industry has closed down and you can see the disadvantage and poverty growing,” he said.

“Nothing the state or federal governments have done since privatisation has alleviated the situation with regards to job creation and a proper transition plan for the population.

“The community feels abandoned.”

After Hazelwood’s closure, the Victorian Government announced a $266 million transition package to support the region, including a worker transition scheme.

But figures released by the government in 2019 found less than half of the 850 participants in the scheme had found full-time employment.

Former energy worker Rino Mariano retired from the Yallourn power station late last year – employment he managed to secure after losing his job at Hazelwood in 2017.

He said finding work in the area was competitive and unsettling, forcing many to retire early or leave the area.

His own children have been forced out of the area to pursue work in Melbourne away from their family and friends.

Mr Mariano said workers felt defeated, despite promises to prop up employment in the area.

“The workers aren’t great, they are all pretty concerned because everything is so up in the air,” he said.

“Currently there’s no plan to get there – they can’t tell us a plan because they haven’t made it up yet.”

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He said people in the community were aware of the decline in coal and wanted to embrace greener forms of energy.

“Transition is what it’s all about, I think we’ve all got a bit of a green agenda, there’s no argument there,” he said.

“But we want to see it done in a planned state, and I don’t think that can be done in eight years.”

Director of the Victoria Energy Policy Centre at Victoria University Bruce Mountain said the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy would always be challenging.

Professor Mountain said there would be a lot to learn from the Hazelwood closure in preparation for Yallourn’s retirement date in 2028.

“It will be about managing transition and anticipating changes, ensuring investments are made well before closure,” he said.

“I think we should appreciate what a paradigm shift these things are and it’s not something that could be made without the evidence of the Hazelwood closure.”

Despite a level of doom and gloom among some community members, local leaders and advocates are now hoping to take the fight all the way to parliament.

La Trobe City Council mayor Sharon Gibson said the announcement of an earlier than anticipated closure for Yallourn had come as a “shock”.

The closure of Hazelwood resulted in $2 million being taken from the council’s budget and the Yallourn closure is expected to dish out a similar effect.

Cr Gibson said she believed a plan should have been put in place years ago to help the town embrace newer industries.

“Some people here are frightened, others are in disbelief, others are very sad and others are sceptical,” she said.

“We’ve had so many promises over so many decades and they’re saying why should we believe you now?”

She is now pushing for a task force made up of the Victorian and federal governments to support the community through its transition.

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“At the end of the day people want to work and they want a good job that they can go to and make a difference with,” Cr Gibson said.

“You can’t strip a huge industry like this out of the mix and expect us to just bounce back, so we’re asking now: what are the alternatives, and how will they help transform our economy?”

Victorian Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said Yallourn and mine workers were “at the heart” of the government’s response to the power station closure.

“Renewable energy will be a key part of the Latrobe Valley economy in the future, with EnergyAustralia’s plan to build the largest battery in Victoria at the Yallourn site. There are also 12 renewable energy projects with a capacity of 1700 megawatts under construction across regional Victoria,” she said in a statement.

“We have also invested $540 million to develop six strategic Renewable Energy Zones across Victoria including one in Gippsland. This is a part of our $1.6 billion clean energy package, the largest of its kind in any state, ever.

“In the last state budget, the Government backed the Latrobe Valley with a $266 million package to stimulate economic growth, create jobs and grow local businesses, and since late 2016, more than 3000 jobs have been added to the Latrobe Valley workforce.

“We continue to back the Latrobe Valley with almost $400 million in projects that are generating 1300 jobs in the construction phase and a further 800 jobs upon completion, while a further $370 million major projects.”

EnergyAustralia will also provide $10 million to support the transition for workers and the community, including through career planning, training and accreditation, financial advice and mental health services.

The Australian Services Union has been contacted for comment.