7 May 2020 Portland Observer

RENEWABLE energy, jobs, or both? Given the problems facing one of Portland’s largest employers a federal parliamentarian has asked the question of what benefits the community gets from the rush to build more wind farms.

Labor Senator Raff Ciccone, who has been outspoken in Federal Parliament about the issues facing Keppel Prince and Australian manufacturing in general, visited the company and the Portland Aluminium smelter on Tuesday and met with Glenelg Shire Council that afternoon.

He was in Portland for the first time (as Senator) to look at the issues affecting the city and region, as part of a tour of the Wannon electorate – one of a handful around the state that he has adopted, as is practice by Opposition Senators in their own states.

Not that many of those issues were too different to other regional areas he has visited in his role – housing (or the lack of), employment and labour shortages, the NBN and digital black spot connectivity and general access to health and other government services.

The Maroona-Portland rail line and the battle for three-phase power were other issues he was brought up to speed on.

But the 43 redundancies at Keppel Prince as a result of the company failing to win local wind tower construction contracts against cheaper imports fuelled by dumped steel was the main issue – and the jobs of about twice as many others hang in the balance as Keppel Prince tries to battle through the rough seas ahead of the next Victorian Renewable Energy Target auction.

“There’s so many good jobs here but those workers every day are not sure if they’re going to have a job in the future,” Senator Ciccone said.

“We talk about green jobs, but at what cost? It’s the cost of Australian jobs at the cost of someone feeling good about themselves.

“It’s all well and good to say we go down the renewable energy path, but regardless of what people support, whether it be coal, solar, wind or dare I say it nuclear, we’ve got to be serious about making sure whatever option governments take up, it benefits the community and it benefits Australian jobs.

“We’ve got to be strategic about where we place ourselves long term, given the geopolitical issues.

“We shouldn’t be propping up other countries’ employment, we’ve got to be serious about local Australian jobs.

“And it helps the area grow.”

Senator Ciccone said the federal government could mandate that a percentage of the projects it had a direct relationship with – the wind farms that Keppel Prince missed out on are both selling their output to the Commonwealth-owned Snowy Hydro 2.0 – had a percentage of local content, much like the VRET.

“At the end of the day it’s about sovereign capability. One thing COVID has taught us is thankfully we have some form of manufacturing in this state, when you see distilleries turning into making hand sanitisers.

“If we were in a worse position (should the trade issues with China worsen) would we be able to make (towers) en masse? I have serious doubts about that.

“There’s all these challenges and certainly long-term I’d like to see the state and the Commonwealth governments working together on this issue.”

Senator Ciccone welcomed the recent decision by the federal government to extend the telehealth program brought in early in the coronavirus pandemic, but said it showed what could be done for regional areas.

“It’s the type of technology that needs to be better utilised by the federal government,” he said.

“If you’re going to be serious about improving peoples’ lives who are living in the regions and encouraging people to move to the regions, unless federal and state governments back it up with infrastructure it’s going to be very difficult.

“If you’ve got a young family it’s very difficult.

It’s not cheaper than Melbourne because all the cost-of-living issues are relative.

“Then you’ve got people who want to work here but can’t because they can’t settle in the community (unable to find accommodation).” Labor would announce its policies closer to the next federal election – one has to be held by the middle of next year – but had already promised a $15 billion infrastructure fund.

“The whole idea is to drive economic growth in the regions, more Australian jobs and sovereign capabilities as well.”

Read the story on the Portland Observer website.