Coal Industry

Tonight I speak on the issue of coal. It probably will not come as a surprise to people that I would want to talk about coal. Indeed, the last time we were in this place, about two weeks ago, I spoke about coal in a private member’s statement. I draw to the attention of the House an article today that was written by Ben Graham. I congratulate him on writing this fine article. The article talks about the Federal election result in the electorate of the Hunter and the significant shift in voting patterns that happened during the election. Ben, to his credit, in writing the article went into the town of Cessnock and asked locals how they felt about where our community was and where it might be heading. Reading Ben’s article today something occurred to me that I guess I knew and the community also knew, but it has not really been spoken about yesterday or today and probably will not be spoken about tomorrow.

I refer to the transition of the workforce away from coal. Some people may want to make political hay about that statement and say that I am trying to shut down coalmines. That is not what I am doing through this statement. Ben’s article raised what has become glaringly obvious—that we have failed to talk about the transition of coalmining communities in the Hunter Valley for almost a century through changes to the nature and size of the workforce. Automation has significantly decreased the workforce of a modern coalmine or coalmining region compared to the workforce that was required historically. Although we have several thousand coalminers in Cessnock today, in the early 1900s and 1950s there were tens of thousands of coalminers working directly in coalmines. I make that point to highlight that for the last 60 or 70 years the area of Cessnock and the coalfields of the Hunter Valley have been going through an enormous transition as coalmining jobs have disappeared thanks to automation.

Going forward into the next decade, or maybe even a few short years from now, we will possibly see more automation and driverless vehicles. One of the most labour-intensive areas in coalmines at the moment is driving enormous dump trucks in the open‑cut coalmines. Depending on the strip ratio, the operators can take eight or 12 tonnes of coal over to a rock pile for every one tonne of coal they can put into their trucks and sell. These guys are essentially truck drivers. All the signals across the planet indicate that automation is on its way. Indeed, up in north-west Australia many heavy vehicles are already automated. Once the trucks in New South Wales become automated there will be another wave of job losses in the coal industry, not because the coal itself is no longer sought after and used but because automation is forcing transition onto that community.

I make that point because it is something we have failed to embrace and understand in this Chamber over many funding cycles and under many governments of all political persuasions. The problematic legacy for a community like Cessnock is that for many decades a person could be an unskilled worker in a coalmine and get a good wage, buy a house, raise kids and put food on the table. The numbers of those types of jobs have now decreased enormously. Unfortunately, our area has some of the lowest education standards in the State. We also have the lowest number of people who go on to tertiary education, the lowest number of people who complete their educational studies and the highest number of people who do not do any after-school education. This is a legacy issue of coalmining. While we might want to talk about roads and bridges and infrastructure that facilitates coalmining, we also need to talk about how we acknowledge communities that have had a coalmining past. That is covered so well in the article by Ben Graham today.