Hazelwood is Burning, by Simon Cooper

Well, won’t you lend your lungs to me?
Mine are collapsing
Plant my feet and bitterly breathe
Up the time that’s passing

Breath I’ll take and breath I’ll give
And pray the day’s not poisoned

(‘Lungs’, Townes Van Zandt)

After forty days (an appropriately Biblical number for disasters) the fire in the Hazelwood mine was declared safe. Many of us living in the region remain suspicious of that word, after seemingly endless evasions and qualifications from state authorities eager to avoid calling for a full-scale evacuation. Still, the skies above Morwell have cleared up and the air has returned to the normal unhealthy levels of pollution that come with proximity to a coal mine. An inquiry has been announced and the news cycle has moved on. Is there anything that can be learned from this event?

Perhaps it was a coincidence, but the recent ABC Background Briefing program on the Hazelwood fire was immediately followed by a special report on the renewal of ‘libertarianism’ in Australia. Host Jonathan Green interviewed Adam Creighton, former Liberal Party adviser and now economics correspondent for The Australian, who claimed libertarianism was becoming more popular as a result of disenchantment with contemporary politics. Creighton’s view of libertarianism—individual freedom backed by ‘very small government’ where ‘services would be better provided by the market’—is also pushed by thinktanks like the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies, which similarly enjoy time on the state-funded broadcaster. One couldn’t help thinking, however, only minutes after a program detailing an environmental health disaster that occurred precisely because a ‘service’ was left in the hands of the market, that the claims for libertarianism left something to be desired. One hoped that Green might have asked Creighton how all that freedom was working out for Morwell residents trying not to inhale the consequences of market emancipation, but this didn’t occur. Maybe it would have been biased.

Hazelwood reflects many of the crises that face society more generally. The most polluting power station in the developed world, Hazelwood and its chimney-stacks are a familiar icon in climate-change campaigns. The station is currently run by private operator GDF Suez and the Latrobe Valley is still recovering from the consequences of privatisation forced by the Kennett government in the 1990s. While there is some desire to scale down coal-powered energy, few alternatives have been posed for those who live and work in the area. In this sense the issues surrounding Hazelwood—carbon pollution and global warming, the consequences of privatisation and the difficulties of managing alternatives to carbon-based energy—are not local concerns: they face all of humanity. When fire broke out in the mine, Hazelwood was news again, but not in the sense that many of us had been talking about—the slow, largely invisible creep of climate change. This was a localised and tangible disaster.

While there was widely expressed sympathy for the residents of Morwell, it was almost an unwritten rule during the fire not to mention Hazelwood in the context of global warming. At a meeting staged by locals, Greens member Richard Di Natale was praised for being one of the few politicians who came down and obviously cared about what was going on. But equally I heard from participants a sense of relief that he did not push the ‘usual greens agenda’ (climate change) onto the meeting. More perniciously, the Right did what it could to shut down wider discussion of Hazelwood. On the ‘centre-right and libertarian’ blog Catallaxy Files Judith Sloan, regular contributor to The Australian and The Drum, got stuck into the ABC for scandalously suggesting that the Hazelwood incident should inform a debate around the future of fossil fuels, or that privatisation might be linked to the lack of rehabilitation of the mine, and therefore the fire. For Sloan, the owners of the mine were no more responsible for what happened than a ‘farmer would be if a firebug lit a fire on his land’. Premier Napthine also closed down the question of responsibility, laying all blame on the unknown arsonist who started the blaze, while awkwardly dodging questions about the mine owner’s responsibility.

The terms of the Hazelwood inquiry are still being contested, yet if we are to learn from the mine fire, we need to think about it in a wider context. While it’s crucial to understand the impact of fire smoke on the health of locals, the quality of health information from the state government, and the responsibility of the mine’s owner, the larger conditions that have led to environmental disaster need to be kept in the foreground, not dismissed as irrelevant. While there has been media scrutiny of the actions of the government and the inaction of the mine owners, a great deal more media attention focused on the health problems of Morwell residents—repeated footage of face masks, deserted streets, coughing children and sick animals. The suffering of Morwell citizens is not in doubt, but to simply focus on ‘victims’ is to decontextualise the disaster and ultimately do them an injustice.

When thinktanks like the IPA and CIS, or pundits like Creighton and Sloan talk about libertarianism, they give the impression that they are connected to a venerable tradition. This is only partly the case. One cannot argue that the market that replaces the role of the state in libertarian philosophy is the same market as even 100 years ago. Supercharged by new technologies, the market now governs nearly every aspect of public and private life, and this of necessity has changed the relationship of the state to the individual. Moreover, this expanded market, premised on growth and ceaseless consumption, is incompatible with sustaining life on the planet. In the face of ‘natural disasters’, neither the market nor ‘small government’ can adequately respond to its citizens—witness America’s floods and hurricanes, and now locally the case of Morwell.

The fact that the state government took nearly three weeks to respond to the fire, leaving Morwell residents exposed, the fact that the quality of health information from the government was at best inconsistent, and the fact that the attempt to address the health issues of pollution consisted of feeble solutions—free train travel, rented vacuum cleaners, the offer of beach houses—were not simply indications of lack of leadership but symptoms of a wider structural change. Indeed the reasons for the passive approach of the state government towards Morwell residents rest in the changed relationship between the state and its public, a relationship in which ‘citizens’ have been reconstituted as consumers. Having severed a more fundamental relationship with the public—the government’s role is now to create a healthy market framework for individuals to operate in—it is hardly surprising that the government was found wanting, as there was nothing in its own understanding to generate a duty of care. Having outsourced the ownership and the risks of a public asset, the government also lacked a framework for responsibility. The minimal regulatory conditions imposed by the government on the mine operators were woefully inadequate (a $15 million bond) and allowed the possibility that the mine owner could simply make a cost-benefit calculation over whether to rehabilitate the mine (one estimate is half a billion dollars), a calculation that forces the public to assume the risks that ought to be taken by business.

The ‘solutions’ to the Hazelwood crisis—free travel, small grants for those in designated areas and so on—indicate how the public is now imagined as an aggregate of individuals who must negotiate their own way. Vulnerable people, often victims of privatisation, are left the most exposed. How can you move away if you have nowhere to go (no holiday house) or rely on work to survive? As the climate changes it is likely that we will see more and more regions vulnerable to environmental catastrophe. As Australia’s geography and altered ecosystems determine ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, there is little hope that a state framed by market values will be able to plan, or even care, for its constituents.

It was rumoured that GDF Suez would have been quite happy if Hazelwood had simply burned down, as the plant is inefficient and in need of a costly upgrade, and arguably once Alcoa closes in Geelong it might leave. If the owners did decide to leave, who would restore the mine site? Libertarian or free-market policies failed the residents of Morwell, and will fail the planet in the long term. As Joe Hockey pressures the states into selling off their remaining public assets we should learn from Morwell the short- and long-term cost of economic libertarianism: that there is no free-market solution to environmental disaster.





About the author

Simon Cooper

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.

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