‘the air is okay…just don’t breathe the air’
The final frame in the documentary Our Power is of CFA volunteer Doug Steley reflecting on what it is to turn on a switch in your home and flood a room with light. For him this act encapsulates what it’s all about: that we as a society could be so rich as to so simply practise this seeming magic with no thought of where our power comes from, or who made it. You only have to think for a second to be drawn imaginatively into the abstract yet strangely ‘live’ force that electricity is, travelling hundreds of kilometres and via complex systems to fire up the various machineries and romances of modern life. Without this quintessentially modern form of power ordinary life as we know it simply couldn’t take place. For decades, nearly a century, this taken-for-granted has been a kind of gift from the people of the Latrobe Valley—a silent backdrop to our lives and endeavours.
But the instabilities of the system at its source were the actual moment for the making of this film: the fire in the Hazelwood open-cut coal mine in the Latrobe Valley in 2014, and the spilling over of this emergency into the lives of the people of the valley. Starting on 9 February, the fires burned for forty-five days, spewing toxic particles in black, billowing clouds across suburban homes and shopping strips. People are wearing face masks; workers are entering the mine sites to dig out the burning earth. People are scared and there’s no clear information coming from either government and the health bureaucracy or the corporation (GDF Suez/Engie) that owns the mine.
Unbeknown to a largely blasé Melbourne population, the health risks are extreme. We might recall the lukewarm warnings from the chief health bureaucrat in the media at the time. The people of the valley recall angrily: ‘We were told that the air is okay for us, just don’t breathe the air, just don’t go outside, don’t let the kids play outside, don’t play sport, don’t do anything, but the air’s okay’.
Local people interviewed in the film tell us a couple of years down the track how they have suffered since: David Briggs, who went in to excavate the burning coal, has developed pulmonary fibrosis; Rob Macintosh, who was working out of a church in Morwell delivering community grants, has scarred lungs and his voice seems permanently damaged; Paige Trotter believes that her baby, delivered at fifteen weeks with severe, inexplicable deformities, was an in utero victim of the toxic materials passing through Paige’s body. Health experts on particulate matter in coal emissions report just how this matter at infinitesimal sizes enters human lungs and bloodstreams, with consequences in relation to lung disease and foetal development, and convincing estimations of mortality given the factors and circumstances in play in this crisis. We are left in no uncertainty as to the consequences to the health of families and workers as experts lay facts about coal at our door.
Depression was another health problem experienced during the fires and after. Certainly the point is made a number of times that the people of the valley felt abandoned, and treated as lesser members of the larger Victorian community. Thus a reflection on the distribution of another kind of power emerges as a key theme in the film. We are shown a young Jeff Kennett signing a momentous contract in the mid-1990s that will lead to full privatisation of the power industries, and the loss of around 8000 jobs, by 1999, with other consequences of neoliberal globalisation coming into full view in the commentaries of impressive members of the Voices of the Valley group.
‘Privatisation takes an essential service and turns it into a tradable commodity’
The heyday of modern electricity generation, the postwar period from the 1950s to the 1970s, was epitomised in the State Electricity Commission (SEC). It was a trusted state institution that contained and coordinated the scientific knowledge and hands-on know-how of a vast and varied workforce, with a broadly social and nation-building brief and a progressive outlook. It supported growth; indeed its job was to respond to demand, and that was growing exponentially, as depicted in promotional footage from the period: new homes, new suburbs, new industries, new consumer goods, new media (TV), even new identities (the modern woman), all demanding electrical power. In the mode of the state in high modernity, this state-run business supplied the infrastructural backbone to the mixed economy of welfare-state capitalism.
One of the many things my father (an electrician) and his generation lamented at the demise of the SEC was the loss of institutional knowledge and memory—the generational solidity of its knowledgeable workforces—and its local presence, and thus accountability. In the cities, as everywhere, the question was: would the capitalist corporations now taking over actually live up to their promises that competition would keep prices down? But the most intensely experienced losses were in the valley itself. From the symbiotic relationship of the SEC and valley communities—figured in plentiful work on the one hand and municipal swimming pools, new libraries and schools on the other—just about every aspect of life was integrated in these virtually SEC towns. Workers were proud of an identity as providing an essential service, for the benefit of the larger economy and society.
In contrast to the images of the exuberant 1960s, we are told that, after the stripping back of the frontline workforce in the 1990s—with long-term unemployment setting in, the relocation of head offices to New York and elsewhere overseas and the evolution of power generation from ‘essential service to tradable commodity’—the company even sold off its sprinkler system to make a quick buck: there was $50,000 in the sprinklers’ brass heads, and so that was the end of a system intended to put mine fires out. Other workers comment on the neoliberal culture of casualisation: of just-in-time casual work schedules and their effects in disciplining workers: don’t ask questions about safety or your name will drop to the bottom of the casuals list.
‘The ground itself was burning’
Against astounding images of the layers of brown coal afire, valley workers remember it as like the ‘pits of hell’—‘incomprehensible’. It was a perfect storm. Steley recounts how everything was aligned for catastrophe: extreme weather conditions and bone-dry country, an existing fire, no water, non-existent safety protocols, a layer of ignitable leaf litter negligently left to accumulate over decayed coal. And when the fire burnt into the coal, it only went deeper.
Today there is growing recognition that the extreme weather events we are increasingly experiencing are related to larger forces in play in global climate change—indeed, that the world as we have known it is set on a course of destruction at the most general level. The valley fires of 2014, and their representation in Our Power, bring together in graphic form a moment in which the forces of nature and their perversion, technology and its systems, social power and its corruption, societal form and cultural meaning collide. It was a perfect storm in this respect as well.
And none of this is lost on the valley residents and representatives who are interviewed in this documentary, and who have accompanied screenings of the film in the valley and outside it in after-screening community discussions. A number of these representatives are acute in their observations—of corporate power, of its challenge to democracy, of valley psychology, and of the need to face climate change and the dangers of coal head on. They and coal communities everywhere sit at the tipping point; in this case the coal community, or at least important sections of it, know that they are the canaries, and they’d like to be around to share in the inevitably coming revolution in power production.
Luke van der Muelen, resident and worker in the valley since teenage-hood, ex-CFMEU and past candidate for the Greens; Ron Ipsen, craggy-faced, pony-tailed biker and third-generation power-plant operator; Wendy Farmer, resident and president of Voices of the Valley; Tracie Lund, manager of the Morwell Neighbourhood House—they’re a pretty amazing mob. They know that the valley has to reconstruct itself, but not at the expense of the planet, and not to fuel absent transnational corporate elites. As Van der Muelen puts it, ‘This is the only planet we’ve got. We’re on this lifeboat together and instead of breaking up the planks to make a fire to keep some people in great warmth and comfort while the boat is sinking, I don’t think this is the way to go’.
Ideas for change
If only the supporters of Adani could see this film, I kept saying to myself; if only they weren’t conned by lying promises of mega jobs and could rather see the damage of coal as pollutant, and understand it as simply no longer necessary in a world looking for and finding a range of solutions in other energy sources and technologies. Bernard Keane in Crikey has done a neat analysis of the collapse on Coalition watch of employment in Queensland’s regions, and how this is fuelling Coalition panic in the lead-up to the federal election as it works overtime to lock Adani in. Madness.
In the Latrobe Valley it is the people themselves who are driving new possibilities, and Our Power devotes its last ten or so minutes to a visit to a local power cooperative and small energy-tech businesses. Earthworker is a people-owned co-op giving locals decent jobs building high-quality solar-powered water heaters, and selling to community organisations, schools and low-income homes as a priority. Trenleck—Solar, Wind, Hydro has been developing solar-panel systems in the valley for years and there’s strong demand. There is a strong pitch by Voices of the Valley, and by local, salt-of-the-earth electricians and tech developers, to make the valley the power-generation centre of Victoria again. The know-how is still there; ‘power’ is in the blood—an industry could be built, one that joins working people to environmental benefit and earth-caring outcomes.
This documentary moves cleverly, modestly, through these various scenes of environmental and social crisis, using historical footage, valley residents’ photos and video footage, and specialist commentaries, but always returning to the voices of valley workers and residents and their movement from anger and devastation to protest and a re-orienting of themselves towards a different future. Our Power director Peter Yacono and his team have worked with valley residents to draw out their stories and provide them with an extended ‘voice’, and in the process documentary-making has itself become a community-building tool and inspiration.
Screening: Arena Magazine, together with Artist Film Workshop, will screen Our Power and host a community discussion with valley representatives as a fundraising event.
6.30pm, Friday 3 May, Arena Project Space, 2 Kerr St, Fitzroy
Admission $10 full/$8 concession. Refreshments available by donation.