How we're ‘repowering’ and decarbonising North Queensland


The last decade is splattered with tales of valiant defeat for climate campaigns. Queensland’s renewable revolution will not be one of them. This is a story about how socialists can win big, and win a brighter future.

As we speak workers are preparing a massive stretch of land west of Warwick to become the first publicly owned wind farm in Australia. Cutting through the tide of neoliberal orthodoxy, the people of Queensland are building a utility that will power 70,000 homes. And this is just the beginning.  

The explicit goal of energy policy for two decades has been to shove the state out of the power game, enabling Origin, AGL and other private companies to reap oligopolistic profit out of an industry that had always been a public service (and, not to mention, a bastion of militant unionism).  

The last decade is splattered with tales of valiant defeat for climate campaigns. Queensland’s renewable revolution will not be one of them. This is a story about how socialists can win big, and win a brighter future.  

In Queensland a coalition of socialists, Labor Party activists, and unionists got together, to fight against that status quo. We designed a clear demand, organised majorities within the ALP, and won not only that wind farm, but $750 million dollars to build more renewables, and an explicit commitment to keep public ownership as we transition to renewables. 

In 2016, as Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN) convener I, and other young socialists in the ALP, wrote a motion for state conference to amend the platform to require the government to plan for a low carbon economy. I’d been asked to be a proxy for an ALP Conference delegate who had gone to teach in Burma, and I knew the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) a bit from the ALP Left. So I asked an organiser of the ETU, Stuey, to second our motion.  

After a little bit of tweaking to make everyone comfortable, the platform was changed to adopt the motion, unanimously. I was a bit surprised - there was no right wing groundswell against the idea the state should provide for workers, and plan for the economy. And there were unions, especially the ETU, open to bigger arguments. We started thinking - what can we do with this alliance of branch members and progressive unions? 

We got together and did some power analysis - in the ALP, there’s unions, branches, and parliamentarians, who each have some specific role and authority. We knew that we needed policy that would meet unions’ industrial needs, as well as providing serious action to address the climate crisis to win over branch members. And it needed to be popular, to get the government elected. So we needed the right demand. That demand was to build $2 billion worth of public renewables in North Queensland. This would help decarbonise the economy, create a class of workers in a conservative area who benefited materially from good jobs in renewables, and the profits of that energy would go to fund schools and hospitals. 

But, it was going to cost a lot. We had to get ready for the 2018 conference if we were going to win. 

We started by getting our motion, to Repower North Queensland, through our ten most sympathetic branches to get it on the agenda. We spoke to the ETU, who committed right away. We built up a network of activists throughout the party who got the motion through more and more branches.  

And we started running up against obstacles. Good MPs, good ministers who were fellow travelers and supported the same kind of politics as us, started saying that it was not going to get through. We were told “the Premier doesn’t want it, the Department says we can’t do it, it’s just too much - think about the credit rating!”  

We stuck by it - as the weeks went by, we kept organising, we visited more and more branches, and more and more branches passed our motion. The other energy unions committed. At one meeting of a right wing branch in Brisbane’s north, a LEAN activist won the motion by one vote, against the protests of a Cabinet Minister.  

Other unions came on board as well - Left and ‘Old Guard’ faction aligned unions committed, and LEAN activists kept branches passing our motion. We stood by our claim, and we went into conference with more than 60% of the conference delegates locked in behind us. 

On the Saturday morning of Conference, in the coffee shop of the Townsville casino, we sat down with the Energy Minister. They would create a new renewable energy company, government owned. It would deliver 1 gigawatt by 2025. They couldn’t commit to an amount yet - they wanted to save it for an election commitment. We accepted that deal, and the Premier announced it live on TV. 

In the 2017 election, Queensland Labor ran on creating CleanCo, a new generator. With the relationships and solidarity we created through acting together, we kept them to those promises. A few years later, a coalition of environment groups and unions won a further $500 million for CleanCo.  

Even during the culture war over coal, this commitment to public ownership of renewables has become stronger. And by 2025, there will be wind farms, batteries, and solar farms across Queensland, run by union members, and owned by the people. By organising together, aligning progressive and industrial goals, and campaigning for bold policy, socialists won public renewables in Queensland. And this model is not limited to climate action - if you are committed, you can mold an issue so it appeals to your key constituencies. 

Some folks like to say you can’t change something from the inside. I reckon to swallow that is to simply accept that things just can’t change. The history of socialist achievement is a history of working class coalition building. By joining forces, in strength and solidarity, we meaningfully and (hopefully) lastingly changed the direction of a Labor government. The alternative, to my mind, is a type of aimless alternative electoralism, where the next election is always more important than the last as nothing is achieved in the meantime. I’m not patient enough to wait on an 18 year plan to transform politics. And the climate simply doesn’t have the time to wait either.  

Unite, fight and win! 

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