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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Paul Karp Chief political correspondent

Australian budget expected to include national energy authority, unions say

Eraring Power Station on the shores in New South Wales that is slated for closure in 2025.
Eraring power station in New South Wales that is slated for closure in 2025. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has promised “further measures” on energy transition in the May budget, which influential union leaders have confirmed they expect will include an authority to help redeploy workers.

A national energy transition authority has been a central demand of unions leading into the budget, which the Electrical Trades Union acting secretary, Michael Wright, said he “anticipates and expects is something the government needs to act on” ahead of looming coal-fired power station closures.

Guardian Australia understands that consideration of inclusion of the Neta in the Labor national platform was deferred at a policy forum on Friday, after a staffer of the energy minister, Chris Bowen, told the meeting a similar measure was coming in the budget.

Tony Maher, president of the mining and energy union, said the idea had “widespread support” from those who want to decarbonise the grid, and unions and businesses recognised that “we have a tough period to get through”.

The closure of the Liddell power station “wasn’t calamitous”, Maher said, because a deal with AGL’s then chief executive, Andy Vesey, ensured there were no forced redundancies, with workers redeployed to Bayswater.

“When the Eraring power station closes [in 2025], there is no sister plant. The clock is ticking when it comes to putting together a plan.

“The government is on the hook for the closure, so a smart government would put something in place for the needs of the workforce and the host communities.”

Asked about economic restructuring at the unions’ May Day rally, Albanese said that “you’ll see some further measures in our budget, which is only eight sleeps away”.

“We’ve been working with the union movement as well as with employers and industry to make sure that as the transition occurs, we seize the opportunities that are there,” he told reporters in Brisbane.

Albanese said Queensland could be a “great beneficiary” of decarbonisation, and praised the Palaszczuk government’s investment in rail manufacturing in Maryborough, battery manufacturing, and hydroelectric power as “visionary proposals”.

“I’ve attended Gladstone, as well as where we announced our changes in legislation with Chris Bowen for the safeguard mechanism.

“What that’s about as well is giving industry that certainty to invest.”

“If we seize this, this will create more jobs which are secure, with good wages going forward, and [we will] see growth, particularly in the regions.”

Wright told Guardian Australia he “absolutely welcomed” the prime minister’s comments, which appear to confirm unions’ expectations of a transition authority.

“I can’t stress enough the urgency of the challenge – this should’ve been set in motion a decade ago,” he said.

“With Eraring to close in 2025, where will the workers go? They have 12 months to stand this up. It needs to happen at breakneck speed.”

In April the interim report of the government’s poverty expert panel, the economic inclusion advisory committee, called for the Neta “to manage an equitable and inclusive energy transition” and support the communities most affected by decarbonisation.

Work is currently under way within the department of the prime minister and cabinet’s net zero economy taskforce to determine “priority regions” including those “which are more heavily reliant on emissions intensive industries and will be more significantly impacted by decarbonisation efforts”.

The taskforce is due to operate until mid-2023, but will probably continue with an expanded remit to operate as a one-stop shop for investors seeking a role in decarbonisation and efforts to reskill and redeploy workers.

Ultimately, unions want the functions broken out of the public service to an authority enshrined in legislation, to ward against the ability for a future government to scrap it.

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