There are coal smudges all over the Government’s response to the Switkowski report.

Everyone remembers the successful way the Government played wedge politics with the members of the forestry division of the CFMEU at the 2004 poll. What will happen next year with the CFMEU and coal miners?

Unlike the newer mineral developments that run on a fly-in, fly-out basis, much of Australia’s coal industry is developed. Centres of population have grown up around it. And like other older, established industries, it’s unionised.

Miners, unions and politics have long been inextricably linked. Miners have been seen as providing the muscle of the labour movement. The CFMEU is a very powerful union. And it wants to stay this way.

Last week it released a climate change discussion paper. It has a concise summary: “The world needs Australia’s coal. But emissions from its use are contributing to climate change. They must be substantially reduced.”

Good intentions come cheap. Clean energy doesn’t.

The CFMEU has some interesting ideas. It is buying up significant parcels of shares in the coal industry. “We need to solve the climate change problem and the coal companies have got a big role to play,” the president of the mining division Tony Maher told the ABC last week. “They make a fortune out of it and they’ve got to position themselves, or be positioned by others into part of the solution instead of the problem.”

“I’m honest with our members,” Maher said. “I say look, if we don’t solve this climate change thing we don’t have any job security so we’ve got to fight really hard to get it solved.”

The union’s discussion paper says: “The CFMEU Mining and Energy Division has a responsibility to protect and advance the interests of its members, most of whom work in the coal mining industry. Indirectly we have a responsibility to the quarter of a million Australians, mostly in regional areas, who rely on the coal industry for a large proportion of their livelihood.”

That’s a lot of people. It’s a lot of jobs and a lot of votes. And there are already fears that by calling for deep cuts in emissions, the CFMEU is selling out its core constituency.

Loss of the employment security Maher talks about could be one of the costs of cleaner energy.

That’s a problem for the grassroots of the labour movement long before it becomes a problem for the ALP.

Peter Fray

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