While celebrating and commemorating our mining heritage we are very aware of the need for a Just Transition from the declining extractive industries. We have held forums and discussions on this at Mayday events. Below is a summary of the most recent forum.
But from those forums has come a new initiative, the setting up of Te Puawai Co-operative Society Limited, an incubator for co-operatives, launched this Mayday, 2017, by the Cuban ambassador.
Te Puawai will research co-operative possibilities and focus on bringing to life the most promising.
Blackball’s Mayday forum on a sustainable economy for the Coast drew sixty participants and gathered much energy and interest as the day neared.
Setting the Scene
I set the scene by giving a definition of a sustainable economy, which on one level is simple: economic activity which can continue into the foreseeable future with minor adjustments. But that requires a necessary balance with the environment: no systemic increase in extraction of materials, or depositing of polluting materials, or degradation. Members of society also need to be able to meet their human needs. The Coast has often found this problematic and been willing to extract, pollute and degrade in order to do so. This has deeply entered the psyche.
Given the high rainfall and the temperate climate for grass growing, the dairy industry would appear to be sustainable in this region, but there are tensions within the industry: a stressful systemic need to increase productivity, debt loadings, emission issues, a volatile market, the worry that busts follow booms, the vulnerability of migrant labour, and an increasing trend toward investor control.
The extractive industries are by definition unsustainable, but the smaller operation (the boutique mine), can potter along year after year. There has been much talk of the need to add value to the coal rather than burn it: carbon filters and carbon fibre are two obvious products. If we could begin to produce these here, and then add associated manufacturing, we would really be onto something. Interestingly, the proposal for the new Te Kehua mine is suggesting its coal will be used for these purposes.
Manufacturing is possible on the Coast if the product is high quality, if customer and staff relations are good, if the product is able to be marketed on a number of national or international platforms and if there is a heart here. Blackball Salami is an example of a manufacturer meeting all these criteria and there are others. We need many more.
Local retailing has been overwhelmed in Greymouth/Mawhera by the big box franchise. These franchises are assisted by national supplying and branding, but contribute considerably less to the local economy than the local business. But the local retailer can compete with the franchises by being quick on their feet, not having middle management, by having skilled and knowledgeable staff and appealing to local loyalty. Ellery’s and The Garden Shop are examples. Consumer consciousness is required.
Tourism is complex and fragmented with a lot of the money flowing out of the region – rental car hire, hotel chains, bus companies and so on. It is seasonal, often low-waged and is volatile, being dependent on external factors such as exchange rate and economic conditions in other countries. But we have a great resource which is sustainable and the challenge is to keep more of the money here.
Given the belief in the market’s invisible hand, then presumably what we have got is what we should have, yet the market is also open to intervention. We should be aware of where we sit on the global ladder – while Kiwis on the whole don’t want to live here, it is attractive to people from the developing world (who are in fact helping our health system to be fully staffed), and we should be attracting more migrants, even going after refugees. We need more diversity of political process, and the community development process that Grey Council has put into place for the CBD redevelopment has been a breath of fresh air. Finally, the role of the co-operative, already established in the region’s culture, should be explored; co-operatives spreading the demand for entrepreneurial energy and providing a buffer to investment risk.
Sam Huggard, secretary of the NZ Council of Trade Unions, argued that unions have a role in the transition to a sustainable economy. He gave as an example, the role the union played when the clothing/textile industry collapsed. But under the present government’s regime the agency of workers has been reduced through legislative changes and through funding for programmes like Learning Reps being cut. Unions can give workers a voice and help with workforce development, productivity issues, transitions, worker education and so on, but they need to be resourced in order to do this and there has to be employer willingness. At the moment power tends to be concentrated at the executive level. Wider policy settings are also important. The government seems hell bent on signing a Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal which will put jobs at risk and mean that if we pass laws in order to meet our own needs, for example, through a procurement policy, we can be sued in international tribunals. This will impact on local bodies as well. He gave the Hillside Railway Workshop closure as an example of the worst sort of outcome.
Three local union organisers then spoke about the consciousness they were finding ‘at the workface’. Garth Elliott of the EPMU, a former miner said he had been made redundant three times and in each case received a good redundancy payment. At the moment, there was a lot of anger amongst miners at management failures, but that anger tended to produce a persecutor-victim-rescuer mentality. People were faced with debt and just trying to cope; there wasn’t a wider reading of the world. Jocelyn Pratt said that PSA members had a high commitment to their work and to their clients. The health workers were very aware of the hospital rebuild and its consequences and DOC workers are very environmentally aware. The zero hour win has inspired other workers and reinstated the goal of fairness in the workplace. Rachel Boyack, of FIRST Union finds many workers individualised, with the task being to return them to the collective.
The Coal Action Network Perspective
Jeanette Fitzsimmons of the Coal Action Network, who lives in the Coromandel saw similarities between the two regions. The Coromandel economy used to be based on the extractive industries but has made the transition. The one town still reliant on mining, Waihi, is the poorest place in the area. The extractive industries are generally owned by outsiders, whereas a sustainable economy will be locally owned. Climate change is happening and can no longer be denied. There have been four droughts in the Waikato region and 20 jobs lost at the glaciers because of their retreat. Coal is the biggest producer of CO2 and has to stay in the ground. CAN’s policy is that in order for there to be a just transition, existing mines run their course, but no new mines are opened. To counter the argument that our contribution to climate change is minute, she said the tax she pays is also minute given the country’s tax take – should she no longer pay it? The world economy is in transition and coal mining is a sunset industry with stranded assets. The world’s largest energy companies are diversifying, with their coal interest being parcelled up as a protective measure. Solar companies are more promising investments.
She gave examples of former mining communities which have made the transition, and this process had to involve all the stakeholders: government, local body, business, unions and education institutions. The emphasis was on bringing back the young people. One community has established a training centre for ‘green’ building, another a training centre for capturing wave energy. An Appalachian community has become a centre for creative enterprises. It’s also necessary to look at where the money leaks out of a community, e.g., housing, electricity and food, and plugging those leaks by producing locally. Development West Coast must finance the transition. In terms of engaging locals, it’s necessary to talk about the world they want for their grandchildren.
Confusion from the floor
At this point discussion took place and revealed quite fragmented views, the local being confused by the global, and vice versa, a climate change denier surfacing, the usual anti Green sentiments being expressed, almost as an emotional disturbance rather than a reasoned argument. But at least an editorial committee was established, in order to circulate information and articles and to continue to bring in speakers.
After lunch things became focused again with a well-reasoned presentation on the TPP by a Dunedin health professional which emphasised how corporate-dominated courts can tie the hands of governments – Egypt was sued when it raised the minimum wage.
Maria del Carmen Herrera Caseiro, the Cuban ambassador, then gave an account of changes in Cuba. For a moment we entered the hopeful world of a country that rebuffed US domination, that survived ongoing attempts to undermine it, that lost 70% of its exports when the USSR collapsed, that then made the transition to a largely fossil fuel-free economy without sacrificing its social services – instead they took to the bicycle and got out the bullocks, and which is now, after a prolonged public consultation, introducing a greater level of co-operatives and small business to its economy. It is also the only country in the world to have received a tick when human development and carbon footprint checklists were placed side by side.
Joseph Thomas, CEO of Development West Coast, outlined the history of the organisation and explained that its charter emphasises the creation of sustainable employment opportunities. However, it has to be careful not to create liabilities for communities. It has given its annual, small-grant community funding to West Coast Community Trust to administer and focuses its efforts on commercial loans, on promoting leadership and governance through linking businesses to mentors, through facilitating a Mayors and Chairs forum and a CEO forum. He felt that we have to change some of our thinking and change some of our approaches but wasn’t more specific than that, ending with the obvious fact that we are facing difficult times.
Andrew Robb, chairperson of the West Coast Regional Council talked of their current writing of a new Regional Policy Statement which is wishing to combine a healthy environment, with healthy communities and healthy businesses. The Council had in the past, just taken care of the environment, but now they want to make it easier for business to obtain resource consent. Once they have produced this umbrella statement, other planning documents will need to comply. People at the meeting were urged to make submissions.
Mayor Kokshoorn outlined the economic history of the Coast and the decline of the extractive industries. The Coast’s population has also fallen through the restructuring of government departments, and while there are some positive signs, provincial NZ is losing out to Auckland. He felt that immigrants should come to the provinces rather than all go to Auckland. We need to keep our assets and he has great hope in Ultra Fast Broadband. There are some hopeful signs like the West Fleet factory and the Kaiata Industrial Park Development going ahead.
Westport Mayor, Gary Howard, after acknowledging the work of CAN, ‘which makes us think’, then talked of Westport’s woes. The Holcim closure and the Solid Energy restructuring process means the population is dropping and the last two years have been years of great anxiety. 16% of Westport’s houses are up for sale, partners are having to work elsewhere and this creates stress, health issues and marriage failures. Westport is beginning to plan however. They are seeking out the Canterbury retirees market, trying to get them over to Westport, which will often unlock their wealth. They can sell a city home worth $600,000 and buy the equivalent on the Coast for $300,000. We need to beautify our towns by enhancing areas like our river banks and through signage programmes. It’s no use buying-in industry, you have to use local people and local skills. Ultra Fast Broadband is absolutely essential, so that the best architect in NZ can work from the Coast. It’s also important for health, education and civil defence. Tourism is obviously important, but we also have to take other opportunities. For example it was vital to keep an air service, for expertise often has to be flown in. There are some more way-out ideas, such as turning Holcim into an energy recovery plant, for landfills will be phased out by 2030. But as well, he felt that we need to hang on to what mining we can, in order to smooth the transition.
A long journey ahead
The day was then, a long journey, with ample ideas from afar, and some locally. There was a threat of getting bogged down when the floor was opened up, for there is, as yet, no shared consciousness, although the climate deniers were pretty marginal. Gary Howard is certainly having to think outside the square and perhaps desperation is needed for things to really shift. But the interest in this gathering augers well. It is a long haul of research, of making information available, of not being content with the old clichés, and of introducing new processes. Only then can we make the necessary transition.