The Latrobe Valley is home to three brown coal mines and four power stations which have provided Victoria with over 80 per cent of its power, every day, for over 90 years.
The documentary Our Power traces the footsteps of the Latrobe Valley’s history, starting from the coal community’s birth in the 1920s to the establishment of the State Electricity Commission Victoria (SECV), while focussing on the effects of the privatisation in the 1990s, which severely demoralised the community’s pride in electricity production. Since 2014, the Latrobe Valley community has been sparked into action and are taking control of their health, community and future.
Green Agenda spoke with film director Peter Yacono about Our Power, the Hazelwood Mine Fire, and opportunities for a just energy transition for Australia.
Thank you for taking the time to be interviewed, and thank you for making the movie Our Power. I really enjoyed it. The movie starts with the fire at the Hazelwood Coal Mine in 2014. Maybe you can just start off by giving our readers a bit of the context behind the story and sort of how the movie progresses throughout.
The movie does start with the 2014 fire. This is a fire that burned in the Latrobe Valley for 45 days back in 2014. It burnt uncontrollably for 45 days. Through this fire we are able to examine the 90-year history of the Latrobe Valley. The Latrobe Valley started in the 1920s, straight after the World War I, with Sir John Monash, and they started the Valley almost as a cooperative, a way to generate power, take all the pollution out of the city, and put it in one single area. That grew into the glory days in the ’50s and the ’60s of Yallourn and the SEC. At one stage, the SEC employed up to 10,000 people across Victoria. In the mid-’90s they were privatised, and over 75% of the workforce went over a year or two. So 10,000 jobs down to 2,500 jobs between, I think it was ’94 and ’96, with Jeff Kennett signing that agreement. That economic depression still results in the Latrobe Valley.
So we discuss that whole 90-year history, about where the Latrobe Valley has come from, what they’ve gone through, in terms of the glory days, the restructuring, the privatisation, and then ultimately how that’s resulted in the fire, because there was a lot of neglect, unfortunately, in that Hazelwood Mine that resulted in that fire. We discuss that. We talk about that, and we go into the health effects of that, and we talk to five doctors in regards to all that. And most importantly, where is Latrobe Valley going into the future? This fire was really kind of a line in the sand for the Latrobe Valley. They’re really starting to stand up now and take control of their own future. They have this vision of wanting something better than just coal. The council there seems to be adamant that they’re into coal, but there’s all these renewables that are popping up and flourishing in the Latrobe Valley, and the film goes to places like, we talk to Gippsland Solar, who’s the fastest-growing company in the area. And we look at a different business model, like the Earth Worker Cooperative in Morwell, making solar hot water tanks with its cooperative business model. So, it’s all happening in the Latrobe Valley.
This fire was really kind of a line in the sand for the Latrobe Valley. They’re really starting to stand up now and take control of their own future. They have this vision of wanting something better than just coal.
Why did you think this was an important story to tell? Can you tell us a little bit about your motivations behind making the movie and how the movie sort of came to be?
I’ve always been engaged with really green topics within the inner Melbourne metro scene. We went along to a talk hosted by 350. Charlie Wood was organising it all. There was a gentleman by the name of Bill Massie, who was talking about economics and decentralising economics and political power and all that kind of stuff, completely stuff that I completely agreed with and wanted to engage with. At this session we met some members from Voices of the Valley. This was in 2015, very early 2015, when they were about nine months after the fire, and they still didn’t feel like they had got the recognition from Melbourne audiences. The fire was covered very poorly in Melbourne media.
So we met these people, and we just thought it was an incredible story. Instantly, I started to geek out about electricity, where it comes from, the environment, what brown coal is, how much brown coal we use in the State of Victoria. I guess for me, the vision for the film was to generate this conversation around generating electricity here in Victoria from brown coal. Over a 24-hour rolling period, 70 to 80% of Victoria’s power, unfortunately, still comes from brown coal. There are much better ways of doing it. It offers so many advantages to the community, in terms of doing that, in terms of decentralising the power, offering so much more opportunities in the renewable sector, so much opportunity for growth and jobs and all that kind of stuff. So we just lucked over this story and fell into it. We thought we could go down there over one weekend and make a short video to help out the Latrobe Valley, or at least Voices of the Valley at the time. And then we got down there and we realised the rich history of the area and realised that it’s going to be something longer than a short piece. The whole project grew organically. I know that’s a really cliched way of saying it. We decided to throw a crowdfunding campaign behind it. We started to generate material that we could show people to say, “Hey, we’ve got these kind of shots. We’ve got this kind of story. Would you put your money behind it, because it discusses these really important things that I think your community should really talk about?” The big four for me is political, social, economic, and then environmental being the biggest one. The film really goes in deep in terms of those four big issues.
I’m wondering, given you’re from Melbourne, how were you received coming into the Latrobe Valley as a Melbournite to try to make this film? What was the kind of reception you got?
Especially four or five years ago when we first started this, they were very divided. We had actually made a cut of the film prior to the Hazelwood closure announcement, and prior to that, there was absolutely no chance that we could get a worker to talk on record, on camera and be part of the story. You know, people were very critical of that, why don’t you have industry? Why don’t you have workers in involved in this? They simply won’t. They’re on six-figure salaries, and they get slapped over the face if they do any sort of media. So it was very divided, especially three or four years ago.
When the Hazelwood announcement came out, and the workers realised how little treatment they had, they had three months’ notice and they had no jobs, they started to kind of venture out and talk more. But it’s still a very divided area. There’s a still a culture within the Latrobe Valley that’s like, “Coal, coal, coal. We have 300 years of it. Let’s use all the resources we can.” We’re seeing stories this week just about coal into hydrogen and all that kind of stuff. All these stories that are fed to the Latrobe Valley unfortunately give them more and more hope that coal is the answer. So us coming in as perceived green Melbournians, we were up against it. There were definitely some groups that understood what we were trying to do. There was definitely some groups that appreciated that we were outsiders trying to understand their story and help them shine some light on the area.
This was represented in the way that we filmed the whole production. We gave every one of our interviewees complete control over the material that we filmed and edited. They had to see the product before any sort of interview could go through the public domain. So it was a trust exercise with the Latrobe Valley. Some people were completely trusting. Some people were completely not trusting and thought we were from a different planet. But eventually, I guess once they saw previews of the film, and they started getting engaged in what we were trying to do, end of the day, I guess everyone in Latrobe Valley wants jobs. They want the best for their family. They want the best opportunities for generations to come. I guess the film in that sense is trying to get everyone on the same page. We don’t have a silver bullet for Latrobe Valley, and we hope this film is only just one part of the discussion.
I think that’s one of the interesting parts about the film, is that you said that for you, the environmental issues are sort of the number one in your concern, but the film doesn’t just go into those. It goes into the issues of privatisation, impact on workers, etc. Let’s start off with privatisation. What was the impact of privatisation for people in Latrobe Valley? And how does that impact continue on?
The way I see it is, it’s all about power structures. I guess when these private companies came in, the culture shifted from providing an essential service to Victoria to maximising profits for shareholders, for private companies. So that in itself changed the culture of the workers. It became a skeleton staff, so you had all these really important people doing really kind of jobs, down to the very bottom level, and then all of a sudden, you had all these guys kind of absorbing all of that and taking on all that responsibility.
The way I see it is, it’s all about power structures. I guess when these private companies came in, the culture shifted from providing an essential service to Victoria to maximising profits for shareholders, for private companies.
As soon as these organisations came in, they established that they want to scale back in terms of the workforce. They established that with 75% of the workforce going within two years. There’s a story in our film about how they dealt with employees that didn’t want to take up those extra responsibilities. They weren’t in a position where they could fire them, so it was mental torture for them, basically.
The culture went from a culture that everyone contributes, whoever has a great idea, and let’s make the SEC grow every day with potential. We all have great ideas. Let’s support each other. To this mentality of making money is the bottom line, and anything that goes against that, we’re violently against. If you speak up against that, if you speak up against problems, if you speak up against ill maintenance and all that kind of stuff, you’re simply outcast as a worker. You’re not called up. You’re not given the job the next day. There are more desperate people out there that want the work. So this privatisation has created this desperate need of work and these guys that are willing to work for anything, and the conditions are getting notoriously worse and worse. We have an excavation worker who worked on the fire. He was digging up hot spots from the fire. He did it for about 12 weeks. The conditions he was working under were horrific, and if he had talked up against that, he just would have been booted. He just would have been replaced by someone else.
Privatisation has created this desperate need of work and these guys that are willing to work for anything, and the conditions are getting notoriously worse and worse.
The conditions that we hear about, about these CFA guys going into the mine, and these construction workers going into the mine to help put out the fire, the conditions that the mine was left in was just horrendous. There was coal that hadn’t been used for 20 or 30 years completely exposed, with trees growing over the top of it. Obviously, the maintenance has slipped in all of this, and people that might have been concerned internally at these places I don’t think were given opportunity to speak out. And if they did, they were often slapped down for speaking out. It creates this just really negative toxic atmosphere.
Many people will argue that how the Hazelwood Mine looked back in the SEC days versus how it looked just before that fire broke out, it’s like black and white. There’s no comparison, and it’s really sad how the state of that mine was left, and its real estate, the culture that’s in that place. We’ve heard the worst stories about the boilers inside Hazelwood. These boilers work under such tremendous pressure and steam and all that kind of stuff, and how there’s only millimetres of padding and protection for some of these workers, and how disaster is moments away from happening.
These private companies who are owned by boards, they’re international boards, and there’s really no concern for local workers. There’s really no concern for local community. It’s about maximising that bottom dollar, that profit. Push as much coal out as possible, make as much power as possible, and minimise the cost. That has been the culture, and if you speak out about that, well, you’re going to be shut down.
These private companies who are owned by boards, they’re international boards, and there’s really no concern for local workers. There’s really no concern for local community.
Can we just go on to the Hazelwood Power Plant as well, which shut down in 2017? And maybe just building on that, you’re talking a lot about the workers, in terms of privatisation, but what impact did that coal power plant closing down have on the community in general? You said that you sort of changed the film after it closed down. What impact did that have?
Well, it meant almost a thousand jobs. In terms of how many people are employed in the coal industry in the Latrobe Valley, I think it was between 3,000 and 4,000 before Hazelwood. For a thousand of those jobs to go, it’s a pretty big impact. There was talk of them taking on 200 contracted jobs to help with rehabilitation for the mine. They were only two-year contracts, and we don’t think those workers are going to have those contracts renewed. They will probably just go to cheaper vendors or whatever.
And the roll-on effect. First of all, even prior to the closure, the anxiety around closure was huge. For years prior, workers are casually telling their families and their community, “Oh no, we’ve been told 2025 or 2050, that’s when we’re going to …” Or whatever the date was. And then to turn around and be told how you’ve got three months to find yourself a new job and get out of here, that was a huge thing. In terms of the roll-on effect, you’re talking about a thousand jobs, probably with an average of between $150-200,000 salary per job. I’m not an economic person, but I can only assume that wage would heavily go into the other businesses within the Latrobe Valley. Morwell unfortunately already has an unemployment double the state average. The flow-on effects is bad. If I was being critical of the film, I would have loved more time to go into local businesses and to discuss that face to face.
That leads on to the next question I was going to ask. You’ve said there’s been a few major events that have happened in the Latrobe Valley in the last couple of decades. Privatisation, then the fire in 2014, the shutting down of the Hazelwood Power Plant. You said in particular that the fire was kind of a line in the sand for this community in many ways. Can you maybe describe a little bit more what you meant by that? How have these events had impacts on the community and their perception of their role as being the sort of provider of power for Victoria?
Yeah. Like I said, rolling onto almost the previous question, it’s all about power structures, I guess. There’s two great quotes in the film that I can think of. One of them’s Ron Ipsen. You know Ron, I think, pretty well, who talks about them being … this was their martyrdom. This is a place that the State of Victoria could put all their pollution, in terms of generating electricity, and put it in the Latrobe Valley. They were cool with that. There was a health deficit associated with that, but they were also paid very well to deal with that. They would just do what the company said, and the companies were heavily involved with the community, so you knew the companies wouldn’t do anything wrong by the community.
I guess when the privatisation happened, their colours started to change. There’s a great quote from Wendy Farmer in the film, saying they were a sleepy coal community that were just told what to do at every turn, and exactly right, the fire was a line in the sand. They want to take control of their own destiny. This disaster was so obscenely bad, while at the same time, they were being told that the air was okay to breathe. They just couldn’t believe up was up anymore. They had to do something about it. They had to take the power back, and that’s exactly what the film’s about.
The fire was a line in the sand. They want to take control of their own destiny.
In terms of the Hazelwood Coal Power Plant, there was a big campaign for environmentalist and climate activists in the lead-up for it to shut down as well, people saying it’s the dirtiest power plant in the country. And then also you mentioned there was concern about the lack of interest around the fire, in Melbourne in particular. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how the community responds more generally to the environmental movement?
I think any community will be reserved of any other external person coming in and trying to tell their story. Us, as Melbournians coming in, telling the Latrobe Valley story, we were up against it from the very start, let alone given our political ideas … in Melbourne, we’re pretty green. The Latrobe Valley would probably argue that us in Melbourne are disconnected. You see all those memes on the internet where you have this lovely solar car, but at the end of the solar car, it’s powered by the coal power plant. These are how these people think as well. I don’t think either there or here, I kind of think in the middle, I think about the State of Victoria, about how we can all kind of solve those problems as one big community. Like I said, I’ve said this a couple of times, that’s what the film’s motivation’s about.
They’ve had experiences with green groups coming down and locking onto the front of Hazelwood. Listen, I’m quoting Wendy Farmer here, Voices of the Valley. She’s an extremely green person who has a husband who used to work at the Hazelwood Mine. They would argue that that sort of behaviour or that sort of political action is not beneficial. That’s how they see it, at least. I don’t agree with it or disagree with it. I just see that as wanting to have a conversation about coal and about our environment. The way I know how is to put this film together, because we’ve deliberately tried to go to the horse’s mouth at every segment. We’ve gone to the renewable guys. We’ve gone to the industry guys. We’ve gone to the health guys. We’ve gone to the community people that want change. We’ve gone to the industry, both old and new. So let’s get around this round table and have this matured respectful conversation, because at the end of the day, we all want a better planet. We all want a better community for our children. I sit here in constant anxiety about the world heating up and the carbon in our atmosphere. I think once upon a time, I probably would have gone down and locked on and stuff like that, and that’s my way of kind of trying to help out, but I just had the luxury of being able to meet some of these people. And I spent a lot of time trying to understand their perspective and where they were coming at, and what kind of things they’ve gone through, to kind of be what they are now in the Latrobe Valley.
They really do need our help, unfortunately. There’s a great quote by Tracie Lund at the end of the film, saying, “We need Melbournians, we need Victorians to come down to the Latrobe Valley, and together we can all step forward together.” You know, I really do believe that. It shouldn’t be an us and them kind of situation. We’re in this together.
You talked at the start of the interview about this movie, about the future, and the film does deal with that. It talks about some of the renewable energies, stuff that’s happening in the Latrobe Valley, new technologies that are coming in, new industries that are opening up. Can you talk a little bit about what members of the community said to you about what they want to see happen, in terms of if you have a line in the sand that’s happened with coal, the industry seems to be dying, at least to an extent – what do they want to see happen in the future? What are some of the solutions that they’re coming up with?
They have an intrinsic knowledge of the electricity system. It doesn’t matter how you generate power. In terms of how you store power, how you transport power, how power comes into both the industrial and the domestic circuits and all that kind of stuff, Latrobe Valley are gold in terms of that. So we really need to use that resource.
They want opportunities, as simple as that. The only opportunity they’d been given previously is coal or cutting down trees for the APM. They want to have industries down there that are alternatives to those two industries. Specifically, if they could be around electricity, if they could be around renewables, that would be fantastic. Earthworker is an organisation that’s just got up on their own steam, and they’re making solar hot water tanks in the middle of Morwell. Gippsland Solar has been fortunate enough, they’ve had great business sense to make a business. They started off with three employees, and I think they have now 50 or something like that.
They want opportunities. You see several schemes that have been kind of rolled out in the Valley. I think one of them was a solar scheme by the state government, in terms of low income houses, putting solar panels up in houses and stuff like that. That’s a good start. Ideally, if there were community-owned battery banks in the Latrobe Valley, that would be a great start. There are so many problems to deal with, and we just need to look at the skills and the experiences in the Valley and see what might work for them. And do understand that they have worked their butts off for 90 years, and specifically worked their butts off the last 30 years through privatisation, to get us all into this amazing state where Melbourne is doing so fantastically well.
We all want to step forward, and we’re all having these national conversations about energy and the grid and environmentalism. Us in Victoria, we need to look at the Latrobe Valley and reconnect with them. The tag line for our film is “Reconnecting our communities”. It’s as simple as that, reconnecting those Melbourne communities with the Latrobe Valley and vice versa. The Latrobe Valley, I can tell you, feel very kind of like isolated to Melbourne. It would be great for them to come down and them to feel very welcome when they come to Melbourne, be engaged with this renewable conversation that we’re having so much fun having in Melbourne.
We all want to step forward, and we’re all having these national conversations about energy and the grid and environmentalism.
It’s great to dream. You know what I mean? It’s great to dream about the future and what is possible, and I’m quoting Ron Ipsen here, they don’t want to move away from coal, they want to move towards something. So we need to sort something out for the Valley.
You started with the fire in the start of the movie, which is obviously a horrible event for the members of that community. The film ended with some notes about how the community has won a number of campaigns in relation to that fire. Can you just touch on that briefly? But then, I guess, say, do you come out of making the film hopeful about the future? And what does that look like to you?
We’re very careful not to make the film too kind of wishy-washy hopeful at the end, because the reality is, they’re kind of living that day to day in the Valley. Our biggest hurdle, and the biggest time I was anxious when I showed this film, is when we did the screenings in the Latrobe Valley. We did three free screenings in June of 2018. This was facilitated by Environment Victoria, who provided us with auspice. We put on these three screenings, and we were so nervous that Latrobe Valley were going to come in and attack us and go, “No, that’s not our story,” and all that kind of stuff.
So the ending of the film kind of had to be, I guess it’s a little bit melancholy, in the sense of there’s room for hope, but the reality of the situation is, it’s a little bit dire. Ron, at the end, is still smelling the bleakness of the situation. Those wins, I think, were important to put up. Politically, the seat of Morwell has flipped between a Liberal, a Labour, and a National seat, I think for like 20 or 30 years. It’s gone around in circles, and the community really hasn’t seen any benefits from that. Wendy calls it politicians play political football with their community. You would have seen her hand a football to Tony Abbott last time Tony Abbott came down, I think last year, to announce the hydrogen project or whatever he’s doing down there.
Putting up an independent candidate, having some sort of sense of, hey, when this candidate goes to Canberra, they’re actually representing our Latrobe Valley values and what we want here, rather than a political party or toeing the party line, as they say in the film. That’s really important. Vindication is also so important, vindication and justice, and that’s all kind of all the points we talk about. So we talk about the health zone that’s being set up in the Latrobe Valley. That’s the first time in Australia that’s ever happened, so that’s fantastic. There’s also the economic zone, so they get tax cuts from businesses that want to set up in Latrobe Valley. There’s financially a lot more incentive to set up in the Valley than other shires.
And of course, the biggest vindication and justice is that they’re going to court, the Hazelwood Mine operators, and I don’t know if you’ve been following that, but it’s been a clusterfuck, basically. The court started in the Latrobe Valley, and then they moved to move the courts out of the Latrobe Valley, because they were worried about how the local community would influence the decision of the outcome. Now that the court is in Melbourne, they’re pushing for the public records to be nullified of the court, so there would be no records of the case. The case could still go ahead, but there would be no records.
This is what we’re up against. We’re up against these big multinational coal companies with exorbitant amounts of money, and this community definitely went through an unjust event, and they are searching for justice in this whole thing. They’re searching that through the court case. We’re hoping that if the EPA and WorkSafe, which are the two organisations that are taking the operator to court, are successful at any of those charges, that will open up the door in terms of a class action. And you talked to those examples that we have in the film, and even the examples that we couldn’t include in the story, about people losing husbands and wives and children and daughters, and miscarriages and stuff like that. It’s horrific. Those wins for the community at the end are very, very important. They need to hang their hat on something. They need to hang their hat on some wins, because it’s been terrible for years for them. Here in Melbourne, at least I want to do my best as a storyteller to support that, to get that story told to Melbourne audiences.
When we engage with Melbourne audiences, sometimes they’ve heard of the disaster. If they’ve heard of the disaster, they don’t really understand the scale of it. And then people that haven’t even heard of the fire are just blown away. We couldn’t believe this story would happen in Australia, let alone Victoria. We think it’s a really important story. I’m trying to remove myself and our egos from the whole thing. I just think it’s such an important story for all conscious community members to be involved with, especially if they want to engage with topics of energy and environmentalism and political, social problems and how we can best step forward as one big community, one big society.
That’s great. Thanks a lot, Peter.