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In the lead-up to the Victorian election, a group of Morwell residents are hoping to model Cathy McGowan’s successful campaign in Indi and turn around the fortunes of the town
August 23, 2022
By Gay Alcorn, The Guardian
Mon 18 Aug 2014
For 45 days, the town of Morwell in eastern Victoria was blanketed with smoke and ash and fear, as the state’s worst coalmine fire burned out of control just a couple of hundred metres away.
Now, residents gather on chilly evenings to talk about politics: about the town’s 14,000 people feeling abandoned by the state government and its agencies until weeks after the fire started; about the decades of neglect of one of the state’s poorest and sickest regions; about the failure of major political parties to invest in industries apart from mining and power generation; and about standing an independent candidate in November’s state election.
A new group, Latrobe Valley 1st, wants to pull off “an Indi”, a reference to the spectacular federal election victory of independent Cathy McGowan in the supposedly safe Liberal seat held by Sophie Mirabella.
The key to that upset was a careful process beginning with “kitchen table” conversations about what people wanted from politics, what it wasn’t delivering, and what they could do about it. It was a triumph of optimism, and a wake-up call to major parties taking safe seats for granted. Its impact is rippling across communities throughout the country, including Morwell in the Latrobe valley.
Morwell has adopted the Indi model. There have been nine “kitchen table” conversations so far – including one with the town’s Sudanese refugees – using starter questions modelled on Indi’s. Like Indi, there will be a report to be given to all candidates, and it is almost certain an independent candidate will run on the community’s platform. They have taken advice from the Voices4Indi group, and they know it will not be easy.
The state seat of Morwell takes in the nearby towns of Traralgon and Churchill and is held by the National party’s Russell Northe, a popular local Australian rules football champion, by 13.3%. Northe acknowledges mistakes were made during the fire. “Some people will criticise me within the context of that but at the end of the day I can sleep well knowing I did my absolute best at a very difficult time,” he says.
An opinion poll taken at the time picked up the political backlash – 40% of people in the region said they were less likely to vote for the Coalition because of the handling of the fire.
At 42, Tracie Lund has never been a member of a political party or involved in politics in any way. “Can’t you tell?” she laughs. Lund is a community development worker, married with three children, who helped set up Latrobe Valley 1st earlier this month.
“I did watch the seat of Indi last year and I was really inspired by the way they spoke to the community,” says Lund. “They put it in writing and they made it a real thing. If it can be done there, I thought it could be done here.”
Lund is not against mining; it’s part of the culture and economy of the valley, dotted with mines and power stations. The mine feeds the Hazelwood power station, which alone provides a quarter of Victoria’s baseload electricity – and a fair whack of its greenhouse gas emissions. There are hundreds of years of brown coal underground and the government is determined to exploit it.
“We understand that there’s a mine in the community and that we live next to it,” says Lund. “But until the mine fire, we did not understand the risks and we did not understand that precautions weren’t being taken for our safety. It’s about the safety of the mine.”
What emerged at a judicial inquiry into the fire, due to report at the end of the month, was that the Hazelwood open cut coalmine is not safe, and the response to the fire had big shortcomings. For reasons nobody can now remember, when the giant Hazelwood mine began in the late 1950s, there was no buffer zone placed between it and Morwell. In the south of the town, there are residential homes and even an early learning centre that overlook the mine.
The fire that ignited in a disused area on 9 February, a brutally hot day, burned for six weeks. Morwell was covered with smoke and ash. Eyes stung, respiratory complaints soared, the local court closed, schools bussed out children during the day. Carpets, couches, walls and curtains were covered in black dust.
More seriously, as the days wore on, there were “very high levels of PM2.5 (tiny particles that are highly hazardous to health if breathed in) and dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide,” the inquiry heard. But it wasn’t until 28 February that the state’s chief health officer, Rosemary Lester, advised the pregnant, the old, the young and those with heart and lung conditions to leave.
That advice, according to the inquiry’s counsel assisting, Melinda Richards SC, should have been issued much earlier and was “poorly explained and perceived as arbitrary and divisive”. The commission also heard evidence that the mine’s owner, GDF Suez, “was conspicuous by its absence in public communication throughout the fire and demonstrated little concern for the community and affected individuals”.
Five months on, Morwell remains jittery, with summer not far away. Howard Williams’s wife, Rosemary, has a lung condition. Their street is close to the mine, and they evacuated during the fire. Rosemary is still living out of town. The Williams’s ceiling cavity remains thick with black grime and they are still fighting their insurance company to clean it up – a common complaint.
Brooke Burke was 35 weeks pregnant with her second child when the fire began. She moved to her parents’ house on the other side of town for a few days, moved back home, but it was full of smoke, and the family left again.
“I’ve dusted coal dust out of my house every year for 10 years and haven’t thought twice about it. Now when I’m vacuuming and I see that dust sitting on the power point and my son’s playing there, it really worries me. We all think about it differently now because we’re frightened.”
The government has announced a long-term health study into the fire and its aftermath, although overseas research suggests that even living next to a coal mine affects people’s health.
Then there’s the psychological impact. Ann Pulbrook, a primary school teacher and member of Latrobe Valley 1st, says she “still has dreams of the mine bubbling and we’re falling into the mine. There’s still the smell of smoke, there are still helicopters flying over.”
Pulbrook and others are determined that Morwell’s political awakening won’t be wasted. At the Traralgon Neighbourhood Learning House, 26 people have turned up for a Latrobe Valley 1st meeting and to hold a “kitchen table” discussion. A few are politically active – the local Greens candidate Dan Caffrey is here – but most are curious and keen to “do something”.
They like this area – the food grown here, the natural beauty, the down to earth people. But there’s resentment that the Valley is so vital to the state’s prosperity, but so little of it comes back.
Tony Hanning, a former mayor of the City of Latrobe and a well-known artist, says “we as a people have been placed second to resource by all governments”. There are nods around the room.
“When the powers that be decide that Hazelwood is no longer profitable, I’m not sure there’s going to be a plan in place to give people another job or a plan for one.”
It’s not all about the mine. Morwell is one of the most disadvantaged towns in the state, with high unemployment, a serious problem with the drug ice, and high rates of crime.
Latrobe has the highest smoking rate in the state, and the lowest life expectancy. On top of this, power stations used asbestos extensively when they were built, and former Latrobe station workers contract mesothelioma at seven times the state average.
Many shops along the main street have “for lease” signs in their windows, and hoardings are tired and faded. The residents look at the political fuss made over marginal seats around Geelong, a city also going through economic strain, and feel they’ve been forgotten.
Everyone seems to like the local member Russell Northe. Sophie Mirabella, the incumbent in Indi, was prickly and divisive, but Northe is friendly and approachable. But they wonder how effective he is when he travels the two hours to Melbourne.
“He’s a good representative’s ear but he’s not a good representative’s voice,” says Hanning. “He doesn’t speak loud enough to the right people. He’s not listened to within his own party.” This year, Northe was appointed energy minister, a position some believe is a potential conflict of interest because the community’s needs are not the same as the industry’s.
Northe’s office sends through a thick brochure listing all the things he’s achieved for the area – a hospital upgrade, more mental health beds, new CCTV cameras. He knows the region’s problems are deep – “there’s no simple fix, there’s no easy fix”.
He knows, too, that “seats can swing dramatically … anybody’s got a democratic right to stick their hand up and run as a candidate”.
The trend in Australian politics is away from the major parties towards minor parties and independents, but it is still a herculean task to defeat a major party in a safe seat. Brian Costar, a political scientist at the Swinburne University of Technology, is a co-author of a book on independents in Australian politics. Most have won in regional and rural areas, and most have defeated conservatives. Yet Costar is sceptical that an independent can win Morwell – Northe is popular and Cathy McGowan was an outstanding candidate – “Indi was a perfect storm”.
Lund has no illusions. She says that even the conversations have been good for Morwell, and making the seat a marginal one would be a big achievement.
“To not have a go is more shameful than what we’ve already been through,” she says. “Sometimes when people speak up, change can happen.”
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