Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

The Wonthaggi desalination plant

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Australia’s biggest white elephant!

Wonthaggi – once a coal mining town – is legendary for two major strikes that led to national mining health and safety codes and better wages and conditions. They were led by the Miners Federation under the leadership of Bill Orr. Bill and many of the leading activists during these strikes were members of the Communist Party of Australia.

The first and most famous occurred in 1934. It was a 5 month strike in the middle of the depression to stop the then State owned coal mine deliberately sacking the most political and union conscious miners. This strike involved the whole community and has been immortalised in the great film ‘Strike Bound’. Over 90 years later, the mine is now a museum and while coal is now Australia’s leading export (in fact Australia is the world’s biggest exporter) it is the water crisis that has once again put Wonthaggi on the map.

As a new century clicked over Victoria and Australia fell into the grip of a record breaking drought which was magnified by global warming. By 2005 water shortages were escalating and dams were at record lows. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity to build sustainable water catchments, big business and government policy stayed true to the economic logic of capitalism, seeing the water shortage as a new way to make a buck. Hence the monster known as the world’s largest desalination plant was born.

As a worker on this site you can be over awed by the size and scale of the enterprise. The productive forces on display are truly staggering with over 40 cranes, pumps the size of small houses and the combined skills of over 1500 workers transforming this once pristine coastline into a desalination plant the size of a small town.

While not one capitalist works on site it is we, the workers, who carry out their financial and political decisions. We could just as easily be building giant solar thermal power stations in the Latrobe Valley while decommissioning the coal fired power stations. However, this type of logic seems next to impossible until the basis of economic investment is changed. The engine of capitalism is profit, and rationality comes a poor second.

From the first announcements of the plant a significant section of the Wonthaggi community has opposed the site. This has shaped both the construction and the industrial relations on site. Thiess Degremont eventually won the bid over John Holland and this had everything to do with the then Labor Government wanting to avoid any industrial problems on site. Also Thiess’s pledge to green the project as a strategy to stop the anti desalination campaign from broadening out was a factor.

The unions were able to negotiate high end wages and conditions and Thiess incorporated green technology in its design. It also set up a Wonthaggi community centre, whose sole purpose is to undermine the anti desalination campaign.

Workers onsite and the community at large can thank the volunteer anti desalination campaigners for the exceptionally high wages onsite and green design changes that mitigate some of the plants environmental impact. Of course this is all greenwash and can never mitigate the fact that the whole plant is an environmental and economic abomination.

With the election of the Liberal Party at the last state election some hoped that the desalination plant would be moth balled. This was always a pipe dream but Ted Ballieu has still used the exceptionally rotten deal struck between the former Labor government and Thiess Degremont to score some political points.

Thiess Degremont are contracted to run the plant for 30 years. A recent Handsard revealed that taxpayers will be forking out $674 million dollars during the first two years of its operation regardless of whether it even produces a drop of water.

The figures after this are shrouded in secrecy but yearly minimum payments of hundreds of millions of dollars are written into the contract. From the existing limited information the briefing calculated that the cost of water under the privatised system would rise from $1.50 a mega litre to $13.66 a mega litre. Obviously prices will be mitigated by what the capitalist market can bear but it is clear that Thiess and the water corporations are going to make a killing at society’s expense with working people and the unemployed suffering the most.

So while the project is well behind schedule, the deal struck means that despite the daily penalties for running over the completion date they are still guaranteed to make a fortune. The level of management incompetence is truly staggering, it’s often said by union militants that we could not slow this job down if we tried. Talking to my leading hand who has had over 30 years experience as both a worker and supervisor working on big industrial jobs, he says that while this job is particularly bad it is pretty much the same on every single large scale job. So much for the efficiency of private enterprise!

Considering the deals the unions obtained for their members it is no surprise that we have seen very little industrial action. Politically all the unions have accepted that the desalination plant needs to be built so the better union’s activity is circumscribed to skirmishes over onsite conditions and health and safety. Back in the day of communist led trade unions you would have had the call for this plant to be nationalised and put in public hands with the plant to be run and managed by the workers themselves.

The biggest dispute on the job so far has been the spy scandal which involved Thiess hiring notorious scab herder Bruce Townsend to gather information through onsite informants on suspected union militants. It was through this dispute that CFMEU members in particular got to express both their anger at Thiess and their union representation by rebuffing a return to work and successfully calling for the two named managers to be sacked. While it is clear to all and sundry that these managers were simply scapegoats, and that the conspiracies probably reach the highest levels of Thiess management, the follow up led by left-wing lawyer Rob Stary could find no evidence in the emails handed over by Thiess themselves.

So while the anti desalination group is still active meeting once a month in Wonthaggi it has largely resigned itself to policing the site. To scrap this site or at least bring it into public ownership would require a major u-turn by the unions combined with a sustained mass movement from below. While the Greens object to the desalination plant their objections float around in the walls of parliament or appear in the occasional press release. Until we see an Egyptian or Madison, Wisconsin style shake up of politics in this country through which the working class rediscovers its own power we will continue to see the capitalist class march us towards economic and environmental destruction.

By Simon Millar


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