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Hunter Valley coal miners are protesting in Canberra over the imminent closure of mines and the loss of 1,000 jobs -

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Hunter Valley coal miners are protesting in Canberra over the imminent closure of mines and the loss of 1,000 jobs

QUENTIN DEMPSTER: While Canberra fiddled with ministerial bungles this week, an issue of burning importance to Hunter Valley communities was almost entirely overlooked. Two hundred coal miners, helmets proudly shining, marched up to the front of Federal Parliament on a crusade that seems doomed to failure. The miners who know no other livelihood, are trying to save a thousand jobs certain to be lost in planned pit closures, and it's happening despite productivity gains, improved work practices, and the supremacy of coal as our biggest export earner. Kerrie Douglas reports.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: These are desperate men - Hunter Valley coal miners facing the prospect that at least a thousand jobs are about to go. For these men, mining is their heritage. For generations, coal has driven their communities, and working underground is all they know.

WAYNE DAVIS: There's no other jobs to get, not in this district, anyway.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: Have you got debts?

WAYNE DAVIS: I have. Paying my house off, my car - in debt right up to my ear. So, nobody knows what I'm going to do. I don't know myself.

MICK WATSON: The availability of them thousand people now to get jobs is non-existent; that's the important thing, because the thousand people that I would then have on the retrench list, half of them people would range between the ages of 40 and 60, and they've got no future, no future at all. That's sad.

MAREE CALLAGHAN: Basically, they remain unemployed, because decades ago we had BHP Steel, we had the aluminium industry. Today, in the recession, we have nowhere to go and nothing to do.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: But there is the industry, like there is the wine industry in this area. Is that not somewhere for people to go?

MAREE CALLAGHAN: It's not a major employer, and when you think about it, it's pretty hard to retrain miners to pull rickshaws for Japanese tourists.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: This is the Lemington underground pit in the Upper Hunter, and it will close on 1 July. It's an old-style board and pillar mine which provides steaming and soft coal for export. It's shutting down because the company claims mines like this have no future.

PETER GRAHAM: Obviously, no company likes to hang in there, losing money year after year after year, but fundamentally what has happened is that productivity gains have been eroded by falling prices and rising costs.

SIMON CREAN: No industry can survive if it's not prepared to become competitive; that's what a global trading environment is about and the coal industry has always been exposed to a global trading environment. It needs to understand more than anyone else the importance of that efficiency.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: But the union claims it does understand the need for efficiency, and it's been working towards restructuring the industry since the late '80s. Members have changed their work practices to improve productivity, and in some mines output per man has almost doubled. The miners say they've done all they can.

MICK WATSON: We've been in a restructuring phase for something like three years. Now it becomes extremely difficult for us and to my members if I'm doing that and doing all the right things to make the mines competitive, and then we are being beset by market forces which we've got no control over.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: Through circumstances beyond his control, coal miner John Stafa and his family are about to face unemployment for the first time.

JOHN STAFA: We were told it was going to close in October in '94, and from there it was supposed to go on to another underground mine with a supposed output of about, oh I don't know, two million or 10 million tonne, something like that, which was supposed to carry us on until they developed a long wall mine across the other side of the river. So, they've told us we were going to retire there.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: So, you thought you had a big future at Lemington?

JOHN STAFA: Oh yes. Oh yes. Oh yes, I've been there for 14 years, and they've been pretty good to us, and I can't see any reason why we wouldn't believe them.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: Why didn't Lemington open up the other underground mine that it was always going to open up?

PETER GRAHAM: I think at some point in time that will, indeed, happen. It was not possible, though, to link it directly onto the end of the existing underground. The economics simply don't support a very significant expenditure of funds to build a brand new underground mine at this point in time.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: And that's the catch: the Hunter still has millions of tonnes of coal in the ground, but the mines that are closing are doing so for purely economic reasons. The union claims this short-term measure will prove disastrous.

MICK WATSON: When a mine is closed down, you do two things: you pull all the equipment out; you're left then with the skeleton of the mine or the caves or whatever, and all the timbers and that get into a rotting capacity, plus the fact that the mine floods. Now for any company to go back in that sort of environment, it's never happened in the past, and I don't think it'll happen in the future.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: So it renders that coal inaccessible?

MICK WATSON: Exactly. That's correct, yes.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: Beneath me is one of the richest black coal seams in the world. In its heyday, this old colliery, Richmond Main, was the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere, but during another downturn in the industry, the company pulled out of this mine, leaving behind close to 70 million tonnes of coal; that's a valuable resource that's now been lost forever.

JOHN STAFA: It's ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. This, well, I won't say millions, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of coal ready to be pulled out of the ground, and they're just going to leave it there. Just absolutely leave it there. That's like giving the kids a packet of lollies, letting them eat three lollies and telling them to throw the rest away. It's too stupid for words by anybody's standards.

MAREE CALLAGHAN: When we have billions of tonnes of resources beneath our ground, and we see governments and companies walking away from Australia's natural resources, no, it's time that we said 'Hey, you're walking away from future jobs, you're walking away from export income.' It's time governments and companies got their acts together.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: For the miners, their final hope lies in Canberra.

ERIC FITZGIBBON: I rather regret that there aren't fewer of you because I could take you round to my room, offer you a beer, and we could have a quite sensible discussion. But never doubt for one moment that the four Labor Members in the Hunter Valley are right behind you.

COAL MINER: Bullshit!

COAL MINER: That's bullshit, Eric.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: The miners want the Federal Government to step in and protect the coal reserves left in the ground, to set up a regulatory body which would control export prices and check the trend towards machine-driven open cut mining.

So you want regulation at a time when the world as a whole is moving towards deregulation?

MICK WATSON: Well, that seems right, but by the same token I think that we are a competitive industry, you know, we are a competitive industry as I indicated earlier, and this is a very valid point. We've been traditionally militant, we are working towards what we want to see as [...] is a solution which is a one union position and we're doing everything right and we're still getting, as I see, stabbed in the back by an outside position which we've got no control over.

SIMON CREAN: The Government is not going to step in and tell companies how to run their business. That is not the function of government. What is the point in the Government keeping open a mine that does not ensure a continuing efficient competitive supply of product? What is the point of that? So that's the issue.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: In the past, this sort of economic rationale has driven the union to militancy, but not this time around.

ADVERTISEMENT: This has always been a risky business, but it's a risk every miner takes for their family, for your community, for Australia's economy.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: It's perhaps a mark of the miners' desperation that rather than take strike action, so far they've chosen the path of appeal, but for how long?

MICK WATSON: My people are saying to me 'Well, is this the right way to go, Mick?'. Now, I think it's the only way to go at this stage, but unfortunately there have been some things happen in the last couple of weeks that makes it extremely difficult for my members to think that the way that I'm directing them is the right way.

KERRIE DOUGLAS: Are some of them pushing for national industrial action?

MICK WATSON: Certainly and clearly they are, yes. QUENTIN DEMPSTER: Kerrie Douglas reporting.