OPINION: Farewell and Thank You

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This is my last contribution as the member for Hunter and I thank the Coalface team for the opportunity to contribute over such a long period of time.

It has been a great honour and privilege to represent the townships and villages of Hunter over the course of the last 26 years. Throughout that time, I made countless friends and formed many working relationships.

Politicians achieve few things acting alone. Rather, the wins we have are usually the result of a team effort. I’ve worked with some amazing Mayors, State Members, business leaders and trade union representatives. One constant has been the contribution of those who lead and volunteer within our not-for-profit organisations. I am indebted to them because our communities are better places for their efforts.

Politics can be a tough job but it is easier if you stick to your values and put people first. That’s always been my approach. 

As a young Councillor in Cessnock, I was keen to diversify our vineyard area and I faced some stiff opposition from some vignerons who were opposed to the development of projects like Cypress Lakes and what is now Harrigan’s Pub. Their arguments were legitimate and I respected them. But I stood firm in my support for the projects and the jobs they’d deliver and I believe I was right to do so.

Around the same time, an investor was proposing to build a “dross plant” in Weston. While it offered around 100 jobs for a community struggling with high unemployment, the secondary aluminium plant was vehemently opposed by many local residents concerned about emissions and the potential impact on local residents. I was satisfied the plant would cause no harm and backed the jobs. The plant still operates more than 30 years on and continues to be a major local employer. Again, while I wasn’t too popular at the time, I believe I was right to support the project.

These early lessons stayed with me and supporting jobs has remained my default position. In Australia we have some of the strictest environmental and safety regulations in the world and projects can’t jump the various approvals hurdles if they pose harm. That’s why right up until my retirement I’ve put jobs first and its why I remain such a strong supporter of the coal mining industry.

The coal industry is the backbone of the Hunter region’s economy. It employs around 14,000 people directly and tens of thousands more indirectly. Miners spend their above average wages in our local communities; in our supermarkets, pubs, clubs, coffee shops and car yards. They build houses and buy furniture. All of these things impact positively on our economy. 

When I attend sporting events – senior and junior – I see the names of mining companies on the backs of the players. When I’m asked to officially open a new community facility or agricultural shows a mining company representative is usually there along-side me because their company made a financial contribution to the project or event.

Coal mining is going to be a big part of our economy for decades to come and that’s a good thing. The hundreds of coal-fired generators being built throughout Asia is evidence of that. Our coking coal will remain popular too, as the developing nations of Asia build their way to developed nation status.

Like any machine, in the not-too-distant future our own coal fired generators will come to the end of their physical lives and that’s sad. But we can be proud of our generation heritage, we’ve been the powerhouse of NSW for many decades. While investors are unlikely to build new coal generators in Australia, we’ve been busy making sure new forms of generation find their homes in the Hunter.  That’s good news for local jobs.

I leave the job I’ve loved for nearly three decades happy in the knowledge that while there is always more to do – including the completion of the Singleton and Muswellbrook bypasses – the electorate is in good shape.

So, it’s farewell from me.  I thank all those who have supported me throughout my long journey.

Joel Fitzgibbon

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