Back to the Future

By Andrew Dettmer, State Secretary, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.

The Gayndah museum is home to old Number 2, a steam engine built in 1893 at Walkers in Maryborough to power the sugar mill.

After its time at the mill, Number 2 powered a sawmill until 1962, when it was put out to pasture – literally – until recovered by the museum in 1989, where it sits today, puffing merrily away for tourists and steam enthusiasts.

Steam powered most of the industrial development of the 19th century. When James Watt designed his reciprocating steam engine in the 18th century, he built on the work of Thomas Newcomen, a blacksmith, who invented the precursor to Watt’s engine.

Steam as motive power had been known about by the ancient Greeks. The problem was to harness the steam without it escaping. Watt’s steam engine solved this and sparked the industrial revolution. Blacksmiths of that time had the valuable skills to build and maintain these engines.

Now steam has been largely replaced by electricity and the internal combustion engine. Nobody would suggest that steam return to the industrial landscape of Australia, or the world. Nor would we suggest a comeback for blacksmiths. From a trade which once had its own union, the near-20,000 strong Queensland branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (which absorbed the Blacksmith’s Society in 1972) now has 36 blacksmiths on its books, of which 20 are retired.

Technology which replaced the steam engine has now been superseded. While steam engines used wood and coal, modern power stations use gas. In future, we should harness solar, wind and tidal power to ensure our energy sources are renewable and non-polluting. Current power sources from fossil fuels can be phased out or made more energy-efficient.

These changes will not happen without an economic reason. The world’s economy has relied on fossil fuels far too long. Our planet has paid the price. We must develop technologies to power industries and households for the future.
Economists talk about price signals. Workers think about their industries and the future of their families. In manufacturing, where I operate, workers always want to know the future of companies they work for; they want to know that they have that secure future. And they want to use their skills not just for their employer but to also better society.

A carbon tax is a much-needed stimulus to move capital and industry off its collective backside to ensure a future for Australian industry. It seems that Mr Abbott and his abominable No-men believe in the habits of the past, without thinking of the future.

Steam was an important part of the 19th century but the current technologies will ultimately go the same way as engine No 2. We do not want to find Australian industry rotting happily in a paddock to become a museum piece.

Australian industry must grasp opportunities in new technologies now made more favourable and cheaper through pricing carbon. Otherwise, manufacturing and other industries will die. And today’s workers will find their skills as irrelevant as those of the blacksmith.

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