OPINION: It's safe to say that no-one wants to see another 2020

Kate Washington, MP

Kate Washington, MP

2020 will be remembered as the year that started in flames beneath acrid orange smoke-filled skies, and got worse from there.

The communities that were spared the devastation of the bushfires were nonetheless reminded of their neighbour's suffering each time they stepped outside.

Entire communities, already crippled by drought, were lost to bushfires in almost an instant. Now a global pandemic is inflicting another low, hard and painful blow.

It's safe to say that no-one wants to see another 2020.

And so, as our minds turn to rebuilding and recovery, it's time to start a conversation about the positive opportunities for our state. On our road to recovery, we cannot afford to ignore the lessons of the past.

In rebuilding our communities, we must build back better.

Homes and neighbourhoods need to be rebuilt. Infrastructure needs to be replaced. Our economies need a reboot. And our swathes of bushfire ravaged lands need to be restored and conserved.

Despite social distancing, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought people together - by encouraging collaboration between countries, levels of government, political parties and - perhaps most importantly - opposite sides of the street, with neighbours reconnecting and looking out for one another.

That spirit of cooperation will need to be harnessed as we nurse our citizens, economy and environment back to health. After all we've been through this year, we cannot afford a business-as-usual approach standing in the way of sensible environmentally responsible, future-focussed investment.

Science should guide decisions in the same way it's steered our pandemic response. And the science is clear - our future prosperity hangs on a healthy environment.

So as we contend with the current economic challenges confronting our communities, we should work on rebuilding our economy by choosing to invest in our environment.

The structural shift towards clean jobs began years ago - in renewable energy, recycling and industry powered by renewables. The number of clean jobs are growing, more and more families in the future will rely on these jobs to pay the bills.

Frustration lies in the slow speed of this transition. In too many regional communities, the outlook for workers is uncertain and the rate of growth of new clean jobs is not fast enough.

When workers can move from a well paid job in a coal-fired power plant to a well paid job in a nearby glass recycling facility, climate change skepticism should fade into obscurity.

But on the flip side, communities that feel they are bearing the brunt of change will naturally resist the change.

It's time to build back better, put ideology aside, and make the sensible investments needed to create clean regional jobs and support regional families.

It's not impossible. Every year, the NSW government collects $800M from Councils operating waste facilities, money that's meant to be spent on reducing waste and increasing recycling. If the government dedicated just a fraction of these funds to environmentally beneficial projects, it could help kick-start clean jobs in our regions.

Clean technology already exists. Internationally, the 'circular economy' and its massive recycling industries drive local investment and create local jobs. And we don't even need to look internationally. We have businesses in NSW desperately trying to establish advanced recycling facilities, crying out for a kick start.

Whilst these clean jobs lie dormant, Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Environment Minister Matt Kean can't even bring NSW into line with the rest of Australia to ban single use plastic bags.

More regional jobs could be created as soon as tomorrow if only the Premier would restore the jobs of hundreds of frontline firefighters, skilled park rangers and environmental scientists, sacked from the National Parks and Wildlife Service three years ago. The government slashed the capacity for hazard reduction and sensible land management, then we all witnessed the terrifying consequences of those decisions.

These are all clean, regional jobs employing hardworking people who take care of our environment and our future. We must place value on these jobs and others like them to create safer, healthier communities.

Clean jobs are real jobs. They are heavy-industry jobs. Skilled jobs. Reliable jobs. Essential jobs. And an investment in clean jobs is not just an investment in our environment, which is long-overdue, it's an investment in our future.

We will never get another chance to simultaneously reset the foundations of our economy and our environment. We don't even need radical change. We just need sensible policy from politicians who are planning for the future, not just the next election.

Let's embrace our new-found spirit of collaboration and drive investment in a cleaner, healthier future. Together, we can build back better.

Kate Washington, MP

Labor Shadow Minister for Environment and Heritage