Fiery steelworkers confront Combet on carbon tax

Steelworkers worried about the impact of a carbon tax gave Climate Change Minister Greg Combet a fiery reception when he visited Port Kembla yesterday.At a meeting of union members also attended by Australian Workers Union (AWU) leaders, many workers were frustrated at the uncertainty. BlueScope has said the tax could threaten the future of its Port Kembla operations.Mr Combet, a former head of the ACTU, told BlueScope workers the details of an assistance package to help the company pay for its pollution permits were being finalised."We will talk as much as necessary and provide as much support as we can to make sure BlueScope is competitive," Mr Combet said.But he had not been speaking long before the first interjections came, and many more questions followed from workers wanting information on the carbon price system."Can you tell us right now what the figure's going to be?" steelworks operator Claudio Morales asked. "How can you say you support [us] when you haven't got a figure?"Others feared their jobs might be at risk, or were angry the Government changed its position after the election."We've always got to bite the bullet on difficult reforms," Mr Combet responded."We've had them before; this is another one."After the meeting Mr Combet said BlueScope and its workers faced other problems aside from a carbon tax."The fundamental issue at the steelworks is really not about carbon pricing, although I understand the pressures that that can create."The fundamental issue here is the value of the Australian dollar ... and also the high commodity prices."That's what's causing concern within BlueScope about their steel operation, nothing to do with the carbon price."AWU national secretary Paul Howes said the union would not support a carbon pricing scheme if it cost the jobs of any of its members."We believe steel is a core component of what we are as a country, because we believe Australia should be a country that makes things," he said. But Mr Howes said the carbon tax was "inevitable"."I'm not going to enter into a debate about whether it's right or not; it's just a reality."BlueScope's chief executive of Australian and New Zealand steel manufacturing, Noel Cornish, insisted the tax would not reduce emissions."A carbon tax on Australian-produced steel is fine if China, Korea, India, Russia, America, Brazil and others are paying a similar tax to us," Mr Cornish said. "At this stage they are not."

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