As WA towns move away from wood and coal, Manjimup and Collie’s future looks very different

The towns of Manjimup and Collie were built on the lumber and coal industries respectively, but as those industries fade, one town rebounds while the other ‘stows the water’.

The communities are just over 100 kilometers apart in the southwest of Western Australia, nestled between farmland and the thick bush of the Jarrah-Karri forests.

Despite their proximity, the vibe in the cities as they move away from their historic industries is very different.

In Collie, the expected announcement that government-operated coal-fired power stations will close in 2029 has been sweetened with a $662 million transition package.

The state-owned coal mines in Collie are scheduled to close by 2029.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

But in the logging town of Manjimup, the state’s surprise announcement to end indigenous logging by 2024 has sent shockwaves through the region.

Manjimup workers “surplace the water”

For years, funds have flowed into Collie – a marginal seat – with the coal phase-out seen as inevitable.

But further south, Manjimup sits at the headquarters of Warren-Blackwood. It was long held by the Tories until the red wave of the 2021 national election brought it, for the first time, into the hands of Labour.

Residents of “Manji” said they had been left behind, grappling with what the future would look like.

In Manjimup, the government’s $80 million “just transition” program includes $26.9 million to support businesses, including $45,000 for retraining and training.

But forestry worker Michael Drake said that was not enough to secure his future.

“In terms of employees, I had a guy who left about four months ago and he still hasn’t had access to his money.

A stone-faced man with brown hair and a short beard
Michael Drake says he has “stalled” since the announcement of the ban on native logging.(ABC Regional Campaign: Louise Miolin)

“Forest management plans end every 10 years. I saw two renewed in my time…it was definitely a shock.”

Manjimup sawmill owner Alan Treace said there was no compensation available for him, despite his business being intrinsically linked to the timber industry.

“It will only be the sawmills under contract that will get compensation,” he said.

A pile of jarrah logs
Jarrah logging will end under the new ban, except in circumstances such as clearing land for mining.(ABC Southwest WA: Anthony Pancia)

“My plan was to put in an apprentice, and the business was to be my future pension…now the apprentice is gone, and I have no recourse to recover any money.”

Manjimup Shire chairman Paul Omedei said he was shocked by the state government’s announcement to ban indigenous logging last year.

“I was pretty pissed off, well and good,” he said.

Mr Omedei said while the forest management agreement was due to end in 2023-24, no one expected the ban and there was no warning from the government.

An old man in a suit standing in front of a tree
Manjimup County Chairman Paul Omodei is “pissed” by the lack of warning about the ban on indigenous logging.(ABC Southwest: Zoe Keenan)

Meanwhile in Collie, County Chairperson Sarah Stanley said the coal phase-out announced last month has been a long time coming.

“We’ve been talking about life after coal for decades. We always knew it would end at some point,” she said.

A woman with short brown hair wearing glasses and a horizontal striped top stands outside an office building
Collie Shire chairman Sarah Stanley said the end of coal in Collie was long overdue.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

The comparison with a collie arouses anger

For Mr. Omedei, Collie’s coal transition highlights everything he believes has gone wrong in his town.

“If you compare our transition package to Collie’s…they are well ahead of us.”

But Labor MP for Warren-Blackwood, Jane Kelsbie, said the two towns should not be compared.

“I’m not interested in tit for tat with Collie, I don’t think that’s helpful,” she said.

“We have a significant support program on the table [in Manjimup].”

It’s a different story in Collie, where mine workers told the ABC that while there was some uncertainty about their future, there were options on the table.

Other industries are growing in the area, including pumped hydroelectricity and graphite mining.

Coal mining engineer Wayne Loxton said people were “jumping at the training options with great weapons”.

A middle aged man with a bald head and a 3 day beard smiles at the camera
Wayne Loxton says there are options to help coal workers transition to other jobs.(ABC Regional Campaign: Louise Miolin)

“I think if we bring in an industry, [a smooth transition] can be done.”

While Collie’s economy has relied on coal for decades, Manjimup’s is more diverse, with agriculture making up a significant portion of the town.

But Michael Drake said that was not enough to keep former woodworkers in the area.

“Many will probably leave the city, because there is really a lot of work in the area … there is some seasonal agricultural work, but not a lot.”

Community engagement is essential

If there was one expert in helping a community through change, it would be Bank of Ideas founder Peter Kenyon, who has spent years researching the best way to build regional communities.

He said transitions away from the main rural industries needed to happen at the community level.

“We need to spend time listening to locals engage in real conversation.”

At Collie, there’s a “big buck” on the table – $662 million for the transition, about half of which goes to site rehabilitation.

Collie-Preston Labor MP Jodie Hanns said locals were involved in spending the money.

“There are union representatives, there are absolutely local government representatives – people who live and work in Collie – who sit on these particular groups,” she said.

A smiling woman in an orange blazer
Collie-Preston MP Jodie Hanns says the community is ready for the transition away from coal.(ABC Regional Campaign: Louise Miolin)

“The Idea Bank is definitely about the money – we have as a community the ability to build our future.

“We have significant investments from the state government, we have a very active local government, we have a fabulous community here and we really need to work together to shape our future.”

Meanwhile, in Manjimup, community members denounce a lack of government communication on the ground.

“We think we are not being listened to,” Mr Omedei said.

Mr Omedei said that when the end of ancient logging was announced in 2001, a government official was stationed in Manjimup for 18 months so that anyone affected by the transition could physically visit that person to ask compensation.

“That’s not happening on this occasion,” he said.

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