In late October, The Australian ran five front-page stories in a row alerting the world to the scandal that Australian environment groups have been receiving funding from a US-based foundation in order to protect the environment. An email I had sent to a US foundation had found its way into the inbox of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff. As it turns out, Podesta had his email hacked (allegedly by Russian spies) and drip fed to the world via WikiLeaks in the lead-up to the US election.
The story unfolded with increasing drama as new angles were revealed by intrepid Australian journalists. Day one was the ‘big reveal’: they broke the stunning news with the headline ‘Foreign Funding for Adani Lawsuits’. On day two the front page screamed ‘Foreign-funded anti-coal activists risk driving India away’ and included quotes from Resources Minister Matthew Canavan, Tony Abbott and Indian Energy Minister Piyush Goyal. The paper also ran an opinion piece by Brendan Pearson, CEO of the Minerals Council, calling for additional oversight of environmental charities.
On day three, the front page shifted to ‘Turnbull government moves to shut court doors on anti-coal activists’, with the prime minister expressing concern over ‘very systematic and well funded campaigns against major projects’. During the UN climate meeting in Marrakesh a few weeks later, it was reported that federal Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg was lobbying the US delegation about the issue.
The mining lobby and their backers in the extreme Right of the Coalition are now variously pushing for improved disclosure of funding to green groups, a ban on foreign funding, a cap of $1000 for tax-deductible donations and an insistence that all environment groups get involved in bush regeneration.
This whole furore is, in large part, a response to the growing community campaign against the Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. The mine, if built, would be the largest export coal mine in Australia: forty million tonnes of low-grade thermal coal would be shipped through the Great Barrier Reef via a proposed new port at Abbot Point, near Bowen.
The mine has been strongly contested by a broad alliance of environment groups, not just in Australia but around the world. People are worried by the large climate-change impacts of the project, the impact of the Abbot Point port and shipping on the Great Barrier Reef, and the significant impacts of the project on groundwater, endangered species and cultural heritage. The project would also create the infrastructure to open up the vast thermal coal reserves of the Galilee Basin, one of the largest untapped coal basins on earth.
The emissions from burning the coal from the Adani mine alone would be in the order of eighty million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per annum (more than the pollution from Victoria’s Hazelwood coal-fired power station four times over) and would more than undo the impacts of Australia’s emission-reduction targets. At a time when the science of global warming is unequivocal, such a project should not even be contemplated, let alone facilitated with special legislation and the prospect of subsidies.
For the environmental movement the campaign is a line in the sand in the fight over the future of the global climate. Over three million people from all over Australia and around the world have already put their name behind the campaign and the project is going to be fought every single step of the way. Comparisons have already been made with the epic campaigns over the Franklin Dam and Jabiluka uranium mine, but there is an acknowledgement that this campaign could be even bigger and run longer.
The campaign against the Adani mine has become a powerful symbol in the struggle over the future of coal in Australia. Adani—a controversial Indian conglomerate that is new to Australia and that is also trying to develop solar projects—has been thrust into the spotlight in one of the biggest political fights we’re likely to see in Australia this century.
The mining industry and their backers in the extreme Right are clearly pushing hard to make sure the project goes ahead. But they’re also covering their bases to make sure that, if the project fails for economic reasons (and most independent financial analysts think it will), they can blame the greenies for stopping it and use that as an excuse to prosecute their culture war against the green movement. The cutting edge of this attack is the notion of ‘lawfare’.
In mid-2015, the Mackay Conservation Group won a legal challenge against the project when the federal environment minister agreed that the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act (EPBC Act) had not been properly upheld due to the failure to adequately consider the impacts of the mine on two endangered species: the yakka skink and the ornamental snake. The decision catalysed a tirade from the most senior levels of the federal government, with Tony Abbott declaring, ‘…if the Adani mine does not go ahead soon, we are crazy’. Attorney-General George Brandis said, ‘Ten thousand jobs have been destroyed…by vigilante environmental groups intent on gaming the system’, and decried the EPBC Act for providing a ‘red carpet’ for radical activists to engage in ‘vigilante litigation’. Some PR hack in the coal industry came up with the term ‘lawfare’ to make using the court system to uphold the laws of Australia sound like a form of warfare.
Cabinet ministers, including the attorney-general, have repeatedly referred to the Mackay Conservation Group case as ‘vexatious’, despite the fact that it successfully revealed that the law had not been properly applied. Anyone familiar with the legal system knows that courts don’t allow frivolous or vexatious cases to be heard and that it is completely nonsensical to describe a legal challenge as ‘vexatious’ when it is successful. What our opponents mean, of course, is that they take issue with environment groups preventing the mine from being built as quickly as possible.
Having failed to win either public or political support to remove the rights of environment groups to challenge major projects in court, the new agenda of the mining lobby and their backers in the extreme Right of the Coalition is to challenge the charity status and the funding of environment groups. The hacked emails from the account of John Podesta have poured new fuel on that fire and given the extreme Right another platform (at least in The Australian) to prosecute their agenda.
Going after the funding of your opponents is a well-worn strategy. The environment movement has gone hard after Adani’s funding, securing commitments from over a dozen global banks to rule out financing the project. But do the government’s attacks on the funding of the green movement make any sense and are they likely to have any impact? They clearly don’t make any sense from a policy perspective, but that hardly distinguishes them from much of the hard Right’s ideological agenda.
Australia’s mining industry, which is 80 per cent foreign owned, has spent more than half a billion dollars over the last decade building the most powerful lobbying machine this country has ever seen. Its aim is to change the laws of this country to suit its own private interests. Its funding of this lobbying machine is effectively tax deductible. This same industry is now attacking environment groups for accepting donations from international philanthropists to ensure that existing environment laws are properly implemented—that is to say, with a view to protecting the environment.
The fact that the mining industry’s position is intellectually dishonest and incoherent does not mean that it isn’t going to have impact, particularly in a political climate where extreme Right politics are resurgent and where catchy slogans seem impervious to facts.
In the week after Trump was elected president, Republican state senator from Washington Doug Ericksen proposed a bill that would create a new class of felony for ‘economic terrorism’: it would criminalise illegal protests aimed at causing economic damage. If passed, the new laws would apply to unlawful disruption of transportation and commerce. They would also treble damages against funders and organisers. Ericksen’s media statement warns: ‘We are not just going after the people who commit these acts of terrorism…we are going after the people who fund them. Wealthy donors should not feel safe in disrupting middle-class jobs’.
In a country where so many hard-won liberties have been the result of protests that would be outlawed under such legislation (the lunch-counter sit-ins of the civil-rights movement are just one example), it is hard to see Ericksen’s proposal being passed into law. But who knows? We live in turbulent times. The rhetoric of Trump has already started to permeate the language of both sides of Australian politics, and the resurgent Right in the United States will embolden the hard Right here in Australia.
The culture war over coal is only set to intensify over the coming years in Australia, but the outcome will ultimately be shaped by forces far more powerful than the right wing of the Liberal or National Party. The reality of global warming is upon us and the changing climate itself will increasingly bring disruption to our economy and politics. Similarly, the renewable-energy revolution that is sweeping global markets will make coal financially unviable far sooner than most people think. That the age of coal is coming to an end cannot be disputed. The question, and the fight, is over how quickly it happens.