Climate spies should chase the real bad guys

Quit Coal's Paul Connor was visited by two 'security intelligence' officers on April 11. Photo: Quit Coal/Facebook

Two officers identifying themselves as being from “security intelligence” visited my house on April 11 for a chat. If recent headlines are anything to go by (“ASIO eyes green groups” The Age 12/4/12) such surprise visits will become ever more frequent for anti-coal activists like me.

To be fair to the officers in question, we had a reasonably pleasant conversation. They told me that they respect my passion and commitment for ending fossil fuel exploitation and for preventing catastrophic climate change, and also respect the right of the group I belong to — Quit Coal — to express our views in the public sphere.

What they are concerned about, however, is what they referred to as the potential for my and Quit Coal’s activism to escalate into activities that might put people and infrastructure at risk; a concern they said was especially strong given “what’s being planned” — a reference, surely, to the Baillieu government’s plans to open up Victoria’s brown coal reserves for export to Asia.

I assured them that Quit Coal is a completely peaceful and non-violent organisation that does not wish to damage critical infrastructure or cause anyone any physical harm. After about 20 minutes we shook hands and they left.

But when you’ve become an activist purely through your concern for the well-being of others, it is easy to be upset by reading, as I did yesterday, that so-called “security sources” consider you a greater risk to energy infrastructure than terrorists, especially when you have never even thought about undertaking any act of violence in the name of your cause.

It is easy to be upset to read that ASIO is being deployed, far beyond its mandate and possibly at the behest of foreign-owned corporations, to spy on environmentalists. And that this deployment — a corrupt, wasteful and possibly dangerously negligent misdirection of public funds, is supposedly based on the most tenuous of justifications — that environmentalists’ activities could escalate into a threat to energy supply and subsequently jeopardise lives, despite there being absolutely no historical precedent to support this.

It is also easy to simply feel bullied and intimidated when two large officers show up unannounced at your house, failing to properly identify themselves and making a point of indicating how much they know about you and your activities.

Yet however upsetting these things may be, I think it is important that anti-coal activists do not let our natural inclination to defend ourselves distract us from having the most important debates we need to have here.

Because the truth is, after all, that many green groups — including Quit Coal — are butting up against the law, and quite openly doing so. And when we do that it follows that we’ll eventually attract the attention of law enforcement agencies. So there should be no real shock when we do.

The real issue for me personally, then, is not that my friends and I are being watched. The real issue that deserves attention is why we have come to be in conflict with the law, and whether or not our arguments against those laws are valid. This is the real debate here, and it is one that we can’t allow to be overlooked.

A good example of what I mean was pointed out by my “security intelligence” visitors on April 11 when they referred to Premier Baillieu’s plan to export brown coal from Victoria. As our law stands, Baillieu’s plans are perfectly legal, and any plans Quit Coal may have to physically prevent the exporting of brown coal would be clearly illegal.

Yet the question that should be asked, and the question that myself and many others are raising, is whether these laws are right.

Should it be legal to open up a brand new export industry in brown coal, the most greenhouse intensive of all fossil fuels, in a world that an overwhelming scientific consensus tells us is rapidly heading towards the threshold of irreversible and catastrophic climate change?

Is it morally acceptable for wealthy industrialised countries such as ours, who the world recognises must lead the fight against climate change, to be chasing short term profits by selling our coal reserves to developing countries in Asia regardless of the consequences?

Do we not have a duty of care towards the potential victims of brown coal exports, both here and abroad, to consider their interests alongside whatever short-term benefits we think will accrue from the practice?

And are the green groups who are willing to stand in the way of brown coal exports a threat deserving of ASIO surveillance, or are they people putting themselves at risk of great personal cost to protect the lives and well-being of others on the basis of well-founded scientific opinion?

These are the questions I believe our society must be facing up to and asking ourselves. And I can only hope that we do so soon, so my new associates at “security intelligence” can go back to chasing real bad guys and leave me well alone.


I really think it time that we realised that the coal owners have actually declared war on the planet and the human race that lives on it in order to make money. In a war all options should be left open to activists, after all we are the ones who want to save the planet.
These officers had no right to come over for a "chat" without a warrant or a court order. They either have a proof of criminal activity, and in that case deal with it through appropriate legal channels, or they can piss off, which is what I would have told them to do. Long "conversations" and "fact finding" missions about peaceful activism are not mandated to be complied with under any Australian law or constitution as far as I know. Legally the 2 of them could conjure up something that the author of this article "may" have said that was not true, which could result in other actions being taken by the authorities. The word of 2 ASIO officers against 1 "suspect" is enough for that. This is a very dangerous precedent indeed.
Thanks for the telling of that experience, it was very interesting. As an experienced activist, I would caution all activists to say very little about who they are and what they're doing unless required to under law. This is better left to designated media or police liaison people who have a set strategy. As far as I am aware, you aren't required to say anything to the authorities except your name and address and to produce a driver's licence if driving a vehicle. It doesn't matter how friendly or pleasant these police officers are to you, remember that they are fishing for information. They will do their job to the full extent of their powers and just because they're being nice doesn't mean they won't do their job. Additional to that, they are trained in information gathering techniques and it is a fact that they will be friendly and even jovial in order to put their subject at ease and then more may be said than intended because of the relaxed atmosphere. They will also pretend to be sympathetic to what you're doing to lead you into talking about your cause. I have seen experienced activists soften up with general friendly chit chat with police and then say too much about who they are and more importantly, who they are with, where they are and what they're doing. Often, too relaxed an atmosphere will allow access for police to areas of a camp, blockade or protest that they wouldn't normally be accepted into and they will eavesdrop and observe as much as they can. Sometimes activists will think that they are more clever than the police and will deliberately engage them in conversation to play a silly game. I've seen that go quite poorly as well. Police will feign inferiority to encourage overconfidence which is a liability in these exchanges. Obviously we are all free as individuals to speak with who ever we wish but you should also remember that if you are an activist who is working as part of a team, that you have a responsibility to other members who will not appreciate any information about them being discussed nor any potential activities. What you say to the police in the present may not affect you in the near future but they will work in time frames of years in order to catch people out. NEVER forget that these police officers, particularly specialised security police, are professionals who take pride in their work, they have a job to do and they are never your friend. The other side of the coin is overt intimidation and hostility. Now that's another story.

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