How the Illawarra has (so far) stopped CSG

December 6, 2013
The Stop CSG mascot made by the Knitting Nannas. Photo: Stop CSG Illawarra/FB.

Since launching in March 2011, the campaign to stop coal seam gas (CSG) mining has grown into one of the most powerful and broadly supported community campaigns ever seen in the Illawarra.

Involving unprecedented numbers of people, the immense pressure on the government has so far put a stop to the local CSG project, which threatens the drinking water for greater Sydney.

The campaign already has an impressive history. It has organised three big community actions, each attracting more than 3000 people. The May 2011 Austinmer Beach human sign, October 2011 Sea Cliff Bridge walk and October 2012 Bulli showground human sign are some of the most spectacular actions this country has ever seen.

But less spectacular activity has been the cornerstone. More than 100 people come to the open community meetings each month to discuss the campaign.

These people help with ongoing outreach work which includes holding weekly street stalls, surveying entire suburbs, letterboxing hundreds of thousands of homes, and maintaining a consistent presence in mainstream and social media, and collecting petitions — which have been signed by tens of thousands of people and have triggered two debates in Parliament.

Creative and innovative ideas to broaden the campaign and involve more people have seen hundreds of people doorknocked and asked to display a campaign sign in their front yard, sold-out fundraising gigs, a business supporters program and the recent launch of the “Illawarra Knitting Nannas Against Gas” sub-group.

The campaign began in late 2010 when the US film Gasland was screened at Bulli Tops in the Illawarra. Those attending were shocked and angry to hear that CSG exploration had been approved in the area. Apex Energy had consent to drill 15 CSG wells in and around Sydney's drinking water catchment (a 16th well was approved in 2011).

Almost no one knew about these approvals. In light of this information, some of the attendees discussed launching a local campaign. The initial discussions around the nature of the campaign, what it would stand for and how it would campaign were critical to its growth.

The campaign demands were discussed and voted on at Stop Coal Seam Gas Illawarra’s (SCSGI) first meeting, on March 13, 2011, one week after a second screening of Gasland — this time in Thirroul.

From the beginning, the campaign aimed to win. It sounds obvious, but this resolve framed the other discussions. Stopping CSG first meant informing a community who had been kept in the dark by the government. An informed community could make a better choice about whether CSG should be allowed to proceed in New South Wales, and then build capacity to fight for this choice.

SCSGI agreed its strategy for change should be an “informed and mobilised community”, which involves a lot of patience and hard work.

The biggest problem facing the public then was a lack of information about CSG. Given this, it was decided at that time not to call for a ban on the industry but for an immediate halt in order to fully investigate the facts through a Royal Commission.

Given the experience in the United States and Queensland, where consequences of CSG production were already being felt, it was decided there was enough information to call for a ban on hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”). SCSGI later added a demand calling for a ban on CSG development in drinking water catchments.

SCSGI's demands have been successful in drawing people into the campaign for a range of reasons. First, they are crystal clear and cannot be misinterpreted. Governments cannot argue they are doing them if they are not. This sounds simple but is extremely important given our politicians' record of deceiving and manipulating communities.

Second, if implemented, the demands would ensure meaningful change for our communities — demands worth fighting for. Third, they are reasonable. Together they represent a common-sense response to the very real and evidence-based risks of CSG. They boil down to the precautionary approach, which most people agree should apply in our drinking water catchments.

It was decided to concentrate on changing legislation and directing our fire at government.

Though there are many examples of CSG companies behaving dubiously, governments have provided the legal framework for the industry to develop. These laws need to change.

After agreeing on demands, and deciding to affiliate to Lock The Gate (the national peak body for community campaigning to stop CSG), SCSGI's first initiative was to print 20,000 leaflets for letterboxing, to start informing the community. The letterboxing has not stopped since, and now about half a million leaflets have been distributed in and around the Illawarra.

Every leaflet has a clip-off form on the back with ways to get involved in the campaign. This makes it easy for people to participate and stay in touch. A critical lesson for the campaign has been to communicate its message as clearly and plainly as possible.

Basic, grassroots outreach — including continual letter-boxing — has been the backbone of the campaign. None of its other activity would be nearly as successful without it. The open community meetings of SCSGI are important for residents to hear updates on the campaign, including government and industry changes, and discuss next steps for the campaign.

Every meeting is publicised through the distribution of several thousand leaflets, in addition to phone calls to supporters, reminder emails and social media announcements. This is essential for community participation and democracy.

In-between community meetings, a hive of activity is always taking place. A team of organisers meets to ensure decisions are being carried out (which makes decisions meaningful) and to organise future meetings, including discussing proposals to take to the community.

A number of working groups, including research, messaging, outreach, finances and admininistration, meet to help carry out decisions and take their own initiatives.

Specialist working groups (such as the community blockade working group) form and disband over time depending on the needs of the campaign. Stalls happen every week, making sure CSG remains a public discussion and the public knows what SCSGI is discussing and planning. There is an ongoing need to consistently and patiently inform the community in the face of industry and government misinformation.

Proposals to organise major events are discussed seriously and measured against the group's capacity. Smaller initiatives, such as doorknocking, are encouraged but also measured against capacity. Initiatives are most successful when discussed democratically and then carried out together as a team. A supportive team culture is encouraged where collective responsibility is emphasised. After all, SCSGI is made up of concerned volunteers, not paid staff with any financial incentive.

To maximise participation SCSGI is fiercely independent but inclusive. The campaign is not affiliated to any political or business group, but works with and welcomes the participation of people from all backgrounds.

People from diverse backgrounds uniting to protect land, water and communities has enabled the campaign to remain strong. It has not allowed anyone — government or industry — to divide us, despite repeated attempts.

Due to its success, there has been big pressure for SCSGI to take up different issues and broader demands. Its members signed up for a single clear goal, however, and so the campaign has been consciously guided to stay true to its “mission”. To do otherwise risks weakening this powerful campaign and reducing its influence before its demands have been met.

The campaign has built enormous pressure on the government to respond to the community's concerns. In this context, the NSW Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) rejected an application by Apex Energy to extend drilling deadlines in July 2013, effectively stopping the project in its tracks.

As this article goes to print, the NSW Labor Party has tabled legislation to ban CSG development in drinking water catchment Special Areas, and the NSW Coalition government has just implemented a temporary ban on CSG in drinking water catchment Special Areas.

The extraordinary resolve this community has developed around CSG was on display at the PAC's public meeting held in February in Helensburgh. Person after person stood up and explained their well-informed opposition to the proposal — articulately and confidently.

But strikingly, many people concluded with the point that it would ultimately be irresponsible for the PAC to approve the proposal because it would result in the community taking physical action to stop it.

This was not a “vocal minority”. These were members of the community who had participated in doorknocking entire suburbs where more than 95% of residents said they wanted CSG stopped.

These were people who had taken part in some of the Illawarra's biggest ever demonstrations. It’s really an inspiring example of an informed and empowered community deciding to protect itself — a glimpse of real democracy in action.

SCSGI plans to continue the push for an immediate and permanent ban on CSG in NSW drinking water catchments, and to then continue until its broader demands are met. The community has also vowed to continue working with others to protect our land and water from the risks of CSG across Australia. Safe drinking water and a healthy future for our children demands nothing less.

[Stay in touch with the campaign in the Illawarra to stop CSG via their website, including email newsletter updates, media coverage and ways to get involved. Watch the video 'Stop CSG - Community Power at Work'.]

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