In a humble local court in Newcastle on January 31, a major battle in the war on climate change began. A court is a theatrical space where we can overhear the clashing narratives around a central event.
The defendants were six of the seven men and women from climate action group Rising Tide — dubbed the Rising Tide Seven.
Posing as workers, they entered a Newcastle coal-loading facility before dawn on September 26 and locked themselves to the equipment 30 metres above ground. Work was brought to a halt.
Magistrate Elaine Truscott said she accepted the activists were “well intentioned”. However, as six of the seven had been to court before for similar activities, she rejected a request for leniency and fined each defendant $300 each, plus court costs.
The court deferred judgement on the victim’s compensation claim until March 3.
A great pile of abseiling equipment was tendered as evidence of the activists’ “crime”. The defendants did not speak in court.
Port Waratah Coal Service (PWCS) had sought the hearing under the Victim’s Support and Rehabilitation Act.
It wants the activists to pay $1800 in compensation for a cherry picker used to get the seven protesters down and claims that Rising Tide Seven should pay the company $525,000 in damages for the interruption to its coal-loading operation.
The PWCS’s lawyer told the court: “It’s simple.” PWCS is an aggrieved party like the victim of a break and enter.
“It’s just that the quantum is different”.
And here is what that “quantum” difference adds up to.
Trainloads of coal are brought into port around the clock, 365 days a year. In court, operations manager Shaun Sears described the 20 trains, each carrying 6000 tonnes of coal.
The pride he took in his work and his meticulous accounting was admirable as he explained the network of conveyors that lead up to the ships.
From his description, you could imagine the pyramids of coal and the ships, some so deep that they can only leave with their loot at high tide.
If it wasn’t coal — which destroys farmlands and aquifers, causes lung cancers and asthma from the particulate dust left in its wake, and which exports climate changing pollution — then you might feel proud of his contribution to Australia’s prosperity.
The defendants’ lawyer never hinted at the nasty side of the work. He appeared fascinated with the details of the alleged victim’s loss.
He accepted PWCS’s claim that 13 hours of loading time had been lost due to the protest, although later he established that they had made up for the lost loading opportunity by October 1.
Rising Tide Seven spokesperson Carly Phillips provided a counter-narrative to PWCS’s claims at a press conference.
Phillips said the coal industry was a bully and was using this case to try to stop growing opposition to Australia’s addiction to coal.
She said that coal was Australia’s biggest contribution to global warming and that the Australian government had “caved in to the coal industry”.
“The hour is upon us to phase out fossil fuels and rapidly transition to renewable energy,” Phillips said.
Greens MP David Shoebridge backed her up, saying: “Corporations like Xstrata and Rio Tinto [PWCS’s main shareholders] are not victims. They are directly profiting from damaging our environment.”
I recently interviewed Phillips for the Beyond Zero Radio show on Melbourne’s 3CR. She told me what motivated her group.
Phillips said the activists were sick of the government ignoring letters and lobbying. The urgency of preventing the worst climate change was uppermost in their minds.
Phillips said Rising Tide members felt that living in Newcastle — the world’s biggest coal exporting port — imposed on them an imperative to take direct action.
Rising Tide also wants the coal mining companies to stop their reckless expansion, which is having such a devastating impact on the Hunter Valley and elsewhere.
People need to know that big coal makes the profits, “but the devastation stays here”, she said.
That’s why a total of 44 people, aged between 15 and 88, had trained for and took part in the non-violent protest to rouse the rest of us to action, she said.
Back in court the company’s narrative took over again.
PWCS general manager Graham Davidson told the court about his great concern for the activists’ safety. He said he had a duty of care at the site where “heavy machinery is operated remotely, automatically and is often fast moving”.
Davidson felt the protests were getting bolder and riskier. He said: “One day I will have to pick up a dead body.”
The court was shown two, full-page PWCS advertisements Davidson had authorised, which appeared in the Newcastle Herald on January 30 and 31.
Headlined “An open letter to the people of Newcastle and the Hunter Valley”, it asked the community to appreciate the difficult position PWCS is in.
He accepted that “people have a right to protest” but said the company hoped “protesters will reconsider their tactics and make safety and commonsense a priority”.
Davidson told the court he hoped the $525,000 claim would deter future protests and agreed that PWCS would give the money to charity if it won the case.
He also said he had asked Rising Tide members to have a coffee with him to discuss matters, to no avail.
Phillips told me she thought it inappropriate to meet with Davidson while a court case was in the offing.
What would she have talked about with PWCS in such a friendly meeting?
“Safety!” she cried. “If we had talked to them they would have wanted to talk about safety and we’d say that we too put everyone’s safety as our top priority.
“The issue is not with them individually, it’s about the alarming expansion of their industry at our expense.
“We have trained extensively to do this action and the safety of everyone onsite was ensured. The police were in harnesses too.
“The safety of the environment was the real issue.”
Phillips said she would have wanted Davidson to admit the local impacts of mining and face the fact that climate change could have already passed the “point of no return”.
Like a doctor who wants to stop a haemorrhage, Rising Tide wants to stop the loading of coal 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
When will we hear the verdict of this Newcastle battle in the war on climate change? Not until March 3.
When will that coffee invitation turn into a working party? I'd love to know.
[For more details on the case visit www.risingtide7.wordpress.com .]