Divisions in the Northern Territory Labor Party were on show on May 12 as the party’s annual conference voted to ban fracking across the territory, weeks after Chief Minister Michael Gunner lifted a moratorium on the practice. The vote was a vindication for the more than 200 protesters who gathered outside.
Pastoralists, Traditional Owners and others had come from across the NT in a “Convoy for Country” — the latest mobilisation of the campaign that began in 2013 and has unified a cross-section of the territory population, including from the fishing, pastoral and tourist industries.
The strength of the campaign was evident in the commitment Labor Chief Minister Michael Gunner took to the 2016 election: to introduce a moratorium on the risky and highly controversial practice of horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking).
But the Labor conference vote, while reflective of broader opposition to fracking, is at odds with Gunner’s backflip on the moratorium. It was lifted in April this year, following the release of a scientific inquiry and the government’s commitment to implement all 135 of the recommendations.
Gunner’s backdown was a betrayal of the thousands of Territorians who swept Labor to power in 2016 — his promise of a moratorium played a big role in this, as did his commitment that any expansion of the onshore gas industry would depend on “the social approval of the people of the Northern Territory".
During the inquiry, federal government pressure mounted on the NT to lift the moratorium. There is also scepticism that the NT’s regulatory bodies will be able to adequately monitor a huge expansion of the gas industry, given the legacy of inadequate oversight and environmental disaster that plagues the NT.
At the Labor conference, Gunner told members: "I understand the emotion in this room … But I hope you also understand we have to make our decisions based on evidence, on science, on the experts.
"If all recommendations are implemented we can protect the environment, water, existing jobs industries, sacred sites and create new jobs."
The vote by conference to ban fracking does not bind the chief minister. But outside, protesters showed no sign of backing away from their resolve to continue the fight until fracking is banned — as it has been in Victoria and other parts of the world.
Lauren Mellor from Frack-Free NT said “We feel vindicated by this decision, which shows the Chief Minister is isolated in his support for the fracking industry, even within his own party."
Peter Anderson, an Aboriginal owner of Manangoora cattle station near Borroloola and a fishing tourism business, said: "Water is life for our region and we are here to tell the government today that we will not accept any more risk to our water, land or livelihoods from fracking."