Why are Labor and the Coalition still in bed with fossil fools?

A Stop Adani protest in June which marched past ALP MP Anthony Albanese's office in Marrickville. Photo: Zeb Parkes

The simple answer is that the institution of the state exists to serve the interests of corporations.

In Adani and the War Over Coal, published this month, (see review on page 22) Quentin Beresford goes a long way to answering this question. He concludes: “Ideological fervour, propaganda, lies and corruption have been the quartet of forces orchestrated by the fossil fuel power network that created and sustained the proposal to build the Carmichael mine.

“Employment has been the figleaf of justification for the project ... Australian governments have willingly embraced a rogue corporation … Some have argued that the struggle surrounding Adani is a potent example of Australia’s broken system of government. But ‘broken’ for whom? The system works very effectively for the oligarchy it has come increasingly to serve.”

Miners’ political donations

Bipartisan support for the Adani Carmichael mega-mine project is the latest manifestation of the synergy that exists between big coal and the state. From the 1990s, the coalmining industry became big donors to political parties.

According to Australian Electoral Office documents, between 1989-90 and 2003-04, BHP, Rio Tinto, Woodside, Western Mining and Wesfarmers donated $1.69 million to state and federal coalition parties and their associated foundations. Labor’s federal and state organisations received $412,311 from the same companies during that period.

Alongside this financial link, a concerted propaganda campaign by Big Coal was waged, using the services of right-wing think tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs, as well as the Murdoch media. Climate denial was a key aspect of this campaign, as was the denigration of the environment movement.

Lobbying by coal interests had the effect of translating the demands of the industry into government’s resources and energy policy. The expansion of coalmining and coal seam gas were touted by both sides of politics as being in the “national interest”, enabling the fast-tracking of mining applications. Opaque processing became the norm during the coal boom of 2000–12.

Nowhere is the corrupting influence of the mining lobby as apparent as in the case of the application for a stage 3 expansion of New Hope Coal’s Acland coalmine in the Darling Downs, one of Australia's richest agricultural and pastoral regions.

The then-Liberal National Party government of Campbell Newman originally rejected the application because of its negative impact on agriculture, but reversed its decision and approved the application just prior to the January 2015 election. A large donation by the mine’s owners was rumoured to have influenced this decision.

Labor campaigned in the election on a platform of investigating the approval process — which involved the co-ordinator general, who had previously been a staffer of the LNP deputy premier — in particular the role of political donations.

Nothing came of this and local residents challenged the approval for the Stage 3 extension in the Land Court. In what was to be a historic case the court made the unprecedented decision to recommend that the minister reject the application. The minister deferred a decision pending a judicial review and the matter is still before the courts.

Cognitive dissonance

In an extreme example of cognitive dissonance, Australia, a signatory of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, has set an ambitious target to reduce emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030, and at the same time has facilitated the expansion of coalmining.

Labor governments earlier attempted to manage this contradiction by embracing notions of technological fixes for “clean energy” and “clean coal”. The clean coal myth is useful to the wealthy elites because it provides an excuse to governments and the big polluters to avoid real action on climate change.

Every dollar spent on carbon capture and storage is one that could be spent on renewable energy, public transport and energy efficiency programs. It is a good example of how capitalist responses to climate change so often turn into the opposite. For carbon capture and storage to be profitable, it may become necessary to increase emissions from fossil fuels.

In response to the environment and climate change movements’ challenge to the two coal addicted parties, the economic benefits of coalmining are promoted. In its recent budget, the Queensland Labor government credited its healthy surplus to increased royalties from mining. However, the extent of public money expended to subsidise polluting industries was ignored.

A paper by The Australia Institute showed that over a six-year period, state governments in Australia spent $17.6 billion supporting the mineral and fossil fuel industries. Queensland’s assistance was by far the largest at $9.5 billion, followed by Western Australia at $6.2 billion.

Campaign against Adani

The campaign against Adani’s Carmichael project has been a lightning rod for the resistance to the coal oligarchy. Legal challenges have delayed the project and highlighted the inadequacies of existing environmental legislation. The campaign has highlighted the reality that Native Title does not equate with sovereignty. It has successfully taken up the issue of investments in the fossil fuel industry by Australia’s Big Four Banks and international financial institutions, leaving Adani’s quest for financing at a stalemate.

The campaign against government subsidies resulted in the Queensland government vetoing an application for a $1 billion loan for the rail link between the mine and port. This aspect of the campaign continues as the federal government, via the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC), plans to use public money to prop up at least one company that would supply Adani’s Carmichael project. EFIC has fielded direct inquiries from Adani, as well as other companies related to the mega coalmine proposal. 

The strength of the social movements is measured by the government’s response, which further undermines our fragile democracy.

Laws passed on June 26 could criminalise dissent. Greens MP Adam Bandt and indendent MP Andrew Wilkie were the only members in the Lower House to vote against the bills. Wilkie previously worked as a defence analyst, argued that the definitions of national security and foreign interference are too broad.

He said: “Environmentalists protesting against the enormous Adani coal mine proposed for Australia's north could be prosecuted for the crime of sabotage under the legislation if that protest was defined as a threat to the nation's economic security.”

The stakes in the coal wars have been raised.