OPINION: Bob Brown’s “Stop Adani” convoy has raised hackles across Queensland and the broader political landscape, as it was intended to do. In the lead-up to the Federal election, it’s been an effective litmus test of the state’s volatility, right wing politics emerging as the primary battleground, with Hansen, Palmer and Morrison seeking to outdo each other in extremist positioning, while Shorten limps along behind.
I joined the convoy on 20 April, at Mullumbimby in northern NSW. It had left Hobart on the 17th, progressing through Melbourne and Sydney without undue incident, gathering momentum and numbers to around 200 cars and motorbikes, spearheaded by five electric vehicles.
In Mullumbimby, an estimated 5000 people rallied at the Showgrounds. The Northern Rivers is distinguished for citizen activism, notably the coal seam gas showdown in Bentley, near Lismore, that kicked out speculative gas miner Metgasco in 2014.
So while Lismore’s Murdoch-owned newspaper delivered a column from Sky News commentator Paul Murray headed “Say No to Bob Brown’s smug anti-Adani convoy”, the euphoric crowds in Mullum gave him a hero’s welcome.
In Queensland things began to take a darker turn. With the Courier Mail giving voice to pro-mining sentiments uttered by the likes of MPs Hanson, Christensen, and Entsch and so on, a number of specific threats had been made to the Bob Brown Foundation’s Facebook account.
Queensland police were taking them seriously, shadowing it with undercover operatives and a constant uniformed presence.
At Brisbane’s event another 5000 enthusiastic punters gathered in Queen’s Park, before marching to Adani’s headquarters with a heavy police guard. Some entertaining street theatre ensued, bobble-headed Shorten and Morrison mannequins contending for a lump of coal before Shorten was irretrievably snagged on a cartoon fence and a mob of flash dancers emerged to shoo them away.
In a lively speech peppered with some endearingly daggy zingers, Brown called the Courier Mail to account for its inflammatory coverage of the convoy and repudiated its accusation of carbon hypocrisy, observing that the convoy’s emissions would constitute less than three days of those disgorged by the proposed 60-year Carmichael coal mine.
Brown singled out a Courier Mail story quoting a defamatory remark against miners on the Stop Adani Facebook page, made by an individual under a false name. He declared this was not made by a supporter, but rather a detractor seeking to create trouble.
“What [the Courier-Mail] has done today is to use those despicable comments and try to tar everyone else with them. That’s the lowest form of journalism.
“Those comments have no place in civil debate, and they have no place being used to stir up, no doubt, malevolence down the line. And I hold the Murdoch media responsible for that, if it happens.”
As the convoy crew proceeded deeper into Queensland, all anecdotal evidence was that their black and red Stop Adani t-shirts, stickers and flags were eliciting occasional enthusiastic welcomes, but more commonly outright hostility.
Entering the coal belt proper in Rockhampton, I experienced my first personal rebuff, being given the extended middle finger in the f#*% you configuration, by a passing carload of boofy young blokes.
Rockhampton has been a historic bete noire for me – as a young hitchhiker on uni holidays I was screamed at for not having a job – in later years as a travelling musician I met a man who professed to have never heard of the Rolling Stones.
East of Rockhampton, in the coastal village of Emu Park the 600-strong convoy and supporters encountered determined opposition.
A CFMEU-sponsored Start Adani counter-protest began at the entrance to a park where the Bob Brown Foundation had organised a rally and lantern parade.
Police were conspicuous as the 100-odd pro-mining crowd, bearing placards and signage in mockery of the environmentalist’s, worked themselves into a state. Unable to physically attack these maddeningly peaceful hippies, they contented themselves with extended middle fingers and some quite vile epithets, which, considering the number of children and elderly people on both sides, was an effective passion barometer.
Non-violent direct action
The Bob Brown Foundation had been at pains to impress upon convoy participants that they ought not to respond to foul language or aggression. A central tenet of its non-violent direct action principle, that strategy proved highly effective for him in the Franklin, as it did for Gandhi’s, Nelson Mandela’s and a thousand other successful social movements since.
Brown was a calming and quietly encouraging presence throughout the convoy, happily chatting to his constant nimbus of fanboys and fangirls of all ages, at any time of the day or night. His spiels were consistently measured, authoritative and direct. Like all great performers, he left the convoyers feeling special, touched by the invisible current he’s obviously drawing on.
As Indigenous spokesman Adrian Burragubba declared in Clermont, “He must be a great leader, for all you people to follow him out here into the bush.”
When Brown took the stage at Emu Park, he seemed to draw strength from the hecklers infiltrating his crowd.
Cries of “bullshit”, when he cited rising sea levels and temperatures as evidence of manmade global warming, gave him an entree for a succinct scientific analysis. Though the counter-protestors had clearly come looking for trouble, they faded away after his speech, ceding the ground to an all-singing, all chai-drinking lantern parade that ticked all the boxes in the Kumbaya songbook.
Sources later told me that a person in senior management at the mining company involved had informed him that the counter-protestors had been allegedly given an RDO in order to attend – also that they’d been allegedly hosted to a lunch that day by local Liberal MP Michelle Landry. If that was true these were effectively paid protestors, a sobriquet usually bestowed on environmental activists.
That night a musical shindig was held at the local property where the bulk of the protestors were staying, in an assortment of luxury campers, ancient caravans, tents, swags and station wagons. At around 3am a local activist of some renown, who had been with Brown in the Franklin, was seriously assaulted by two unidentified men. Police were not able to lay charges as the assailants were afterwards not to be found.
The journey north to Airlie Beach was mostly trouble-free, though one convoy participant claimed an irate man pursued him through town screaming abuse, apparently incensed by the Stop Adani signage on his vehicle. During the night, convoy vehicles were vandalised, their stickers and flags stolen.
Locals sympathetic to the cause attributed this to comments made in the Courier Mail by Leichhardt MP Warren Entsch, who rather perversely blamed the convoy for “creating a perception that the reef is in its final death knell. There’s been a drop in (tourism) numbers. It’s been pretty bad. People are cancelling after seeing news that the reef is dead.”
Despite Adani’s repeated pollution breaches and evidence emerging that week in handwritten notes from Geoscience head Dr James Johnson, quoting Adani’s water modelling as being “not fit for purpose” Entsch claimed that the reef was in good health.
“If you want to see a top quality reef come put your head underwater (here), don’t believe the nonsense from the activists,” he said.
The question of ownership is challenging terrain
Next day around 300 people attended a rally at the Whitsundays Sailing Club. Speakers included Brown, activists and a performance by Tasmanian singer Monique Brumby. A verbal altercation between First Nations women of opposing factions, both claiming traditional ownership, spotlit a fractious issue that has been exploited effectively by Adani’s lawyers.
There are three Indigenous Nations on whose traditional lands Adani’s planned operations would impact.
This is difficult terrain to navigate, as there are fierce disputes around which of the contending Traditional Owners (TOs) are entitled to make definitive decisions. Adani have made lavish arrangements and payments to procure the agreements of those claimants their legal team put forward as genuine, against the vehement opposition of others. The TOs opposed to the mine contend that the miners have taken advantage of such disputes to pit rival groups against each other, in a court system that favours litigants with expensive lawyers and exploits the deeply flawed native title system.
Adrian Burragubba of the Wangan and Jagalingou people, TOs of the land around the proposed Carmichael mine, has been personally hit with a $600,000 lawsuit for his role as chief proponent of a strong anti-Adani campaign.
Representatives of the Juru people, indigenous to the land around Adani’s Abbott Point coal export facility, claim all of the company’s cultural heritage surveys were done by impostors, who are not part of their prescribed body corporate.
The convoy’s next stop was Mackay, where the opposition began to really heat up. The Foundation had carefully planned a large rally in close cooperation with the police. So had the Start Adani coalition, which again seemed to consist of an alliance between Unions and right wing politicians.
Their rally, at which vocal coal proponent, Nationals MP George Christensen spoke, was timed to finish earlier than the Foundation’s, so that afterwards their highly vocal crowd could surround the convoy and subject it to a barrage of abuse and invective.
As if in response to Christensen’s invective, the lowering clouds responded with a Biblical downfall during the Foundation’s proceedings, while a chorus of catcalls and abuse continued throughout.
I recorded the following observations from a large gentleman with a sign reading “For the Future of our Region, Go Galilee Basin”, who had interposed himself in front of the podium where Bob Brown addressed the crowd.
Preferring to remain anonymous, he assured me that the Foundation was enormously wealthy and influential, part of a dangerous left wing philosophy that is; “happening all around, socialism attacking all societies of a Western denomination.
“There’s lots of vested interest in it, so therefore they’re only looking at certain statistics, certain relevant data, and excluding other information, to the point of them making the situation look that bad.”
“It’s actually a climate change cult and you all are thinking that what you know is the greatest and the best and because you’re the holiest and the know alls and everyone else is out of touch. Of course we’re the filth, we have to be changed and washed to be reborn. It’s the way the cult works.
“Have you spoken to (former James Cook university academic and climate change sceptic) Peter Ridd about it? There’s a couple of fellas around who say that they don’t believe it. It’s incorrect information.”
The gentleman contended that increased carbon emissions have no effect on global warming.
“Of course not, it’s naturally occurring. The plants need it, the trees need it. if you want to do something go and plant trees, go and recycle your rubbish, that’s more a worthwhile project.”
He denied the evidence I cited, that coal production is in decline.
“Year upon year the tonnages are going up for export and here we are, gonna throw all that away, expecting baristas, taxi drivers and hairdressers to prop up the economy?
“You believe that in Melbourne I know, but it doesn’t work. The fact of the matter is the royalties the Queensland government are giving out on coal are phenomenal, yet they won’t push it. That’s hypocrisy and bullshit. What sort of philosophy is stopping them from doing it? Who’s been driving it, what’s been driving it? I’m very suspicious of it. We’ve had climate change for a million years.”
The “drug dealers defence”
After his public address in the driving rain, Bob Brown countered aggressive questioning from the ABC and commercial news reporters.
“You heard me say we should have should have a just transition,” he said.
“That means not opening Adani, it means transiting across to renewable energy, because a very big part of the resources sector, much bigger than coal in terms of employment is the Great Barrier Reef, perhaps the largest living entity on the planet. I’ve had business people saying ‘we support you, because we want to keep our jobs, we want to keep our businesses and we want to keep the lifestyle, which is so based on a Great Barrier Reef’. There are good alternatives to coal. Thermal coal can be replaced but there is no alternative to the Great Barrier Reef.”
An ABC journalist insisted that Australia would be losing a valuable export market in coal. Having previously called this the “drug dealers defence”, Brown replied;
“Why should we have Venezuela, or Malaysia or Vietnam, or India dictating policy here in Australia? We’re mature enough and we’ve got the good alternatives enough to say, not least from the god given sun, to produce renewable power to make sure our kids are safe into the future.”
Heavy rainfall and police dampening the aggressive behaviour in the streets, the convoy made a meticulously planned departure for the mining town of Clermont, 160km from the proposed mine site.
Pre-arranged affinity groups travelled closely together, as we had been warned by police to expect potential trouble and some service stations and shops, particularly in Clermont to refuse service to those suspected of being anti-Adani. Local police had been pulling over vehicles bearing Foundation signage and closely interrogating drivers and passengers, threatening intensive searches for suspected blockading equipment.
Things kept getting uglier
As the convoy arrived in Clermont it was met with a sustained and belligerent reception by a few hundred locals, who had been fired up that morning by addresses from Clive Palmer, Pauline Hanson and Coalition MP Matt Canavan.
Convoy cars were obstructed, struck with fists and stones, the occupants subjected to vigorous and nasty abuse, terrifying several children. One 11 year old remarked to her mother that bullying at school would seem like nothing after that experience.
Bookings were cancelled at a local restaurant after direct threats were made to the proprietor. A local publican had been interviewed in the Mackay newspaper, boasting that he would deny service to any protestors. A large threatening sign on the balcony made his intentions clear as to what would become of anyone foolish enough to test him.
As a result Bob Brown did not take up the accommodation reserved for him in town and instead camped with the rest of the convoy at the Clermont show ground, which was heavily guarded by police.
The Wangan and Jagalingou people had emphasised that the event they were hosting there was not a Stop Adani camp, but rather a Karmoo Dreaming, or water festival. It was intended as an opportunity for southerners to experience their culture and learn about the challenges they’d faced since colonialism. They also stressed they did not wish to allow pro-Adani supporters into their festival – a decision supported by the police.
At the front gate of the Showground next morning, I saw first hand the determination of the Clermont locals to disrupt these proceedings. Several men in Start Adani t-shirts were denied entry. One man in a Stop Adani t-shirt made a lacklustre attempt to bluff his way through, before his belligerence and refusal to pay the $15 entry fee betrayed him.
The persistence of these attempts obliged the police to begin turning all locals away and preventing their signage being put up outside the entrance.
But they were not finished yet. In the mid afternoon, during singer Neil Murray’s performance a man on horseback came galloping at reckless speed from the showground’s front gate, where he had already, it transpired, nearly run down a volunteer, clouting him over the head as he passed.
Whooping and hollering, the rider came dangerously close to festival goers before goading the horse through a gate into the oval, where around 200 people were seated and small children were running around.
His escapade finished with horse and rider colliding into a gate, behind which a woman who may or may not have been attempting to close it, depending on whom you spoke to, was badly injured. An ambulance took her to Mackay Hospital for an MRI. She was later released.
The rider was charged with a list of offences. He was certainly supported by a group of locals I saw near his horse float by the showgrounds. There were some telling comments on the ABC Brisbane Facebook page’s story, including; “… the Stockman and his Stock Horse are HEROES” and; “Dumbarse leftards meddling where they have no idea – who cares!”
The Bob Brown Foundation Convoy is now wending its way southwards, to a dramatic culmination in Canberra on 5 May, with singer Paul Kelly, writer Richard Flanagan and actor Jack Thompson scheduled to speak alongside Brown.
Meanwhile, as the Independent UK announced that the world’s largest ice shelf is melting 10 times faster than expected due to solar heating, the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, where well over 1000 people have been arrested, have been directly credited with forcing the Scottish and UK Parliaments to officially declare a climate emergency.
But while Bill Shorten has now declared for Adani and fresh gas fields in the Galilee Basin, while politicians of all stripes in Australia vie with each other to condemn the Stop Adani convoy, the measure of its effectiveness has been the forces arrayed against it in Queensland.