Picture yourself as a relative novice at politics, trying to get your head around what’s required to mount an organised, effective campaign against a high-profile, well-resourced, politically-seasoned opponent in a blue ribbon seat s/he has a history of cake-walking. Despite all this, expectations are high that you can knock off said adversary and (wait for it) change the very way we do politics.
No pressure, right?
Such is the scenario facing so-called teal independents in NSW, who promised environmental gains which go beyond the broad goal of net zero, and a community engagement approach aimed at putting the upper-case “D” in Democracy. The high expectations around NSW teals are derived from their federal counterparts’ success at last May’s election, and from their approach to politics, which is refreshing to a jaded electorate.
Those expectations may prove quixotic, given the absence of climate change as a lightning rod issue in NSW (the LNP government had a recent epiphany on the matter) and the straight-jacket fundraising rules faced by NSW independents. State electoral laws mean groups like Simon Holmes à Court’s Climate 200 can’t replicate the financial assistance they gave federal independents last year, and individual donors are confined to a cap of $3300 each.
Mediator and podiatric clinic co-owner Victoria Davidson has perhaps the best chance among the teals running in electorates dotted across Sydney. Her contest with the dam wall-raising developers’ friend Anthony Roberts in Lane Cove is touted as a marquee matchup which fits the challenger’s message hand-in-glove.
As planning minister, Roberts recently scrapped a state environmental planning policy (SEPP) aimed at adding some modest sustainability standards to developments – a hot button issue on the lower north shore, where medium and high-density development has been prolific.
“I’ve knocked on a lot of Lane Cove doors, and seriously, I haven’t met one homeowner who likes Roberts”, Davidson told The Fifth Estate.
If you think Davidson and other Lower House teal candidates face hurdles, check out the skyscraper that author, columnist and public speaker Elizabeth Farrelly and her Upper House ticket must scale. The electorate Elizabeth Farrelly Independents (EFI) must woo is the entire state – 800 thousand square kilometres, from Byron Bay to Broken Hill. The group’s campaign was deemed too much of a long-shot for Climate 200 to back.
“It’s almost like the [Upper House] rules are there to preserve the status quo,” Farrelly told The Fifth Estate. Unperturbed, she worked those rules to her advantage, applying to take the Open Party’s place on the ballot (this would give EFI above-the-line party status on ballots, and open up fundraising opportunities) while assiduously courting local causes outside of her Sydney base, like opposition among Liverpool Plains landowners to a coal seam gas (CSG) pipeline from Narrabri, or local and statewide uproar over raising the Warragamba Dam wall and its impact on world heritage areas.
“It’s a massive effort, but we can make it happen through the use of IT and a creative approach to problems others might find a bit too much,” she said. If anyone can pull it off, it’s Farrelly, who garnered close to 10 per cent of the vote at last year’s Strathfield by-election.
The long-shot campaigns of the teals, and the NSW Greens’ quest to improve on its six parliamentary seats, are given life by the broadly developer-centric, fracking-friendly policies of both major parties.
While the LNP and Labor stage a high-profile bidding war with voters over who’s the preferred proponent of net zero emissions and clean energy, the devil is in the detail of sometimes-forgotten, localised issues, like gas drilling or planning and development which, if unchecked, could retard or reverse our progress on the former.
Take the question of fracking, offshore drilling and the means required to get fossil fuels from A to B. Late last year, a pipeline connecting the Narrabri Coal Seam Gas (CSG) project to the Hunter Gas Pipeline was declared critical infrastructure by the state government, a decision which will fast-track the planning approval process and stymie debate.
There are a number of red flags around this news, not the least of which is that it brings oil and gas giant Santos that much closer to large-scale fracking in the native Pilliga Forest and, it seems, the Gunnedah Basin.
Local First Nations people warned that widespread fracking would bring “grave and irreversible consequences for [our] culture, lands and waters”, an admonition which didn’t stop the Native Title Tribunal approving 850 CSG wells in the Pilliga area late last year.
The native Pilliga Forest is home to at least 300 native animal species and more than 900 plant species, and the Gunnedah Basin is part of the Liverpool Plains, Sydney’s major food bowl.
The threat to ground water there is real, with all the consequences for land, food and waterways this implies; fracking is well known for producing the kind of toxic air pollution and water impurities that could curtail quality of life in nearby Narrabri, Gunnedah, Quirindi and beyond.
The drilling, the dollars and the environmental damage can’t happen without the pipeline, setting the scene for a high-stakes David and Goliath fight between landholders along its route, who have sworn to bar workers from their properties, and a multi-national oil and gas behemoth backed by the state and all its coercive power.
Teal and Green sentiments on the matter are summed up by the latter’s coal and gas spokesman, Sue Higginson: “this reckless move…will put communities at greater risk”.
Meanwhile, Planning Minister Roberts has come to embody the struggle between unfettered development and sustainability. Fresh from succeeding the respected Rob Stokes as planning minister, the far-right ideologue went right to work, gutting his predecessor’s Design and Place SEPP which required energy?efficiency, electrification, tree canopy cover, green space and more as part of a draft plan for all NSW buildings to operate at net zero emissions “well before 2050”.
He wasn’t finished there. Roberts abandoned Stokes’ plan to ban dark roofs – aimed at reducing temperatures and energy consumption – and brought in a new natural disaster agency, the NSW Reconstruction Authority, which the Greens say just happens to give Roberts “the sole power to clear almost any parcel of land regardless of environmental value”.
Perhaps most remarkably, Roberts fast-tracked the $2 billion Warragamba Dam wall-raising, which Stokes had rejected on the grounds it endangered world heritage-listed environment.
The decision came just five days after WaterNSW had asked Roberts to intervene, a tin-eared Premier Dominic Perrottet later explaining that his government was putting “people before plants”.
Ham-fisted actions like these are giving the teals a fighting chance, in Roberts’ electorate of Lane Cove, as well as in Wollondilly, home of the Warragamba Dam and elsewhere.
Labor is running candidates in both seats; why it stands little chance of success in either is a question well worth asking.
To the unengaged (and, frankly, that’s most voters) the election on 25 March seems set to usher in “change”. Fed on a steady diet of mainstream media which invariably defines politics as a horse race, unengaged electors could be forgiven for thinking this year’s ‘derby’ involves just two ‘horses’ (LNP and Labor) and that the latter would have to “fall in the shadows of the winning post” to lose.
The only obvious “change” such a result would bring is a new government, but what policy changes would it produce?
The Labor opposition has done little to garner the support of voters concerned about the built environment or gas drilling, proposing their own developer-friendly streamlining of planning processes “to cut red tape” and ”not standing in the way of the Pillaga Forest CSG fracking.
Absurdly, it also finds itself wedged over its partial support for Canberra’s reversing the previous Morrison Government’s halting of the controversial PEP11 gas field project in the Pacific Ocean off Sydney and Newcastle (the state LNP has opposed PEP11).
The Fifth Estate contacted Labor and its Lane Cove candidate, Penny Pedersen, to help understand the party’s position on these and other kindred issues, but had received no response by publication deadline.
Labor’s credibility as a traditional agent of change is on life support
In the absence of an explanation, we are left to conclude that NSW Labor’s decision-making on planning, fracking, coal and the other, lower-profile and localised issues is driven in large part by the dollars flowing from developers, fossil fuel interests and influential, Labor-affiliated unions whose power is threatened by the transition to a net zero economy.
In parts of NSW directly affected by runaway development, fracking or the inundation of the wild Kowmung River, Labor’s credibility as a traditional agent of change is on life support. Even the numbers underpinning Labor’s promise of legislation for net zero by 2050 can be questioned in light of the looming mass proliferation of carbon-belching gas fields in the Pillaga Forest.
Thus, Labor’s strategy may well turn out to be flawed. In the affluent North Shore and eastern suburbs, the party that won Bennelong at last year’s federal election risks coming up empty as teal candidates emerge as the LNP’s main opposition.
Meanwhile, in the inner west and elsewhere, they risk losing further ground to the NSW Greens and candidates like Climate 200-backed Wollondilly and Southern Highlands activist Judy Hannan.
The thing in common with candidates is the absence of fossil fuel and developer money
What do these smaller groups have in common? They have policies which reflect an absence of fossil fuel and developer money, and a preparedness to listen to ordinary people’s concerns. “I will be there only for the benefit of the Wollondilly electorate and its constituents,” Hannan said.
Such sentiment is informed by the community engagement principles of former Federal MP Cathy McGowan, who promotes kitchen table conversations as a means for candidates and representatives to stay close to their communities and avoid the vacuum of isolation easily filled by lobbyists. It’s a modus operandi at stark odds with that of today’s Labor Party, and it shows.
Ironically, in the still-plausible event of a hung NSW parliament, Labor leader Chris Minns may have to approach these same Greens and independents, cap in hand. In that event, he’d better be ready to make real, meaningful change.