Public pressure in action at the Sydney Climate Strike last Friday.

OPINION: Who says public pressure doesn’t work? To date, 57 companies have pulled out of business dealings with the Adani Carmichael coal mine project. Fourteen global insurance companies have also pulled out, with AIG likely to follow suit. A whistleblower tipped off activists that the US based company is insuring construction works, prompting a world wide petition that garnered 135,000 signatures.

On the phone to a friend in Melbourne yesterday I was shocked to discover how little she knew about climate change and the role coal mining plays in exacerbating it. In fact, she’d never heard of Adani, surely one of the most iconic corporate watchwords of the decade.

Not only did her indifference to this global threat alert me to how the media has failed to reach unfathomable numbers of people on such a vital issue, during the conversation she expressed grave doubts about whether activism or indeed science had any effect whatsoever on reining in major polluting industries.

Granted; my friend has no social media presence and doesn’t pay much attention to mainstream media. She’s a small business owner and her time is utterly absorbed by immediate concerns.

But on at least one score I was able to answer her definitively; yes, activism does have an impact on extractive industries. In fact, a major new coal mining project, the Korean company Kepco’s Tarwyn Park mine in the Bylong Valley, was shut down the day before by the NSW Independent Planning Commission. It’s been the target of sustained community opposition for over six years.

It’s now the second mine to be knocked back on the basis of expert climate science evidence and the principles of ecologically sustainable development. The Rocky Hill coal mine in Gloucester, refused in February 2019, was the first such decision in Australia.

However, previous environmental campaigns against mines such as Whitehaven’s Maules Creek project, or the Warkworth expansion at Bulga have failed to budge NSW Department of Planning and Environment approvals. And as Georgina Woods of Lock The Gate observes, such decisions are rarely dependent on activism alone.

“(The Bylong decision) was really down to the independence of the Planning Commission,” she told The Fifth Estate. “They’re free from political interference and that means they can look at the mine objectively. It really was a terrible mine proposal. It was going to dig up strategic farming land and the groundwater drawdown was ten metres. We’ve never really seen a proposal with as dramatic and severe consequences.

“Obviously the conclusions that the panel made about climate change drew from the Rocky Hill decision and with climate change impacting all across the country, it’s perfectly rational that the planning commission would look at it and say ‘what does NSW law and regulations say about this?’

Ms Woods says the advocacy of the community and Lock the Gate’s work had a big part in the decisions the IPC made – people in the community of Bylong have been fighting it for around seven years.

“But I’m cautious about talking up activist power.

“If we overstate our power, it makes us look like the Goliaths and the poor little mining companies are the Davids, and that’s not accurate at all. We’re up against a very big industry and this is just one time the commission has made the right decision.”

The real Goliaths

Australia’s actual political Goliaths, the pro-mining politicians of both (nearly indivisible) LNP and Labor stripes have made their positions abundantly clear on coal mining.

From pre-Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s fondling of a lump of coal in Parliament, to his lousy performance at the Pacific Islands forum, from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s claim of a “strong moral case” for Australia to export coal, to resources minister Matt Canavan’s labelling of activists as “hypocritical and self indulgent” while his own coal spruiking remains a valuable asset to his family’s mining interests.

New federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese has remained a long term Adani backer and leaves it to market forces to dictate his moral conscience on the matter, while Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has endorsed entirely spurious tabloid claims that anti-coal mining activists, who rigidly advocate non violent principles, are booby trapping lock-on devices to harm or kill police.

Against these formidable opponents and a mining industry empowered by ex-politicians who have blithely sashayed through the industry’s “revolving door” to become lobbyists (a rite of passage currently under examination by NSW’s Independent Commission Against Corruption), the various arms of the Stop Adani campaign have mobilised action across Australia.

The power of public pressure

Individuals and a range of organisations including the Stop Adani Campaign, Galilee Blockade, Frontline Action on Coal and Reef Defenders have targeted both peripheral and directly related Adani assets.

These campaigns have delayed Adani’s construction plans by nine years, despite the active cooperation of state and federal governments. During its protracted development, the project’s social license has steadily eroded as it rode roughshod over the native title and was granted unlimited water licences, during the worst drought in recorded history.

A 2017 ReachTEL poll across Australia found 55.6 per cent of respondents across all political persuasions opposed the mine. Previous polling had showed that 74.4 per cent of Australians opposed a billion dollar federal loan to Adani.

The Market Forces website has a list of 57 companies that have pulled out of business dealings with Adani after pressure from activist and public interest groups. While these are primarily finance and insurance institutions, they include rail and freight companies, engineering firms and even vegetation management contractors.

Fourteen global insurance companies have now pulled out of the Adani Carmichael project, with AIG looking likely to follow suit. A whistleblower tipped off activists that the US based company is insuring construction works, prompting a world wide petition that garnered 135,000 signatures.

While engineering company GHD is currently the subject of a sustained campaign, The Downer Group pulled out of its Adani contract in December 2017. That alliance was the particular focus of Galilee Blockade, an activist group.

“Galilee Blockade used direct action to kill off Adani’s massive $2.6 billion contract with Downer to build and operate their Carmichael mine,” Galilee Blockade spokesman Ben Pennings told The Fifth Estate.

“Adani is now negotiating multiple smaller contracts and we’re onto them. Both employees and corporate rivals are leaking valuable information to us on who is in bed with Adani.”

Companies are hiding their involvement with Adani for good reason. The majority of Australians are against the Adani mine and corporations simply have to take heed. Adani had to self-finance because all the banks steered clear.

“Adani will never have social license to build a new thermal coal mine in Australia. Our challenge is to turn this discontent into civil disobedience powerful enough to overcome any industry and government repression.”

In Queensland groups including Frontline Action on Coal have successfully blockaded various contractors supplying tenders for Adani work.

In Townsville recently I observed actions as part of two distinct campaigns. Piping companies Iplex and Vinidex were subject to people locking onto gates to draw media attention to their dealings.

Arrests there ensured that social media attention would focus on these companies, with the intention of leveraging public pressure on the companies to withdraw their tenders.

Frontline Action on Coal spokesperson Andy Paine said “the government has already laid down its cards in supporting Adani and that’s where you would traditionally target political pressure, but there’s not much room to move there now, whereas 57 third party businesses have now publicly distanced themselves from the project, so this is a space where activists can make a difference.

“The political ideology of leaving things up to the free market, which has been orthodoxy for decades, now means that is where the power is, where decisions can be made and corporations that have to compete with other businesses have a lot of things to consider and one of those is public opinion on ethical issues like climate change.

“None of those 57 businesses had to publicly distance themselves from Adani, they could have just done so but not made a public statement but the fact that they did showed there is leverage in public pressure and that it’s working.”

The response from political leaders

Political reactions to public pressure has been heavy handed, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison berating business leaders earlier this month for allowing such “distractions” to detract attention from the economy.

Ian McFarlane, an ex-LNP Industry minister and one of the revolving door’s more infamously partisan lobbyists (he once wore a hi-viz vest into Parliament to demonstrate his allegiance to the mining sector), is now spokesman for the Queensland Resources Council. In a recent press release he bluntly threatened engineering and procurement companies with industry pressure should they buckle to what he termed a “minority group of anti-jobs activists”.

“E&P companies who are seen to be happy to take the resource industry’s money in the good times and then succumb to pressure applied by illegal behaviour of green activists will be viewed as less reliable,” he said.

“Resources companies simply can’t be expected to partner with fair-weather friends or businesses who let activists calls the shots.

“You either back the resources industry, or you don’t.”

The sting in those reprisals would be a fair answer, I believe, to my friend in Melbourne. Direct activism and other public interest campaigns have heavily impacted on extractive industries, provoking prompt political responses.

In the wake of the global Climate Strike and the relentless disruptions of Extinction Rebellion groups these arguments have gone mainstream. Only the most determined media avoiders could possibly have missed them.

But I’m sure my friend in Melbourne has no problem with that.

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  1. To understand why any new thermal coal mines in Australia (like Adani’s Carmichael mine and KEPCO’s Bylong Coal Project) would likely become “stranded assets”, please see recently published:

    Submission #122, by Simon Nicholas & Tim Buckley for IEEFA; and
    Submission #147, by Rod Campbell & Matt Grudnoff for TAI;

    …to the NSW Parliament Legislative Assembly Standing Committee on Environment and Planning inquiry into the Sustainability of Energy Supply and Resources in NSW. These submissions (out of 200 submissions listed so far) can be viewed at: