Adani and the War Over Coal

Quentin Beresford


Edited extract of the Introduction to Adani and the War Over Coal by Quentin Beresford

On 9 February 2017, federal Liberal Treasurer Scott Morrison rose from his parliamentary front-bench seat and delivered one of the most colourful but disturbing political stunts in recent federal Parliamentary history. Clutching a lump of black coal, the burly, sports-loving and pugnacious minister ridiculed the Labor Opposition’s recent call for a higher renewable energy target, amid new record summer temperatures.

The coal had been supplied by the Minerals Council of Australia, a key backer of the conservative side of politics, and it had been conveniently coated with lacquer so as not to blacken the minister’s hand. In a performance that went beyond mocking the fear of climate change into a defiance of nature itself, Morrison, amid guffaws of laughter from his colleagues, teased the Labor Party: ‘Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you, it’s coal’. He accused the Opposition of ‘coal-o-phobia’. Morrison then handed the non-blackening coal around members of the front bench as if they were all in on the stunt. Photographs of Morrison holding aloft his lump of coal show fellow Liberal minister Christopher Pyne smirking and a cartoonish laugh breaking across the face of National party leader, Barnaby Joyce.

In addition to trying to wedge Labor over its traditional links with the mining workers union, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the artefact from the fossil fuel age was intended to resonate with the federal Coalition’s base, where denial of climate change and opposition to renewable energy have deep roots. Morrison, with his strong evangelical Christian background, plays well with this constituency. Although ensconced in the bunker of the Treasury portfolio, Morrison’s reputation as a polarising politician was well established. He had doggedly pursued the Coalition’s ‘Stop the Boats’ policy towards the unauthorised arrivals of refugee claimants when in the Abbott government. ‘He hasn’t been afraid to pitch to the right of the party’, wrote Deborah Snow in a profile piece for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Afterwards, Morrison appeared on radio ‘shock-jock’ Ray Hadley’s 2GB program. Hadley, a prominent climate change denier, shared a joke with his guest about the stunt. Amid the mutual jocularity, Morrison had a point to make: ‘We have no more a fear of coal than we have a fear of wind, or solar, or wave energy, or pump-hydro, or whatever the option is’.

Played across the various media outlets, Morrison’s coal antics sent yet another message that the federal Liberal Party and its Coalition partner, the Nationals, were avowedly pro-coal.

Morrison’s performance drew some harsh criticism from the mainstream press. The Canberra Times commented:

Hailing coal – arguably the single-largest contributor to manmade climate change – as the solution to our hot-weather energy needs was so counter-intuitive that commentators and social media could not help drawing parallels with the ‘alternative facts’ debate across the Pacific [that is, the United States under Donald Trump].

Respected business journalist Alan Kohler was even more scathing. Widely known and admired for his informative finance report on ABC TV news, Kohler describes being ‘infuriated and dismayed by that stunt’. The following day he wrote a blistering critique in the

Australian titled ‘The Great Coal Hoax’, in which he argued that the energy crisis engulfing the country was entirely the Liberal Party’s fault. The problem, as he saw it, was straightforward. Since cutting down Malcolm Turnbull as leader in 2009 and replacing him with Tony Abbott, the Liberal Party had been transformed into ‘fervently pro-coal activists’. Kohler crisply recapped these historic events as the shift from bipartisanship on an emissions trading scheme (ETS) to Abbott’s hyper partisan opposition to the policy.

After the 2007 federal election, both the new Labor government under Kevin Rudd and the Liberal Opposition under Malcolm Turnbull supported an ETS.6 The ascension of Abbott to the leadership in 2009 wrecked this consensus: ‘from agreeing that climate change was a problem that needed a price to be put on carbon, to denying that it was much of a problem at all, and calling the proposed emissions trading scheme a great big tax on everything’.

Morrison’s antics revived the coal wars that had been simmering for years. Wrapped up in the complex, often bitter debates about climate change and about energy policy, coal is in many ways the political, economic and cultural totem for these broader questions: what to do about Australia’s vast reserves of coal, and the powerful corporations that mine the resource in an age of global warming? As astute commentators noted, the Liberal Party had unapologetically taken up one side of this conflict and it had been cheered on by some powerful forces, including the nation’s shock-jock media.

In his article, Kohler was right to question how Australia had gotten itself into this mess. Australia sits on a mother lode of coal but the industry’s contribution to the national economy is relatively small, despite the best efforts of the Minerals Council of Australia to bolster the figures. From a peak in 2012, when coal represented 4.5 per cent of GDP, by 2016 this had shrunk to 2 per cent and comprised less than 1 per cent of total employment and federal taxes.

Yet it is not surprising that coal looms large in the national imagination. We have become a coal nation. Approximately 70 per cent of Australia’s electricity is generated by coal and we are the world’s leading exporter of coal in an industry that still produces around 40 per cent of global electricity. Exports of coal constitute 30 per cent of export income which, together with iron ore, fuel the national narrative – propelled by the mining lobby – that mining is the engine of Australian economic growth and prosperity. The export coal industry has been on an inexorable growth path since the first exports in the late 1950s to the emerging economies of East Asia.

However, the commanding position of coal in the national narrative has left Australia with a deep conundrum. The industry has been put on notice by the international agreements to deal with climate change and by the corresponding rise of the renewable energy industry.

Given these developments, Australia has needed a rational debate on transiting out of coal. Yet the Adani Carmichael mine, and the promise of opening up the Galilee Basin, has helped lock Australian politics into the fossil fuel age. There has been bipartisan support for expanding Australia’s coal industry and opening up the Galilee Basin. The question here is how did this happen?

This book unpacks the war over coal and the pivotal role of Adani’s Carmichael mine in this conflict. In Australia, there are few bigger political fights to take on. As a consultant to activist group GetUp! observed:

What oil is to Texas and Tar Sands is to Canada, coal is to Australia. This campaign [against Adani] had to not only stop a new multi-billion mine (that would crack open a valley with another half a dozen mega-mines behind it) it had to break an old industrial addiction that’s enriched elites for generations, and is embedded in the country’s founding story and mythology. Not so easy a task.

By the time Adani began developing its proposal for the Carmichael mine in 2010, the competing forces around coal had taken root. Firstly, a bipartisan commitment existed to expand Australia’s fossil fuel industry, with a key role for coal. Labor and the Coalition differed in how they constructed and articulated this goal, but each backed the ambitions of the industry. Secondly, by 2010, the environmental forces opposed to this expansion had begun to organize at the grassroots. The coal wars had begun.

This book examines the struggle between these two forces and their intense clash over Adani’s Carmichael mine. It sets this struggle against the creation of a fossil fuel power network linking mining companies, the big four Australian banks, right-wing think tanks, lobby groups and the conservative media. In addition, the geo-political forces propelling the demand for coal in the midst of growing concern over climate change is an important theme. The rise and development of a social movement promoting action on climate change is crucial in understanding why there was such vigorous opposition to the Carmichael mine. Indeed, this movement succeeded in making Adani a totemic issue in the fight against climate change.

And then there is Adani as a company. By any measure, Adani Enterprises is a rogue corporation. This is not to suggest that the company has broken any laws in Australia; rather, that it has a track record in India of poor corporate and environmental ethics. Why did both the major Australian parties embrace such an operator?In particular, what does this say about Australia’s compliance with the democratic norms of good governance? The fact that the federal government saw no problem with embracing Adani’s operations in Australia reveals that crony capitalism is remarkably similiar in Australia and India.

I started work on this project soon after my book The Rise and Fall of Gunns Ltd was published in 2015. That book explored similar themes in the disturbing story of how Australia’s largest timber company grew topsy-like out of favourable deals with successive Tasmanian and federal governments, with its ambitious CEO seeking to build one of the world’s largest pulp mills in the pristine Tamar Valley north of Launceston. Gunns was eventually brought down by a combination of its own overreach and a relentless campaign waged by state and national environmental groups.

Adani’s Carmichael coal mine has followed a similar trajectory, only larger and more complex in its dynamics because of its links to the geopolitics of coal, climate change and the war over coal and energy policy in Australia. It is a giant, octopus-like story with tentacles in many contentious contemporary issues. Can the world navigate climate change while powerful vested interests continue to push such mega fossil fuel projects? The fact that Adani gained quick approval from both the Queensland and federal governments, and involving both Labor and Coalition governments, suggest deep flaws in our political system.

When I began work on the book, the outcome was unclear. Was this going to be an account of the success of Adani’s model of insider politics and the power wielded by the fossil fuel lobby, or another in a string of examples where environmental groups have succeeded in turning the development project into a successful people’s movement? This was the case with Gunns and, likewise, the opposition to Adani became a lightning rod for public concern about climate change, the fate of the Great Barrier Reef, the rights of Indigenous people and the corrupted nature of our political system. But only in the latter stages of the project did it appear that the activist movement opposing the mine had brought the project to an apparent standstill, uncertain that it would ever proceed.

There are, therefore, two parts to this saga. The first examines why the mine was promoted both in India and Australia, the forces that continue to drive coal production in an age of global warming, and the rapid development of renewable energy. How did the network of power that has coalesced around fossil fuels operate to secure quick approval for the mine? And what does this say about Australian governments’ lack of commitment to environmentalist principles?

The second part of the story examines the ways in which a range of disparate environmental and activist groups opposed the mine. Given that the options for commencing the mine now look bleak, what assessment can be made of the power of progressive, activist politics in Australia? Have we now reached a stage where a new dynamic is making its presence felt and is capable of seriously challenging the influence of corporate power on our democracy? As a social scientist, I believe the evidence does not support a rational case for building the world’s second biggest coal mine given that global warming is a reality. The key question, therefore, is why this was allowed to happen. It has been one of the biggest battles of development versus the environment in Australian history.