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  • 'Vigilante' applies to the government more than environmentalists

'Vigilante' applies to the government more than environmentalists


Chris Johnston's image of Tony Abbott playing in the sandpitThe epithets used against environment groups have been extraordinary after a judge of the Federal Court set aside Environment Minister Greg Hunt's approval of the Adani thermal coal mine.

Words like 'vigilante litigation' and 'sabotage' have been flung around by the Coalition government as if it were the Mackay Conservation Group — not the Minister's office — who had failed to exercise due diligence.

The reality is that approval for the mine has merely been stayed. It is worth noting that the orders were made with consent of the litigating parties. The vehement reaction to the setback therefore raises perplexing questions. How can it be that taking recourse under the law makes vigilantes of activists? How can any law be found defective when it worked as it should?

It is a conundrum that has become pattern under the Abbott Government: things that aren't broken need fixing. Perhaps legislation has always been an instrument for ideological agendas, but the compulsion and ease with which the Coalition has taken to the law to restrict scrutiny doesn't bode well for us.

The rule of law rests on limiting power, on containing official discretion. The Attorney-General George Brandis' statement regarding the intent to repeal section 487(2) of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is worth reading in full in order to get a sense of what it might mean for this principle to be degraded.

His reference to 'a red carpet for radical activists' is misleading, given that the overall rate of environmental approval is 96.2 per cent. Since EPCB was enacted under the Howard government in 2000, only three projects out of 276 in the resources industry were knocked back.

Moreover, the variety of stakeholders opposed to or distanced from mining developments in the Galilee Basin belies the tree-hugging caricature that the Coalition imagines to be its arch-enemy. Earlier this year, 11 international banks ruled out funding for projects in the area. This was followed by an open letter from nine leading Australian scientists urging other companies to do the same or withdraw. Are these financiers and professors also conducting sabotage?

Wangan, Jagalingou, Juru and Birri traditional owners have challenged the Adani lease. Grassroots groups like Reef Defenders — a mix of local business owners, farmers, students, professionals and retirees — have also taken action. The degree of hostility that has met this cross-section of the Australian community is odd. Are their interests not legitimate? What else could be at stake?

It can't just be about jobs. As a job-creation policy, the Adani mine seems inefficient. It will create an annual average of 1,464 jobs according to its own witness in a Queensland Land Court case, which means that over $11M is spent to generate each job. If the pit-to-port rail line were factored in, it would purportedly add 2,400 new jobs at an estimated cost of $450M for the Queensland government. The seasonally adjusted national unemployment figure stands at 800,700.

It can't be about economics. Queensland Treasury advice provided to the previous Newman government cited grave concerns regarding Adani's high levels of debt, unclear corporate structure and use of offshore entities. Official notes describe the company as a 'risk', 'unlikely to stack up on a conventional project finance assessment', 'highly susceptible to cost shocks', with its Galilee Basin venture a heavily geared 'Indian power market play' that does not have much investment support. Such assessments do not help make the case that the mine will ultimately benefit the Australian economy.    

It can't be about poor Indians, either. The Prime Minister has framed coal imports as some sort of benevolent outreach to millions of households in India without electricity. Yet the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) calculates the cost of producing electricity in India using coal from the Galilee Basin to be twice the current average wholesale cost of electricity. Most rural households couldn't afford it even if they were put on the grid.

Moreover, IEEFA contends that India won't need Australian coal beyond 2020. Indian energy policy is focusing on tripling domestic coal production to phase out imports in the next few years, as well as doubling renewable energy capacity by 2022. The operating life of the Adani mine is approximately 90 years.

The global mood is in fact shifting away from fossil fuels. China, whose demand for Australian coal has dropped, is the leading investor in renewable energy. New Zealand has committed to 90 per cent of electricity generation from renewable sources by 2025. European countries like Denmark are already generating more power from renewables than national electricity demand.  

In the final analysis, is it possible that in nailing our future to coal, disregarding public sentiment and the advice of its own experts while continuing to protect mining interests and shrink renewable energy investment, the words 'vigilante' and 'sabotage' might more readily apply to our government?

Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister .

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, coal, environment.law, George Brandis, Adani



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Existing comments

Excellent article Fatima. Another attempt by the executive to suppress the role of the judiciary. This is against Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights. The move to tyranny just keeps on accelerating.

Bilal | 23 August 2015  

Very perceptive piece, Thanks.. The language around this issue of coal mining has been rightly describes as 'with a bible in one hand and a shovel in the other'. The cause of religion is being seriously compromised as Abbott and his ministers attack the bona fides of environmentalists who they seek to speak up for care of the land.

Len Puglisi | 24 August 2015  

Well put. Now for someone to make the picture why we need to expand our involvement into Syria at the request of the US. The military has already come out to state that it is a 'zero sum game'.

DonaldD | 24 August 2015  

Ignorance dressed as ecological concern is not good for the sensible use of the countries natural resources. One coal development in the Surat Basin that I am involved with as an ecological consultant will have a better overall ecological outcome in conjunction with the mining proposal than when the area was in small holdings that typified rural decline in old dryland dairying areas. We are having trouble getting the venture approved as Governments are scared of the community perception, even though the coal is nearly 100% carbon and will reduce emissions by being blended with poor quality coal to raise the efficiency of the blended product.

Nev Hunt | 24 August 2015  

Thank you, Fatima for a reasoned, informative article. The Coalition's embrace of coal is beyond comprehension. There is something essentially manic about this government with ministers claiming 10,000 jobs when the reality is, as Fatima says, about 1460. And then there is the Great Barrier Reef. The appropriately named Abbott Point is right in the center of the coast near Bowen and opposite the Reef. It is beyond comprehension that utterly irresponsible state and federal governments would allow coal shipping anywhere near this natural treasure.

Paul Collins | 24 August 2015  

Hear hear Fatima! I can only think of two reasons for the hysterical reaction and unholy haste of the government: The Adani mine is unviable anyway and the Government needs a scapegoat. Or the Coalition knows it will lose the next election and needs to get this approved before they voted out of office to carry out a promise to Mr Adani.

Marie Belcredi | 24 August 2015  

Thank you, Fatima, for such a well-researched and straight forward summary of the reality of the Adani mine proposal. The Federal Government's attack on the Mackay Conservation Group, and all such groups of Australian citizens who oppose mining projects which threaten our natural environment and / or prime agricultural and pastoral land is totally out of order, given the very few mining projects which have actually been cancelled in favour of the environment or pre-existing agricultural or pastoral industry. It is shameful that our Federal Government chooses to attack citizens who disagree with them rather than attack the ideas which won approval in court.

Ian Fraser | 24 August 2015  

Brilliant! Fatima Measham, your research, your clarity, expert debating skills and the human rights/justice issues of your chosen topics prove you to be the best journalist I have read in ages! I shall collect and share your work with both students and friends. Bravo!

Annabel | 24 August 2015  

spot on and thank you. George Brandis statement threatens democracy and real environmental concerns. What is totally missing from the arguments on both sides is the deep knowledge of Australia's First Nations peoples. In addition can I urge readers to consider this powerful recent article http://blogs.crikey.com.au/northern/2015/08/06/vincent-lingiari-memorial-lecture-2015-%E2%80%9Cyou-can-keep-your-gold-we-just-want-our-land-back-%E2%80%9D/

George | 24 August 2015  

Thanks for this article, Fatima. The proposed EPBC amendment is also criticised by Griffith U Law Prof Don Anton in Fairfax Media at http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/comment/brandis-trying-to-close-the-court-house-doors-20150822-gj5k69.html. Submissions on Senator Brandis's Bill will be accepted by the Senate Standing Committee on Environment up until 11 September 2015; see http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/EPBC_Standing_Bill for details.

David Arthur | 24 August 2015  

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