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October 23, 2013

On 22nd October 2013 I spoke about the federal government’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) at a forum organised by AFTINET (Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network).  I was the Lock the Gate Alliance speaker at this forum and invited to talk about what this agreement would mean for our movement and the campaign to protect land and water, to improve government regulation of the coal seam gas industry and insert community representation into the tight relationship of government and mining. Here’s the gist of what I said.

In April 2010 a couple of mums living in the Keerrong Valley discovered an Arrow Energy drill rig in a field near where they lived. After doing some research and being disturbed by the “unheard of noise” they founded the Keerrong Gas Squad. It took a few months for their concerns to gain traction in the community. But as the extent of Labor’s approvals for mining to explore across more than one third of New South Wales was revealed, and more and more people saw the movie Gaslands and communities got organised, the foundation for a social movement was established. The Lock the Gate Alliance was formed at the end of 2010 and now includes more than 160 community groups and thousands of people working together to keep coal seam gas mining out of Australia.

A Trade Agreement with investor-state dispute settlement’ (ISDS) provisions that are being discussed for the TPPA will lock the door on our electoral democracy. The restrictions imposed could tie the hands of government to regulate in areas like foreign investment in farmland and the expansion of coal and CSG.  It is this regulation on CSG and Coal that is critical, we campaign, the government then plays catch up as the power shifts into the community’s hands and the voices of independent experts lead the conversation. But if a trade agreement is signed that puts the power in the hands of overseas companies then it’s over.

The TPPA will protect the rights of corporate investors at the expense of democratic governance. These are the people that want to jeopardise land and water security for the short term – and diminishing – profits of fossil fuels. If the mining industry is allowed to carry out its business plan, the planet tanks. Whether thru invasive mining or the impact of catastrophic climate change Australia’s agricultural land will diminish to a fraction of what they are now.


The Lock the Gate movement formed to counter the tsunami of mining never before seen in Australia.  More than fifty percent OR 437 million hectares of our land is covered by coal and gas licences or applications.  There are 11 of our 16 National Landscapes under threat from mining projects. Coal Seam Gas threatens groundwater. It produces contaminated waste water that there’s no effective way of disposing of. It destroys regional jobs and futures.  And now a TPPA is being planned with provisions that would block our right to stop or even reduce its havoc.

Lock the Gate movement works in two ways: Firstly to delay projects through blockades and court cases.  Secondly to improve government regulation of the mining industry.  At the core of this is a grassroots organiser model which is continually increasing community awareness and building a broadbase social movement.

When we delay projects it costs the companies money, adding costs to the projects, reducing the profitability. It also adds risk in the investor’s eyes. Delay also gives us time to raise court cases, get heard in the environmental court which again can add delay.  It creates media coverage which in turn also raises more and new broadbase awareness, locally and nationally and puts pressure on government to improve regulations, protect water, protect health and the agriculture and tourism industries.  The Kerry Blockade in January 2012 against Arrow Energy drilling in SE Queensland lasted twelve days and delayed the project and achieved significant media coverage. That image of the riot squad holding back farmers and then Arrow’s trucks driving over the farmers’ hats is not easily forgotten.  Arrow drilled its well, supported by dozens of police, but it’s never been back, a win for the community and a win for social licence. And there are many other examples.

Delay cost the companies money as they can’t progress with their projects and if this is foreign investor money that’s where the TPPA kicks in. In Canada the US-based Lone Star energy company is currently using the ‘investor-state dispute settlement’ (ISDS) provisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement, to sue the Quebec provincial government for $250 million, because it suspended shale gas mining pending a study of its environmental impact. The Quebec government was acting in response to concerns from the community.   The NSW Government has already enacted new regulation in response to community concerns– think of the 2km no go zones, the protection of vintners and equestrian lands (Yes it is strange this take priority over water catchments and farming lands which are still not protected) and policy to improve the storage methods of coal seam gas waste water.

If Abbott signs the TPPA and we continue to delay destructive mining projects in Australia or force the suspension of projects with a majority foreign investment the ISDS provision will mean our governments could be sued for millions of dollars. The TPPA will be an even greater reason for the government t to ignore the voice of the community and our demand for reviews and regulation. The TPPA will put the power firmly in the hand of the mining giants and give them even greater control over our governments.

We are in the last days of the fossil fuel industry and they will throw everything at us as we push for the change that has to happen.

At the heart of democracy are our legal rights as citizens to protest, our right as citizens to raise questions and concerns. We’re not china where congregating or networking alternative political views will get you thrown in prison. We have the right to challenge the status quo and bring about change – think about the people power and grassroots engagement that was behind the suffragette movement, the end of apartheid, gay rights, rights for women and earlier environmental protection. Today even if you don’t agree with marriage equality and its legal recognition, no-one in Australia would say the campaign didn’t have the right to exist.

More than 70 groups have signed Lock the Gate’s open letter to Minister Andrew Robb saying that “the inclusion of ISDS in more trade agreements … could cost taxpayers many millions of dollars, and would discourage governments from regulating in the public interest”.

If the TPPA and ISDS go ahead it will firmly undermine the environmental and justice systems at the core of our communities and fundamentally shift the balance of power to mining investors. It will create a cascade of power where federal government can discipline state governments for representing citizens with progressive environmental and social policy. It will mean more corporate government decision making that represents foreign corporate interests ahead of its own citizens.  Do we want Australia to be a place of innovation, inspiration with thriving tourism, education and manufacturing sector, strong regional communities and empowered citizens? Or do we want Australia to be a foreign-owned quarry?


What next


Demand a Federal Parliamentary Debate:  In Malaysia the TPPA and will not be signed this year as the parliament must debate it first. In Australia, Prime Minister Abbott currently has no plans for a parliamentary debate with all the details of the draft TPPA agreement still secret.

Ask for a Senate Enquiry: What is in the TPPA for Australia? Trade deals are always touted as increasing competition and reducing costs. They usually do the opposite, creating monopolies and shifting the power firmly into the hands of political and corporate interests.

 Ask questions of your local Federal MP – What are the benefits of the TPPA for Australia? When will the draft agreement be made public? If it’s a good agreement why can’t we see it, debate it?

TPPA  will also significantly impact workers rights and pharmaceutical access. 

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