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New Networks of Protest on Display in Adani Win

August 8, 2015

New Networks of Protest on display in Adani Win

On Wednesday 5 August the Federal Court overturned Adani’s authority to commence construction or operate in relation to its Carmichael coal mine in central Queensland.

In a response to the decision SMH journalist Michael West made the following summary of contemporary environmental protest strategies: ‘They use the court system, they engage with regulators and government. Their research is not plausibly challenged by industry, via detailed or credible rebuttals, but rather summarily denounced by noisy and unconvincing PR tactics’.

The mining industry has a poor record in responding when environmental protest directly challenges its legitimacy.  It was much easier for them when a few high profile environmental gurus like Bob Brown and state-aligned eNGOs like the Australian Conservation Fund dominated the space.  Now a diverse horizontal network of community groups, NGOs, progressive think tanks and expert witnesses work together, using multiple channels and civil resistance to challenge piece-by-piece mining’s entire narrative. Rather than simply calling on ‘the’ government to take action through “We want action on climate change” signs, they are taking it themselves.

In the Carmichael mine win, the Mackay Conservation Group (MCG) aligned with the NSW Environmental Defenders Office and GetUp! to challenge Adani.  MCG launched the federal court action in January, GetUp! raised the funds to pay for it and the NSW Environmental Defenders Office ran the case. Another non-profit eNGO used its media skills to communicate and disseminate the story that throughout 2015 has been reported by major mainstream news outlets including ABC, Fairfax and the Guardian and shared through social media.

This coming together of NGOs for specific issues-based campaigns is behind recent successes for Australia’s environment against coal and coal seam gas mining’s intentions. MCG is a non-profit community group with just four employees and annual revenues of about $300,000. Its volunteer base brings significant local engagement and deep knowledge to issues that affect the Great Barrier Reef.  GetUp! has a database of hundreds of thousands of Australians from every corner of the continent who trust them to find and amplify campaigns that need supporting.  The EDO is rich in legal expertise on using law to challenge the degradation of the environment.

Eight hours after the Federal Court overturned Adani’s authority the Commonwealth Bank announced it was withdrawing any future financial interest in the Carmichael project. A different alliance of NGOs including 350.org, Market Forces and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) had been leading that campaign independent to MCG’s court case. ‘We Won! CBA cuts ties with Adani’ was the subject header for the email to AYCC’s subscriber list. ‘Massive win: Commbank exits Carmichael coal!!!’ announced Market Forces telling its e-base , ‘We’re so close to winning one of the biggest environmental campaigns the world has seen in recent years’.  Two days later UK Bank Standard Chartered also announced it was ending its financial interest in the Adani mine, the culmination of another targetted campaign.

Representations of the environment movement as an anti-economic, greenie and tree-hugging ‘other’ to working society have been challenged as people like Alan Jones, John Hewson and Ian Dunlop speak up against the mining industry.  Old school lefties mutter they don’t want to be involved in a ‘movement’ that includes Alan Jones.  These notions of a movement structure with boundaries and exclusion zones no longer hold, replaced by a meshwork of hundreds of self-organising nodes, community organisations and high-profile spokespeople, eNGOs, non-incorporated groups and Greens MPs who work together through a dynamic set of continually reforming horizontal connections.

In Australia’s multi-site coal and coal seam gas campaigning multiple strategies run in parallel and independent in execution. NGOs have their speciality areas: MarketForces on mine financing, 350.org on divestment, Lock the Gate Alliance on building landowner resilience, community groups on MP and local engagement, ‘greenies’ on biodiversity, thinktanks and politicos on policy.

Campaigning is no longer simply reaction and protest but a complex narrative of civil resistance.  Grievances have transformed into intent, demands for change have been enacted into specific goals, and spaces for direct confrontation and engagement created. Non-violent direct action is more than blockading or the peaceful disruption mining operations. It is refusing to do what is expected, it is the disruption and challenging of the status quo and recalibrating the norms and forms of the public sphere. Civil resistance includes disobedience but it also includes researching and uncovering in depth content, monitoring budget information, tracking political donations and documenting undue process or regulation breaches. Through media and e-networks, social media and networks of trusts mining leaders are directly called up to answer the question.

In an AFR interview last year Santos CEO David Knox said, ‘This whole issue of explaining our story in public . . . it’s been a real challenge for me. It has taken a lot longer and it has been a lot more challenging than we envisaged.’ In another interview he describes how using ‘the right language’ is important to develop coal seam gas projects.  He’s referring to finding the political language that induces community support. The mining industry has no doubt about its legitimacy or authority but as Managing Director of QGC, Derek Fisher moans, the resource sector must now ‘constantly make and remake the case for our industry and the numerous advantages it is bringing to Australia’.

Social power involves thousands of people and groups participating in acts and forming networks and alliances to challenge the status quo.  Social transformation occurs when those who support key power holder start shift their loyalties. The game-changers for this in environmental campaigns cost money: research and legal representation.  Recent court cases have shown how mining’s data on job creation or environmental impact do not stand up when interrogated and challenged in a court of law. The content and concerns that mining companies describe as misinformation through media is given new credibility. When Richard Denniss from the Australia Institute challenged the economic modelling for Rio Tinto’s Warkworth mine expansion in the NSW Supreme Court the community of Bulga won. Last year Anglo-American’s South Drayton coal project was rejected by the NSW Planning Assessment Commission after the Hunter Thoroughbred Breeders Association paid tens of thousands of dollars for its own independent economic report.

West might describe how NGOs have become increasingly well-funded and savvy when it comes to fighting the fossil fuel industry at every step. However it’s the return of community organisation and this network of horizontal alliances supported by NGO resources in the background that are pillar by pillar removing fossil fuel mining’s ability to proceed.

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