Environmental campaigning under the Coalition
For decades, the Australian environmental movement has worked tirelessly to gain protection for the environment, to create sustainable practises to meet humanities needs, and ensure global co-operation to respond to the many ecological threats that confront us as a species.
From local grassroots groups to multi-national non government organisations (NGOs), the movement is incredibly diverse, in its structure, make up, tactics and political activity. Some only do ‘hands on’ restoration, while others just exist to lobby politicians or business.
Despite this diversity, we now have an unprecedented need to find common cause: with a radical, and in many ways extremist, Coalition government in power in Canberra and across most state governments, our shared environment is under direct and immediate threat. Not only with the announcement of many destructive projects, but also with the threat to the structures that have slowly been put in place over the last 4 decades to ensure good decision making when it comes to major development projects.
The Abbott government is moving aggressively to dismantle the protections that are currently in place, such as the traditional involvement of the federal government in assessing major developments such as large coal mines or port facilities. Under the guise of cutting ‘green tape’ the federal Coalition is handing back decision making powers to the states. In the real world it will also mean rapidly growing numbers of destructive projects across our country.
The large national Environmental NGOs have launched significant campaigns to oppose this winding back of protection, for instance through the Places You Love campaign. But to my mind, the really interesting political reaction to the agenda of the Abbott government has been the rise of a strong environmental constituency outside the parametres of the ‘traditional’ environmental movement. It will be no news to anyone to point out that the movement is heavily dominated by urban, middle class people, generally of Anglo heritage. With a largely compliant mainstream media, strong support from big business and their aligned interest groups, and an ideological fervour and drive to implement its anti-environment agenda, the Coalition is currently a political juggernaut. The Australian environment movement does not have the mobilised numbers and resources to wind back this destructive agenda in the short term. But this is where it starts to get interesting. The sheer scale of the Coalition’s agenda is such that it is mobilising vast numbers of new activists, who are determined to protect their country.
Around half of Australia is currently under exploration license for coal or one of a number of forms of gas. As fossil fuels become scarcer, unconventional gas is coming into play. This includes shale and Tight gas and coal seam gas (CSG), also known as Coal Bed Methane.
Farmers and rural communities are keenly aware of the fact that both these industries pose a grave risk to farmland and ground and potentially surface water supplies. Based on the experience in the USA and elsewhere, where the industry is much more advanced, it is clear that the intrusive coal and gas industries are not compatible with farming. And with an industry vision that sees up to 40,000 drill rigs in Queensland alone, the community is getting organised.
The cornerstone of this resistance is Lock the Gate, established in 2010. Already close to 200 local groups have joined the alliance. It is a nation wide phenomena. And what is remarkable is that these local groups exist outside the traditional terrain of the environment movement. Lock the Gate groups have declared their properties off limits to the industry, but a growing number are declaring their entire communities ‘coal and gas free’. In northern NSW alone, almost 3 million hectares have been declared off limits. Initially communities have focused on getting educated and mobilised, and ensuring local opinion formers, businesses and Local Government councillors are on side. Many have chosen to door knock their communities to test whether there is a desire to make a declaration against new fossil fuel projects, with resounding support. And, while communities are showing that industry does not have the social license to operate, where they refuse to listen and continue to push through with drilling or establishing mines, community opposition is turning into direct action resistance. In recent weeks, communities in north western NSW have maintained a long blockade against the proposed Whitehaven coal in the Leard Forest, while northern NSW residents have sustained a camp against planned gas drilling by Metgasgo. In Victoria, the threat by farmers to blockade gas drilling operations in a National Party stronghold has seen the state government spend months sitting on a works application. The campaign has spread to Tasmania and the Top End. At a recent gasfield free declaration north of Narrabri, farmer Bruce Kirkby said, “there will be civil disobedience over this issue. None of us are familiar or comfortable with this kind of protest, but we are not going to stand by and watch our water be ruined and our land value diminish.”
Having come from nowhere just 4 years ago, the Lock the Gate movement is now impacting on electoral politics and energy policy across the country. It says ‘we are a movement of thousands, and our mission is to protect Australia’s natural, environmental, cultural and agricultural resources from inappropriate mining and to educate and empower all Australians to demand sustainable solutions to food and energy production’.
One of the most inspiring aspects of this campaign is that it is finding common cause amongst ‘average’ Australians. People are organising locally and there is room for everyone in this movement, from conservative farmers to left wing activists. Power is being build from the ground up, in a classic ‘people power’ model. MPs and political parties ignore it at their peril. And because it is based in local communities, it is hard to threaten or buy off. The sense of commonality can run deep, as the threat of mining and drilling raises many fears about a range of issues: food production and food security, environmental and climate impacts, threats to ground and surface water, and the industrialisation of rural landscapes. It is also about the right of communities to have a say over their future, rather than allowing companies to determine what happens. In many ways it fills a political space occupied by the far Right political party of Pauline Hanson in the 1990s. But the presence of many progressive people means that this is not a replay of the xenophobia that marked that era in Australian politics. Despite the vocal support of right wing radio ‘shock jock’ Alan Jones, this movement is not only playing out a NIMBY agenda by opposing new fossil fuel projects, it is forward thinking. It is increasingly grappling with what clean energy sources might look like: energy sources that don’t poison water or damage farming.
And because of its approach – one of grassroots co-ordination of opposition to unpopular projects rather than just representing to MPs or media – it is also bringing communities together. People that have never spoken before are now collaborating in campaigns. Entire communities are being door knocked and new groups are springing up across the continent. Each develops their own structure and many hundreds of new activists have stepped up to defend their communities against this corporate threat. As a long term activist, some of the most inspiring scenes I have ever witnessed have played out in the last three years, in town halls, Mechanics Institutes and RSL buildings, in Council Chambers and on the streets of small rural towns. The unprecedented sight of ‘greens’ and ‘conservatives’ working together for a common cause has left behind many of the larger political parties, who simply don’t know how to respond. In some places there is talk of running independent candidates. In others there is preparation for direct action. And in all of them, there is an impressive amount of organising that is happening outside the networks of the big political parties.
There is no doubt that we will lose some of the specific campaigns against coal and gas proposals. But the community is winning in many places, and there is nothing like winning to drive further action. This rural mobilisation is a long way from reaching a high water mark: it is starting to build strong links in metropolitan areas, constantly building the skills of its members, linking up with other groups and operating in new spheres, such as applying pressure to investors who would otherwise support fossil fuel projects. If you want to see good old fashioned community organizing delivering powerful results in Australia in the 21st century, then you need to look no further than the campaign against new coal and gas. Even better, get involved. There is room for everyone in this movement.
Cam walker is campaigns co-ordinator with Friends of the Earth and based in Central Victoria. He is actively involved in the campaign against new coal and gas operations.
Originally published as What can independent politics and social activism offer to organising for Equality and Environment? in Australian Options. Autumn 2014.