Australian Bushfires

Who to Blame for Australia's Bullshit Approach to Climate Change

Look these coal lobbyists in the eye. Remember their names.
17 January 2020, 10:15am
Meet the Coal Lobbyists Behind Australia’s Lack of Climate Action

This article originally appeared on VICE AU.

As the smoke begins to clear on 10.3 million hectares of charred earth, many Australians have started asking questions. The largest natural disaster in the country’s history has left over two dozen people dead; over a billion native animals dead or dying, along with tens of thousands of livestock; and some species pushed to the point of extinction.

Now people are asking: “why?”

The answer, for many, is that we’ve begun a long and unnerving slide into a world of supercharged weather. The CO2 humanity had been pumping into the atmosphere for decades is now affecting our seasons in precisely all the ways we were warned. For Australia, that means hotter summers with less rainfall, which is exactly what 2019 delivered.

Australia just sweltered through its hottest year on record with temperatures averaging 1.52C above the 1961—1990 average, according to data from the Bureau of Meteorology. This came after an unprecedented period of drought across much of the country’s east, which unsurprisingly led to widespread fires.

But even if the science is clear, the reality seems lost on those who hold the country’s highest political offices. When confronted with the suggestion his government was not acting in a meaningful way on climate change, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has simply said he “did not accept that” and insisted, like his Minister for Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor, that Australia has been “doing its part”.

The truth is that Australia is the fourth largest coal producer in the world, and has relied on tricky accounting practices to book progress toward reducing its carbon emissions while actually doing the bare minimum.

Because of this, Australia was recently rated 57th on a list of countries for its handling of climate change—placing it just slightly above Iran with its oil-dependent national economy.

And yet just eight years ago, Australia was leading the world on climate change action. In 2012 we’d achieved what many pundits believed was a political impossibility. Australia had levied a tax on carbon that forced an almost immediate drop in the country’s CO2 emissions. That was until a new conservative government took power and repealed the carbon tax a short two years later.

Since then, emissions have again been climbing. In the year to March 2019, Australia saw a total emissions increase of 0.6 percent, according to the Government’s own calculations.

The story of how we got here is one of money, mates, and mines. The influence of the resources industry in Australian politics over the last two decades is no secret. When the mining boom flooded the country with dumb money last decade, those who owned the mines became untouchable. A rising ocean of dollars meant they could buy the loyalties of their workforce with six-figure salaries—along with the nation’s media companies—gain access to politicians keen to appear “business-friendly”, and run expensive advertising campaigns. Figures like Gina Rinehart, Twiggy Forrest, and Clive Palmer became household names, with two out of the three joining forces to rail against the mining tax. They would triumph, helped along by friends in high places from both Labor and the Coalition.

Canadian author Naomi Klein once pointed out that it's hard to tell where the Australian Government ends and the coal industry begins—and she isn’t wrong. Until recently the revolving door between industry and government forged a political dialogue hostile to even the merest mention of the words “climate change”. Though there are many former politicians who have taken jobs in the fossil fuel sector, the current conservative government has seemingly taken its talking points from the industry with a unique enthusiasm. Of them all, there remain three figures who are by far the most influential.

And to be clear, VICE is not blaming these three people for the fires. Australia has always had bushfires and it always will. We are blaming these three people for continuing to stall meaningful action on climate change and for hindering Australia’s ability to prevent future climate-powered disasters—all the while pulling salaries in the multiple six-figures.

Ian “Chainsaw” Macfarlane
CEO, Queensland Resources Council (on right of top photo)

In many ways, Ian Macfarlane has done more than anyone else in Australia to stall action on climate change. So much so, that on his way out the door in 2016 Macfarlane was saluted on the floor of parliament by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who called on the resources industry to “acknowledge and demonstrate their gratitude to him”.

“The member from Groom, Ian Macfarlane, was the resources minister who scrapped the mining tax,” Abbott said. “This was the job-destroying, investment-killing tax which did not raise any revenue. It was a magnificent achievement by the member for Groom in his time as minister reborn, as it were. I hope this sector will acknowledge and demonstrate their gratitude to him in his years of retirement from this place.”

Soon after, Macfarlane was appointed head of the Queensland Resources Council (QRC), where he would pull over $500,000 a year. While not as aggressive as its counterpart, the New South Wales Minerals Council, the QRC represents around 70 companies involved in coal mining in Queensland, giving it some seriously destructive weight. And like other mining associations, the QRC cheered the demise of both the carbon tax and the mining tax. With those battles won, the organisation has since shifted focus under Macfarlane to promoting “clean coal” as a way to combat climate change.

Though Macfarlane has made waves calling for the construction of new coal-fired power plants in Queensland, his crowning achievement post-office has been to make sure the Adani coal mine gets built, despite its shaky financial foundations. In June last year, Macfarlane described the Adani mine as the “ice-breaker” project that would install the infrastructure required for six more mines in the Galilee Basin.

And keep in mind that if the mines go ahead, they’re slated to put an extra 705 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, which is about 1.3 times Australia’s total current emissions.

If there was any doubt about the influence of the coal lobby, nowhere has this been more on display than the confrontation between environmental activists and Adani, the company looking to mine the Galilee Basin. Macfarlane has frequently fumed in the press about “militant activism” which he has described as “economic vandalism”. In one interview with the Australian Financial Review, he described the attempts to target contractors working with Adani as “anti-democratic”

"I think they genuinely believe they can bully people out of making commercial decisions. And that's what this tactic is about," Macfarlane said. "These people are fanatics who will do anything to get their way regardless of what the democratically elected government has decided. I think it shows in the end, they are anarchists rather than anything."

In recent months, this sentiment has crystallised into action. The Labor Queensland state government recently passed regressive “anti-protest laws” that have alarmed the UN, while contractors like freight company Aurizon, which is in negotiations with Adani, have engaged in legal warfare to bankrupt troublesome activists in court.

Helen Coonan
Chair of the Minerals Council of Australia (centre of top photo)

When it comes to the coal industry, it is easy to get lost in the torrent of acronyms, names, and biographies. That’s the point. You might gloss over a lot of it, but if there’s one thing you should remember it's that the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) is the lobby group for Big Mining in Australia. And nothing has demonstrated its attempts at influence more than the appointment of Helen Coonan to the organisation’s chair in July 2019. Coonan had spent the previous 15 years in federal politics as a NSW Senator with the Liberal Party, which meant she was extremely well connected, with a superhero-like ability to “open doors in Canberra”.

Now, why is this a problem? Because ex-bureaucrats, former politicians, and political staffers are vital hires for mining companies that want to exert power in Canberra. Every former politician or bureaucrat picked up by a mining lobby group brings years of insider knowledge and personal connections along with them, allowing them to do the mining company’s bidding in a way straight mining executives never could. Liberal politicians-turned lobbyists are such a powerful tool for mining companies that Australia was recently called out in a Transparency International report on corruption in the mining approval process.

Interestingly though, the appointment of Coonan to chair has been read by some industry observers as a move away from a hardline endorsement of coal. For the last two years, the MCA has been grappling with an internal rebellion as activist shareholders within BHP—a main member of the MCA—have been working to force company management to quit the organisation due to the lengths it has taken to defend coal. Indeed, the MCA famously applauded, if not outright contributed to, the repeal of the mining tax, the carbon tax, and the Prime Ministership of Kevin Rudd in 2010. However, it’s unclear at this stage whether Helen Coonan will use her connections to move away from or double down on their pro-coal agenda in favour of fracking or some other fossil fuel industry. Either way, Coonan’s appointment makes her the most powerful industry figure in the country.

Dr John Kunkel
Chief Of Staff, Prime Minister’s Office (on left of top photo)

The only person more significant than Coonan to date may be the figure John Kunkel, who is perhaps the most powerful Australian in public life. The veteran of the Howard government boasts a Phd in economics on US trade policy and a CV that includes a stint with the MCA. But his defining role was head of government relations at Rio Tinto. And success in that role is defined entirely by access, and the ability to schmooze.

Following eight years in the private sector, Kunkel’s return to public life began when he went to work for Scott Morrison, back when Morrison was still Treasurer. When Kunkel stepped up to challenge Malcolm Turnbull after his own party refused to allow him to pass legislation to combat climate change, Kunkel followed Morrison into the Prime Minister’s Office. As Chief of Staff, Kunkel now controls the Prime Minister’s diary, controls access to Morrison, and has input on every major decision facing the country.

In that role he is joined by Brendan Pearson. Back before he went to work in parliament, Pearson served as head of government relations at Peabody Energy, the largest coal miner in the US, before getting hired as the aggressively pro-coal deputy CEO of the MCA. In fact, when he later came to lead the organisation, it was they who supplied Scott Morrison with the notorious lump of coal that he brought into parliament.

People like these are the real reason why Australia entered 2020 aflame and with rivers running dry, but no credible plan to do anything meaningful about climate change. When confronted with a regulation or law it does not like, the coal industry has consistently been able to rely on their mates in politics to help them out. Laws that gave us the carbon tax and the emissions trading scheme have been reworded, if not repealed, in their entirety. Regulations have been softened in campaigns to cut “green tape”. Critics have been sued, gagged, and restrained. Meanwhile, fossil fuels more broadly have enjoyed $29 billion in post-tax subsidies, according to the IMF.

And in the end, the rest of us are being left to carry the cost.

Royce Kurmelovs is on Twitter