The Greenhouse Mafia


In democratic societies, governments are supposed to represent the interests of the people. In the case of greenhouse policy, the Howard Government represents the interests of a small but powerful group of corporations.

The story has been uncovered by the author of a doctoral dissertation completed at the Australian National University. Guy Pearse, a member of the Liberal Party and a former adviser to Senator Robert Hill when he was environment minister, managed to coax the leading members of the fossil fuel lobby into frank admissions about how they go about their business.

It emerges that climate change policy in Canberra has for years been determined by a small group of lobbyists who happily describe themselves as the ‘greenhouse mafia.’ This cabal consists of the executive directors of a handful of industry associations in the coal, oil, cement, aluminium, mining and electricity industries.

Almost all of these industry lobbyists have been plucked from the senior ranks of the Australian Public Service, where they wrote briefs and Cabinet submissions and advised ministers on energy policy. The revolving door between the bureaucracy and industry lobby groups has given the fossil fuel industries unparalleled insight into the policy process and networks throughout Government.

The members of the greenhouse mafia claim to be more familiar with greenhouse policy than the Government, because they are the ones who wrote it. As one bragged: ‘We know more about energy policy than the Government does We know where every skeleton in the closet is most of them we buried.’ One insider said that at meetings of the greenhouse mafia some of the ex-bureaucrats made ‘Freudian slips’ and talked as if they were still senior public servants in the industry and resources department. Several members of the mafia have rotated from one industry lobby group to another within the greenhouse network.

Due to the closeness of the personal and political connections within the network, the greenhouse mafia is the most potent lobbying alliance in Australia. Most of its members have been operating in Canberra for two decades, making their way up the bureaucratic ladder under Labor and Coalition governments. For example, Barry Jones was a senior official in the Industry Department before jumping ship first to head up the Pulp and Paper Manufacturers Federation and then the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA). Dick Wells spent years in the bureaucracy before going on to join, then head, APPEA and the Minerals Council of Australia.

The successive heads of the Australian Aluminium Council, perhaps the most powerful of the industry lobby groups, were David Coutts then Ron Knapp, both of whom had held senior positions in the Federal Public Service. Knapp also spent time in London as head of the World Coal Institute.

In addition to these, the core membership of the mafia includes: John Tilley, who left the Federal Industry Department to head the Cement Industry Federation and the Australian Institute of Petroleum; Mark O’Neill, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Paul Keating who went on to head the Australian Coal Association (ACA); Mike Hitchens, who left the Industry Department to join ACIL Consulting and to represent the ACA; John Daley, head of the coal branch of the Industry Department before becoming a director of ACIL, where he represented the coal industry at various meetings before being appointed to head the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network; and Keith Orchison, the only member not to have come from the Federal bureaucracy, who after working for APPEA went on to head the Electricity Supply Association of Australia.

One insider laid it out like this:

What is different about the carbon lobby to any other lobby in the country? First, it is cross-industry it is incredibly well plugged into government, and it is basically driven by a group of people who have a common background There was a group of people who knew each other, who knew how people thought, who analysed in the same way, who had a fundamental understanding of the policy process, who had all been taught by Peter Walsh and Gareth Evans how to be a bastard in the game.

After conducting hours of interviews, Pearse concluded that the greenhouse mafia is absolutely committed to defeating the environment movement on climate change. Emboldened by their success, ‘they pursue the greenhouse agenda with an almost religious zeal,’ he wrote. According to the insider quoted above, the big early win that set the mafia on their victorious path through Government and the bureaucracy was when they combined in and to derail attempts by Phillip Toyne to promote a carbon tax.

Toyne was appointed by the Keating Government as Deputy Secretary of the Environment Department after a successful period as Executive Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation. It was not just the environment groups that felt the power of the greenhouse mafia. Other industry groups that had a stake in measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions like the gas industry, the tourism industry and the insurance companies were intimidated and went ‘missing in action’ for years.

In bodies such as the Business Council of Australia, the hard-heads from the mining, coal and aluminium companies insisted that greenhouse was their issue and others should stay out. Pearse concluded that ‘the intimidation or scarecrow effect of the greenhouse mafia has been central to the missing-in-action phenomenon.’

Nor was it only the greenhouse mafia (who at times also refer to themselves as ‘the Society for Egomaniacs’) who would give grief to any business that did not toe the line; so would the Government itself. When one senior businessman was asked why his corporation was unwilling to publicly urge the Government to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, he said that ministers made decisions affecting his company’s commercial interests every week and he did not want to see the decisions start to favour his competitors.

The Howard Government has allowed the greenhouse mafia extraordinary influence over Australia’s stance on climate change. Alone among the nations of the developed world, Australia has included key members of fossil fuel lobby groups in its official delegation to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol. Even the Bush Administration does not permit this unseemly arrangement, relegating fossil fuel lobbyists to the gallery with the other NGOs rather than having them at the conference table. Said an insider: ‘They are part of the [Government’s] team. It is probably the best cross-industry alliance the most successful of any one that has been put together We all write the same way, we all think the same way, we all worked for the same set of ministers.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.