It’s been a bad couple of weeks for the coal industry across the globe. Prices refuse to turn around, over-supply looks like it may collide with falling demand in places like China, and stories of its corrupting influence have broken in China, India and Indonesia.
Here in Australia, the inquiry into Victoria's Hazelwood coal fire has jostled with NSW's ICAC for column inches.
For the most part, media coverage of NSW’s ICAC has honed in on dubious dealings involving property developers, but it has also turned up plenty of dodgy dealings around the coal industry.
The revelations by Buildev executives that they paid to get rid of Labor MP Jodi McKay because she opposed Nathan Tinkler’s coal terminal were just the latest in the long line of coal-related corruption.
The most sensational were the coal licenses granted by the corrupt former resources Minister Ian McDonald to family and friends of Eddie Obeid.
Of course, some who have attracted the attention of ICAC, like Nathan Tinkler, are both property and coal developers. The weird thing is, the political donations Tinkler made as a property developer are, on the face of it, illegal, but not those he made as a mining developer.
The only quibble the law had with Tinkler’s coal-related donations was when two Directors of his company Aston Coal – which then owned the Maules Creek mine – failed to report their reportable political donations.
It seems bizarre that property developers should be treated differently to their cousins in the coal industry. If political donations from property developers are banned, then it makes sense for donations from mining barons to be banned too. Both are poison for the health of the body politic.
Former NSW Premier Nathan Rees – who put the ban on political donations from property developers in the first place – has said, “nothing corrodes public confidence more than a belief that favorable decisions can be bought.” Rees noted that the two preconditions for corruption are motive and opportunity, factors that are always present where there are planning and approval systems. This logic applies to the coal industry as much as to property development.
Like property development, coal mining is inherently speculative. Like property development, coal mining requires numerous government permissions for projects to go ahead.
Rees said of the property development industry it “would be naive in the extreme to think that an industry in which profits can often be measured in millions doesn’t have shonks who want to take short cuts and people who could be tempted to help them”. And the same – demonstrably after ICAC – applies to the coal mining industry.
When vested interests give big political donations, the reasonable voter is entitled to wonder about motivations. Even if a business generously supports parties or candidates on both sides of politics, this may simply be a hedge to try and secure favorable treatment, regardless of an election outcome.
Even if a coal mining company decides to provide cash to candidates because of a genuine philanthropic commitment to democracy, the perception that donations influence government decisions is just as corrosive. If the view takes hold that government can be bought then confidence in public administration is badly undermined.
Because of revelations at ICAC, it is reasonable to assume that a certain perception of the coal industry has taken root within the community. A ban on political donations from property developers was essential to improving the reputation of democracy in NSW. The same now applies to coal miners.
And given the Lowy Institute’s recent poll finding that only 60 per cent of Australian adults, and just 42 per cent of 18-29 year-olds, say ‘democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’ the health of our political system needs all the help it can get.
Tellingly, Lowy also found that of those who do not see democracy as the preferable form of government, 42 per cent say this is because ‘democracy only serves the interests of a few and not the majority of society’.
The ICAC has revealed a shadow system of power that has sat beyond democratic scrutiny. For the sake of our democracy, it is time for a ban on all donations from coal mining companies to political parties and candidates.
* David Ritter is the Chief Executive Officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.
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