What will the Right protect when its fossil fuel donors die out?


In desperation, the dying fossil fuel and logging industries are playing puppet master in state parliaments across the country. They’re trying to shut down community dissent by imposing ever more anti-democratic and destructive laws. 

In NSW, Premier Mike Baird passed new anti-protest laws this week to target peaceful protestors like farmers trying to protect their homes and land from coal seam gas.  Police powers will be dramatically expanded, fines for protestors will increase tenfold, and those who “interfere” with mining sites could now face seven years in prison.

Unions are already threatening a High Court challenge, and the Law Society of NSW says that the laws “would represent an erosion of long-standing democratic institutions and individual rights.”  NSW Resources Minister Anthony Roberts labelled farmers and protestors “eco-facists”, apparently unaware of the rich irony as his government cracked down on civil disobedience.

Peaceful protestors like the “Knitting Nannas Against Gas”, former Wallabies captain David Pocock and 92 year-old Kokoda veteran Bill Ryan are in the government’s sights. And all the while, the government are slashing fines for coal seam gas companies who break the law. 

IMAGE: Protecting the Pilliga. Neil Kennedy, 73 year old farmer, 'locks on'.
IMAGE: Protecting the Pilliga. Neil Kennedy, 73 year old farmer, ‘locks on’.

Incredibly, Mike Baird promised the new laws to a mining industry dinner in 2014He couldn’t design better theatre if he tried.

In Western Australia, Liberal Premier Colin Barnett has proposed sweeping new laws that abandon the presumption of innocence, and fundamentally undermine the right to protest.  The laws would impose harsh fines of up to $24,000 or 24 months in prison on protestors “physically preventing a lawful activity”. 

They would criminalise possessing a “thing” in circumstances that give rise to a “reasonable suspicion” that it will be used to physically prevent a lawful activity.  Simply locking a gate on private property may be enough to trigger these sanctions.

According to UN legal experts David Kaye, Maina Kiai and Michel Forst:

“The proposed legislation will have the chilling effect of silencing dissenters and punishing expression protected by international human rights law. Instead of having a necessary legitimate aim, the bill’s offense provisions disproportionately criminalise legitimate protest actions” and “…prioritis[e]business and government resource interests over the democratic rights of individuals.”

In Tasmania, Liberal Premier Will Hodgman passed anti-protest laws in 2014 which are so extreme that they prohibit any protests on public or private land that hinder access to business premises or disrupt business operations.  The police have extraordinary pre-emptive power to target and fine people even suspected of planning a protest, and if those fines are challenged in court, the maximum penalty is $10,000 or four years in prison.

Former Greens leader Bob Brown was among the first people arrested under these laws when he protested the clear-felling of the high-conservation value native forests at Lapoinya, and he is now challenging the laws in the High Court.

Civil disobedience and peaceful protest are vital to our democracy. They have made the world a better place, helping to end child labour, win rights for workers, women, and protect clean air and clean water.    

But even with the unfair advantage given by these laws, fossil fuels and native forest logging are still dying. 

Globally, thermal coal is now in structural decline.  In Australia, coal mining has shed tens of thousands of jobs – about one third of its workforce – in just four years.

The world’s biggest coal company, Peabody Energy, is lurching towards bankruptcy, and ever more dire warnings are still coming.  The world’s biggest mining players like Anglo American, BHP and Rio Tinto are pulling out of coal and offloading stricken coal mines.

The global oil price has collapsed dramatically, taking gas prices with it. The multi-billion dollar Queensland LNG plants are looking increasingly like stranded assets. AGL Energy has recently abandoned coal seam gas, taking a $640 million hit to their balance sheet and beating a humiliating retreat from their NSW fracking operations in Camden and Gloucester. 

Recent revelations from Forestry Tasmania and Forestry Victoria show that in exchange for the small number of jobs they provide, the loggers only survive on generous government subsidies. 

In 2014, as Forestry Tasmania slid further into debt, the Tasmanian State government propped it up with a $30 million “equity transfer” from another state-owned business, TasNetworks.  In Victoria, a government briefing paper leaked in 2015 revealed that VicForests’ logging in the magnificent native forests of East Gippsland were making a loss of up to $5.5 million every year

The best way to break this toxic partnership is to end corporate donations to political parties, crack down on the ‘revolving door’ between industry and government, and create a national ICAC.  The Greens have fought for those reforms for decades, but they may not be enough. 

Even if all those shadowy links were shattered the Right may not change their ways.  The problem runs deeper – into the wholesale intellectual capture of the Liberal and National parties. 

new matilda, larissa waters
Greens Deputy Leader Larissa Waters in Paris. for the United Nations climate talks last year. (IMAGE: Thom Mitchell).

If it wasn’t clear when they torched Australia’s world-leading price on pollution, sabotaged our clean energy sector and approved coal mines and fracking operations willy-nilly; the laws passed in NSW, Tasmania and WA in the past month has made the Liberals’ and Nationals’ complete capture by the extractive industries shockingly obvious. 

Those laws are just the latest manifestation of a new reality in Australia: both the big parties are failing us on global warming, but the Liberal and National parties in particular have set themselves up as a political front for dying extractive industries like coal, gas and logging. 

They have come to identify the national interest as wholly the same as those of the interests of their mates in dying extractive industries.  They have become disconnected from their traditional base, which includes many farmers and rural Australians who are suffering from both the impacts and the decline of those dying extractive industries. 

They have nothing constructive to say to workers in the failing coal mines, ex-fracking towns, and abandoned logging coupes.  What we need is bold leadership from our government to build the clean energy revolution and help workers with the transition. 

The Right’s regression into ham-fisted authoritarianism and has come about because they have no credible alternative vision for the future.

They speak the language of ‘economic management’ and ‘innovation’ but actively avoid any policies which might actually fix unemployment and inequality, like government support for renewable energy, stimulus spending on new clean infrastructure, or properly funded schools, hospitals and TAFEs. 

They have no vision for a fairer, cleaner future which protects ordinary Australians and lifts everyone higher. They are wedded to last century’s thinking, and last century’s industries.


Senator Larissa Waters is the Co-Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens, and spokesperson on mining, resources and climate change.