The environmental movement in Australia is heading for trouble. I say this as someone who has worked on several environmental campaigns, and who has many friends that I have met through the movement and who continue to be involved. However, now as someone from the outside looking in, the strategy makes no sense to me. I hope this will be viewed as constructive criticism from a critical friend.
For clarity, when I say ’environmental movement’, I am referring to the networks of NGOs such as the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), GetUp!, Stop Adani, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) etc. One of the overarching aims of the environmental movement in Australia is to end the use of fossil fuels, including coal-fired power and mining, and no fracking for gas. Any good campaign will have tactics and strategies to achieve its goals. In the environmental movement this involves direct action (e.g. lock-ons, blockades), media stunts (e.g. marches), grassroots engagement (e.g. doorknocking) and electoral pressure. All of this should combine to help create a new common sense (a new hegemony) that is the stepping stone to a radical new reality.
Yet the environmental movement categorically failed to use the opportunity of the Queensland State Election as a springboard into a radical, hegemony-shattering overthrow of our energy system. The Queensland State Election was shaping up to be important for the movement because of the Carmichael coal mine, proposed by the Indian corporation Adani. The proposed coal mine is to be built in the Galilee Basin in North Queensland. When operational, it will release 115 million tonnes of CO2 a year. On top of this, the Adani corporation also has a history of corrupt and negligent behaviour and was seeking a billion-dollar handout from the Federal government via the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) loan process.
The Carmichael mine - or, as it became known, the Adani mine - was a really good target to go after strategically. And initially the movement did well; it built huge grassroots support and “Stop Adani” became a national tagline in the year up to the November 2017 Queensland election. But in the final few weeks before the election, some scorecards came out from environmental NGOs that were at odds with the campaign. The scorecards seemed to show that Labor wasn’t too bad on environmental issues, only scoring one less point than the Greens. WTF!!! These scorecards were also shared on social media by GetUp, AYCC and Stop Adani.
For those who had been campaigning against Labor’s support for the Adani mine, the scorecards felt like a kick in the gut. They portrayed Labor as an ally of the environmental movement, even though the party, in reality, is openly hostile to the movement at worst and patronising at best. (During a candidate debate in the seat of South Brisbane, hotly contested by the Greens, sitting Labor member and Deputy Premier Jackie Trad told environmental activists that “the anti-Adani people...can’t participate in the complicated, messy, national debate around energy policy and taking action on climate change” and “ought to be ashamed”.)
The vast majority of people don’t live and breathe politics, and are not involved day-to-day in the struggle against environmental destruction. Tactics like the scorecards end up sidelining genuine political alternatives and reinforcing the “lesser-of-two-evils” argument that has captured the United States elections and led to the results we see today.
What also angered me was the scorecards’ omission of a host of other criteria that demonstrate how truly vile Labor is when it comes to environmental issues. If there had been a criteria on ruling out new gasfields, Labor would have been given a fail: they continue to open up land for expanded gas supplies. Indeed, the Labor Minister for Natural Resources and Mines said on Dec 1st, 2017, that “it’s important for industry and jobs that more gas gets to market”. If there had been a criteria on refusing donations from fossil fuel companies, Labor would have failed: the gas company SANTOS gave them a $15,000 donation three days before the 2017 Queensland State Election. If there was a criteria for refusing to have fossil fuel lobbyists in key campaign positions, Labor would have failed: they had an Adani lobbyist, Cameron Milner, working on Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s re-election campaign. If there was a criteria for promising not to clear vital wetlands, Labor would have failed: it gave approval for the Toondah Harbor to be developed by one of its political donors, the Walker Group.
We fixed it for you
The environmental movement needs to understand that Labor is not their friend. Here is a list of examples, all within the last year:
- Bill Shorten continues to flip-flop on Adani; saying one thing out of one side of his mouth and something different out of the other.
- Annastacia Palaszczuk has said she still supports the Adani mine going ahead.
- The NT Labor government recently lifted the NT’s fracking ban.
- Labor voted at the Federal level with the Coalition to sell out indigenous land rights to Adani.
- Recently, the Victorian Labor government has opened up offshore reserves for oil and gas exploration.
- The Queensland Labor government has released 16 new tenders in 2018 for coal, gas and petroleum exploration in the Galilee, Bowen, Adavale, Eromanga and Surat basins.
- Terri Butler, Labor member for Griffith, used ANZAC Day as an excuse to set frothing social-media attack dogs on Stop Adani protestors.
The NGO strategy also made no sense after the veto of the Adani loan by Annastacia Palaszczuk, which was a tactic by the Labor Party to try to shore up inner-city seats they were in danger of losing to the Greens. Yet, rather than pushing harder on Labor and capitalising on this win to force more concessions, the NGOs shifted their campaign focus to the LNP, with calls for then-opposition leader Tim Nicholls to also veto the NAIF loan. This was a flawed strategy because Nicholls was never going to shift his position on this issue. So why did the NGOs waste resources and volunteers targeting LNP politicians when they could have been pushing on more Labor seats to get a Greens candidate in, or to force more Labor concessions?
There is a tendency for NGOs to reflect and gravitate towards existing power structures, for fear of being locked out of dialogue or funding. The hope is that by not upsetting Labor they might still be granted a seat at the table to provide some token input. But morality and conscience-tugging is not going to cut it anymore in the reduced timeframes we are working under (the window to stay below 2 degrees Celsius closes in 2020). The only way that Labor will change their position on the environment is if they are threatened electorally by losing seats to a push from the left (in this case the Queensland Greens). The Labor party needs to be disciplined by removing politicians who are not doing the right thing and replacing them with others who will.
This is the same strategic mistake that the union movement made with the Accord in the 1980s. Their tactics led to them signing away their ability to mobilise workers outside of the capitalist system, and shackled them to the currently neoliberal Labor Party. Yet the environmental movement can learn from this: don’t support and tie yourself to obviously neoliberal power structures such as the Labor party. Instead, start to build networks with genuine and growing anti-capitalist movements, such as the Queensland Greens, the Anti-Poverty Network, Right to the City and radical unions such as RAFFWU.
Work with them to articulate a utopian vision that is not solely focused on environmental moralism. Talk about stopping fossil fuels and nationalising the energy market. Talk about stopping tree clearing and the exploitation of low-paid farm workers and regional economic stagnation. Talk about fossil fuel divestment at our universities and the democratisation of the university workplace. Talk about corruption in our politics and different ways of doing politics, such as building participatory democracy. Break-free from the save-what-what-we-can, bunker-like mentality that has been created over 30 years of hyper-capitalism. As Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams remind us, “it is only a new form of universal action that will be capable of supplanting neoliberal capitalism” and give us a chance to avoid an environmental collapse.
Calum is an activist with experience in the Right to The City and climate change movement. He is a former Greens staffer and active Greens member. He is temporarily living in Vancouver, Canada, to take a break from Brisbane’s heat.