The proposal for Indian mining company Adani’s Carmichael mega-coal mine in Central Queensland were approved in July 2014. Few Australians before then could have pointed to the Galilee Basin on a map, but before long the Carmichael mine had become a divisive talking point.
For those on the side of industry, the mine was a bonanza of wealth and jobs – figures like $300 billion and 10,000 jobs were thrown around at one point (only to be later revealed as wildly optimistic) – as well as the potential for a whole new frontier of remote country opened up to the mining industry. Other mining companies with exploration leases in the region queued up behind the Indian company.
For those concerned about the impacts of climate change, the mine was a carbon bomb – several billion tonnes of coal to be burned in a world that had agreed at Paris Climate Summit we had to phase out fossil fuels to stop catastrophic climate change.
Opposition to the mine quickly galvanised into real action. Environmental activists moved to Central Queensland in an attempt to build a movement for climate action in the very place that would supposedly reap the economic benefits. The Wangan and Jagalingou people, traditional owners of the land on which the mine would stand, had signed an Indigenous Land Use Agreement. A group of them though said the process was a sham. They appealed in court; and began a tour of the world’s biggest banks, telling them not to finance a mine that did not have the blessing of indigenous people.
Other court cases began (enough for Liberal MP George Christensen to label them “lawfare”). The Mackay Conservation Group famously won its case in the Federal Court on the basis that the government approval has not sufficiently taken into account the habitat destruction of the yakka skink and ornamental snake. Unfortunately all they won was the need for the government to reassess, and when it comes to weighing up the comparative values of skink habitat vs billion dollar mines, governments are not known to be reptile fanciers.
A protest camp with the intention of blockading work on the mine was set up in 2015 and by 2017 people were being arrested halting work on mining infrastructure.
The shock victory of Anastacia Palaszczuk’s Labor party in the 2015 Queensland election owed more than a little to their promise to stop the dumping of dredge spoil on the Caley Valley Wetlands for Adani’s port, and to not offer any government support to the mine. In doing so, the Labor campaign was effectively piggybacking on the hard work of activists who had revealed the damage the mine and its infrastructure would do.
That work they have never repaid with any proactive move to stop the mine. The Palaszczuk government had the power to veto Adani’s application for a $1 billion loan from the federal Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund. They did so only under pressure during the next election campaign. They could have rejected the mine’s approval on environmental grounds, either by including climate change in the impact assessment or by applying the “water trigger” over the immense amount of groundwater the mine will use. They didn’t. They sat on their hands when it came to prosecuting Adani over environmental breaches they have already committed – agreeing to do so only at the very last minute after heavy activist pressure. Labor have offered Adani a “royalty holiday” for the first four years to help get the mine off the ground. In 2016, Cairns MP Rob Pyne quit the Labor party, citing the Carmichael mine as one of the reasons. Later that year, when a motion was moved in parliament in support of Adani; Pyne was the single vote against with 87 votes for.
Labor’s failure to move on Adani is certainly not because they have innocently forgotten its climate impacts. They have been relentlessly pushed by a significant number of hard-working people opposed to the mine. Numerous times MPs have said in private that they don’t support the mine, or that it won’t happen because the finance isn’t there. But in parliament or in public, the party has been conspicuously silent when it comes to saying anything critical of Adani.
Partly this can be attributed to Labor’s caucus voting rules, but mostly it just seems like pure spinelessness. While so many people are working overtime voluntarily to try to stop this mine and avert climate disaster; Labor politicians with a mandate to stop it seem paralysed by fear of the Murdoch media, the mining industry and pro-mining unions. They cower in silence while trying to still hold onto favour from environmentalists by reassuring them they’re really on side. It also seems hypocritical given Queensland Labor loves to promote its climate action plan and initiatives (most recently grants for households with solar panels to install batteries). With every media release about the party’s action on climate change, the elephant in the room that is Adani becomes harder and harder to ignore.
All those years of saying the finances aren’t there in the last month have come out as the empty excuses they are. Adani have made a series of announcements about changes to their plan that have the mine looking more likely than ever. First they announced a change to the transport plans. Rather than build a whole new rail line, they now intend to build a spur line onto existing tracks further north. Then Adani announced they would be scaling down the project into a series of stages that makes it require less capital. Last Friday, Adani announced they would be self-financing the project, putting aside all those financial questions. They claim work will start on the mine by Christmas.
This is not to say the mine is now a foregone conclusion. There are still hurdles Adani needs to get over regarding its groundwater management plan, the rail network and the federal court challenge of the Wangan and Jagalingou family council. Plus of course the ongoing public opposition.
The campaign against Adani has been Australia’s biggest grass-roots political movement at least since the Iraq war, except more sustained and varied. Polling suggests that three quarters of Australians who have a view on whether the mine should go ahead are against it. There have been all kinds of actions done against Adani, and even in the last couple of weeks we have seen schoolkids on strike and invading parliament; mass messages sent to Anastacia Palaszczuk; and people in Brisbane and Bowen arrested stopping export coal trains to protest the mine. The “lawfare” it seems will continue from both sides, with the Australian Conservation Foundation taking the government to the federal court over groundwater and rail company Aurizon putting a court injunction on Front Line Action on Coal to stop them encouraging people to blockade coal trains. The protest Camp Nudja is still there mind you, with more people going up there to try to get in the way of the mine’s construction. These actions are only going to intensify if the mine gets closer to construction.
You can’t fault the effort of the movement against Adani and all the people involved. But alongside the businessmen and careerist politicians who care for nothing as much as their own pockets; supportive but inactive politicians are now standing face to face with the prospect of being responsible for immeasurable more emissions on the road to catastrophic human-caused climate change.
In 2007, federal Labor leader Kevin Rudd described climate change as “the great moral challenge of our times”. For all his well-publicised flaws, Rudd did at least finally rouse Australia’s climate conscience and sign the Kyoto Protocol on reducing emissions. He took on the mining industry with his super-profits tax and paid the price. Regarding the climate action of so many politicians since (including Queensland Labor on Adani), I think mostly of that classic line from TS Eliot’s 1925 poem The Hollow Men: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper”
Few generations have ever been offered the opportunity we have – to do something of real significance and help save the future of the entire world by taking action on climate change. While so many have had to live heroic lives only vicariously through books and movies, or head off to war in the pursuit of a life of significance; our invitation to do something heroic stares us straight in the face – put aside our self-absorption, apathy and pre-occupation with the daily humdrum; and instead be part of a movement to create a better and more just future.
For those politicians, the opportunity is slipping away. Queensland Labor still could move on Adani, but realistically the best chance for it to be stopped is if federal Labor turns it into an election issue early next year. For the rest of us, the call is still there. You can hear it from the threatened ecosystems, the swathes of the world’s population who did the least to cause climate change but will be most affected, and from our future generations. They are relying on us to get involved and try to stop this mine being built the best we can.