The bold, well funded and increasingly defiant Stop Adani campaign to stop coal mining in the Galilee basin has been building momentum since 2011. Through numerous iterations and elections Adani, coal and Galilee have all won headlines and made the plight of our climate and our reef further known. This article is about the other side of this important campaign. It is about how, through our determination to stop this project we have neglected the equally important work of transforming the socio-economic conditions of those who work in the coal industry, which forms the basis of why coal has become such a divisive political issue.
Start with direct experience
The story of how my views have been shaped on coal and climate change issues in Australia started when I got involved early on in the Adani campaign. I was a young climate activist determined to work with communities to build power from the bottom up in the fight against coal. In 2012 I did just this when I moved to Mackay to start working with community and conservation groups who were both concerned about the prospect of new coal ports nearby. For my mental health, social and family life, moving to Mackay was the most difficult thing I have ever done. However, dividends were paid from what I can now see was a critical experience that allowed me to start seeing coal from another point of view. In retrospect, the conversations I had with coal community locals were essential in developing a perspective that showed me the arrogance in both the ‘shut it down’ conservationist and coal industry loyal North Queensland sentiments. My time in Central and North Queensland showed me that only direct experience can give you an understanding of how different perspectives are shaped. I learned that more balanced views allows you to create transformative change that de-escalates the process of political polarisation.
My story becomes relevant to the political stalemate of the Adani campaign of the present day because it is clear that the politics of coal have become polarised to the point of blind short term thinking on both sides. The Queensland ALP Government is committed to backing the mine because it is committed to keeping key electorates in North Queensland that it needs to stay in government. Dig deeper and the ALP is also committed to the project because it does not have the policy or determination to prosecute a vision for rural economies that does not rely on the boom bust coal and gas industries. On the other side of the trench, the environmental and Wangan and Jagalingou campaigns are maintaining their efforts to make support for the mine so financially and electorally risky that either investors or the Government will withdraw their support.
Understand it is not 'us' vs 'them'
So where does that leave Queensland? Very divided. If you take a walk through West End in Brisbane and Townsville in North Queensland and talk to people about the mine you will get a sense of the polarisation of the debate. One side is rightly in a state of alarmism about the reef and climate change. The other feels so economically and culturally excluded by capitalist and cultural globalisation that they do not have the cultural or economic foundation to understand what to them are complex new nature-based and cosmopolitan values. The traditional values of their community are rooted in material security, respect for authority. Consequently, if they feel their financial livelihood is threatened they are going to defend against any political intrusion by the values of those down south.
The polarisation is comparable to what you get these days on the issues of refugees, worker protections and a raft of other issues. Together, they show how progressive political activists have been caught up in such deep preoccupation with their own identity politics that the conversation has hit fever temperature in terms of its vitriol and adversarial nature between ‘us’ and ‘them’ where each perceives the other is ‘the other’. Take a read of some of the big picture research and analysis about electoral disaffection and rising cultural tensions threatening social cohesion and it all starts to fall into place. Society is polarising and fragmenting on every level. Unfortunately, many political elitists choose to respond by continuing to march to the sound of their own drum while the rest of society stops listening. When society does listen, their response becomes more spontaneous, extreme, and erratic because they have been so disconnected from the common values that kept everyone on a similar beat in the first place.
Figuring out where to from here for people concerned about climate change and the Great Barrier Reef needs to start with a deeper consideration of how this situation has arisen and how those who are in opposition to our own views have formed their views. Yes, we need to stop the crazy Adani coal mine and do everything we can to end the age of thermal coal. But the way we do it needs to be completely re-thought.
Look at the bigger picture
As a state, Queensland is more dominated by primary industries than most other states, and North Queensland is even more so than the rest of Queensland. Rural towns and mining towns have not had the cultural and industrial diversification that the cities or southern states have been privileged to. Instead, they have been victim to the full socially marginalising impacts of neoliberal economic policy on rural economies. Mining has been automated, agriculture has been increasingly turned to monoculture and come under increasing foreign ownership. While all at the same time, the cultural class divide between cities and regions has left rural areas excluded from the growth in service and creative economies, not to mention disconnected by new forms of post modern and globalised culture.
Politically, rural areas have not had a voice committed to radical class struggle or a transition to sustainable agriculture. They have been stuck with lack lustre representation from a once agrarian socialist National party that has been co-opted by corporate elitists. Because our inherently gameable electoral system has meant that the Labor party and Greens are focused on the concerns of those in the city seats they can win, rural communities have been left with very few progressive voices. As someone who grew up in a rural community, I feel deeply frustrated about this because, at the end of the day, it is rural areas where capitalism has done its worst and where communities need empowering to transform the agricultural practices that are killing the planet. Decentralising government and social services goes to redress this to some degree, but will not go as far as we need to achieve an economy that balances the integrated development of both rural areas and cities.
I think everyone knows a lot of this to some extent. I cannot imagine any readers disagreeing too much that mining regions and rural areas need a more holistic and sustainable economic development strategy and that successive governments have failed to provide adequate support for this. If this is the case, the question we must ask then needs to change from what we need to do about creating a 'just transition' away from coal for rural economies, to who is responsible for making it happen when the Government is absent. Who needs to stand up when the Government is absent? The social movements that make up civil society do. They have the power, role, and responsibility to create the change that is needed from the ground up, which in turn gives politicians the social license to “lead” and support what the community is already doing.
Reflect on our mistakes
This recognition for the need to advocate for and facilitate a ‘just transition’ away from extractive industries to sustainable diverse economies has been something the climate movement has slowly started to talk more about. There have been many conversations about how we need to work with communities, push for sustainable projects, forge new and diverse partnerships, and figure out what sustainable rural economies look like. But talk and more talk is all that has really happened.
In 2012, the Beyond Coal Conference in Kurri Kurri hosted NSW ALP opposition leader MP John Robertson. Mr Robertson had been under internal lobbying from Labor environmental activists to adopt a policy to phase out coal mining in NSW. To the almost silent shock of the audience of community organisers and coal campaigners, who would have never imagined their wildest dreams were about to be granted, a coal phase out is what John announced to the Beyond Coal conference. The next day the CFMEU, Liberal and National Parties, along with right wing ALP MP’s all unleashed their rage about the policy, which in the absence of any organised environmental movement or community applause was quickly withdrawn by Mr Robertson.
The blunder was bad from the perspective of the Labor Environmental Action Network that had pushed the policy change without realising that on these types of divisive issues, the community needs to lead and politicians need to respond. However, the real question is where was the climate movement in this moment? Where was the host of community groups & climate groups calling for the just phase out of coal that had a funded plan to reshape mining town economies to support the policy? Such a movement never existed because the climate movement has never invested in supporting local organisers and transformative facilitators on the ground in coal communities, or in research and campaigns to support such a vision. Without such an investment of time and money, the work to reimagine mining economies and build the transformative political alliances between diverse groups will never be done. Without anyone doing this work, the communities for whom the coal industry has been their lifeblood, will never make the bold calls for a transition out of coal.
Often there is confusion about the role the expansion of renewable energy technology and industries can play in mining communities. Renewable energies offer great opportunities to former coal mining communities like Port Augusta that have the renewable resources to make them feasible. The hard truth, though, is that not all mining communities are endowed with such resources. At least for the coal communities where power generation takes place there has been some good news recently. Due to union and socially minded environmental advocacy in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley from the likes of the CFMEU, Friends of the Earth, Voices of the Valley, Earthworker and others, the Senate Inquiry into Coal Power Retirement has deepened the discussion about about just transitions for coal energy generation communities. Hopefully, this will lead to better outcomes for power generation towns like Gladstone who are at risk of the too little too late policy response that the Morwell community has been victim to with the closure of the Hazelwood power station.
Unfortunately for many other coal communities, the just transition policy conversation has not progressed let alone started. For mining communities who produce thermal and coking coal destined for export and are not marked for mega renewables development, a whole different set of policy responses are needed that the government nor civil society are talking about. In the Queensland context, the current manufacturing inquiry by the Queensland Productivity Commission is missing an opportunity for capturing renewable energy manufacturing opportunities for mining communities in need of just transitions.
So who is going to start this conversation and ensure the communities who are affected are at the centre of it? Many environmentalists blame the unions for not putting enough energy into protecting the long term economic future of the communities their workers live in. To me, this is a cop out. Firstly, the unions cannot lead the way by themselves because they are never going to confront the Labor party and demand the rapid coal mining just transition needed. Secondly, environmentalists need to be aware that unions have long been on the back foot as accelerating technological change evolves capitalism, drives economic disruption and pushes union density and membership ever lower.
The environment and climate movement arose from a class of educated people with enough accumulated wealth to be able to shift their concerns to the plight of nature. As a movement, we have become so alarmed about the seriousness of environmental risks that we have severed our ability to be aware of working class perspectives. As environmentalists, we need to come out of the egotistical obsession with our own alarmism by recognising that it causes us to over emphasise political strategies that rely on gaming the electoral system for idealistic quick solutions to very complex problems. Right now, we are in a debate about coal as an industry. We will never move beyond this towards a debate about how much government involvement there should be in its phase out unless we provide leadership by working in ways that are intersectional between class and environmental justice.
Sadly the funders, board members, and staff of numerous environmental and climate focused organisations around the country have been beyond reluctant to accept their share of the responsibility to advocate, organise, and facilitate a just transition. At the end of the day, it seems all of those ENGO decision makers have been too focused on stopping things, to the point that they do not have the time to bother about replacing them or advocating alternatives.
The silence following John Robertson’s announcement at the Kurri Kurri Beyond Coal conference proved it. The numerous attempts of solutions focused organisations like Beyond Zero Emissions to get funding for research and engagement in rural Queensland proves it. The numerous calls for just transitions organising in the mining regions of Queensland that have never been given much notice by the big coal movement funding groups proves it. The rejection of five grant applications from environmental funders to a reputable just transitions practitioner in Queensland from environmental funding bodies this year proves it. The recent Queensland Greens policy initiative that proposed increasing coal royalties without any mention of funding for just transitions projects (even though it is in their policy) proves it. The continual refusal of Green party MP's and green groups to publically differentiate between the types of coal and advocate for just transition policy that is sensitive to those differences proves it. The withdrawal of a job advertised earlier this year for a ‘Just Transitions Community Organiser’ in the Hunter Valley (would have been the first of its kind in Australia) with 350 Australia after their 'internal restructure' also proves it.
Enough is enough! There have been too many conversations for climate campaigners to keep going on business as usual. It is time to call out the view that supports denying the importance of this work and delaying its implementation further.
Transforming our work
Our world is crying out for transformation in every sphere and climate movement politics in Australia is no different. Climate activist and organisations need to make a decision. They need to decide whether they want to keep going on business as usual, stopping carbon getting out of the ground, or whether they want to start putting equal energy into bridging the economic, cultural, political and geographical divide with regional communities by learning to work together and working to learn together to put just as much energy into the solution as they do into stopping the problem. Recently the Queensland Government released the Queensland Climate Transition Strategy. In Pathway 3, the strategy lays out a solid set of plans that if implemented will start to put in place the programs and dialogues that will slowly shift the economic narrative in mining regions. Although it is a slow start for what is an urgent issue, the strategies are the only thing currently on offer from the government that can start to bridge the divide between rural and metropolitan communities on coal and climate change. To give us even more hope a policy and rhetoric change within the CFMEU and the ACTU shows that the Union movement is increasingly interested in creating a just transition.
This offers a big opportunity for anyone who sees class economic, social and ecological justice as essential elements to decarbonisation. Unless climate groups get active and start putting money into the work with mining communities to call for its implementation it may never see the light of day. If we can ensure it is implemented, climate groups will then have the opportunity to build determination within mining communities to demand funding for economic diversification and community co-design and put in place coal phase out timelines the government can be held accountable to.
If we do not act now to take up this opportunity we may miss the best chance we have had yet to win bipartisan support for the end of coal. To achieve these goals climate activists need to start to hold the organisations and funding bodies that finance campaigns like Stop Adani to account. We need to advocate a balanced strategy that necessitates we put an equal amount of resources and energy into the solutions as we do the problems. If some organisations cannot be held to account then it is important that we all take the responsibility to make their position transparent and known. Within these organisations there are transformative thinkers. Unfortunately many are paid to stay inside a system they know full well is not properly addressing the systemic causes of the existential crises facing humanity.
So what could we do if we lived out our wildest visions about what will be necessary to transform our movement? A well-resourced network of networks could be empowered and developed to be mutually supportive of the communities where coal is produced, those who want to unite and work with them, and all of those affected by its production (i.e. EVERY community sooner or later). Finding those with the foresight to support such work, to demonstrate the alternatives in exemplar communities, is our current challenge. Addressing this challenge might mean leaving institutionalised and elitist conservationist thinking in the past within the well intentioned but overly righteous groups that are unable to adapt their approaches to create transformative change. In an age where polarisation has created the post-truth political landscape we find ourselves in, it is not enough to just pay lip service to just transitions and it is not ok to disregard class struggle.
Ahri Tallon is an Australian organiser, volunteer trainer, project manager and political campaigner who loves to work on innovative projects that connect communities and address the big problems of the world. Ahri gives special thanks to Luke Reade, Neil Davidson and Steven Riggall for their contributions.