By Rich Bowden
Picking up outsiders’ views of Australia, its culture, history and politics is a never-ending source of interest to me. This week saw the return to the Old Dart of Menna Rawlings, the former British High Commissioner to Australia. Interestingly enough, she appears to have taken the gloves off (well, for a diplomat anyway) in her farewell speech. The subject she chose, again interesting, was our addiction to coal power and our apparent inability to change, unlike the Old Country (UK).
As reported in The Sydney Morning Herald, the outgoing High Commissioner said she was surprised by the lack of consensus to reduce reliance on coal, pointing out that the UK had reduced its reliance on the black stuff since the 80s. She described our government’s environmental policies as a “climate change impasse” which can only be described as a polite reference. “Complete and utter schemozzle” is closer to the mark. “Dog’s breakfast” is even closer.
Here’s an extract from the speech.
"... it's very different here but you have to ask why is it different?” she asks. “Why is it so much more important here? I think coal is just still so much more important in Australia than it has been in the UK for decades.
"We'd already transitioned away from coal during the '80s to some extent, during the Thatcher years. The closure of our coal mines was incredibly painful and difficult but I think in a way set the ground for us to have a different perspective.
"Something about Australia - it's about the land and the earth. And the extent to which Australia's prosperity has relied on that, I think, is always much more visceral and important here than it is in the UK. So it has surprised me."
Now, progressive readers of a certain vintage, like myself, will baulk at the combination of the words Thatcher, 80s, coal and (not included) unions and communities. Quick disclaimer, what follows is my opinion based on my recollections of media coverage of the war on the unions and discussions with friends who lived in the North of England and saw the carnage.
For the 80s were amongst the worst of the Thatcher government’s war on the unions. Ultimately she, and her right-wing government were “successful”, from their point of view, but at what cost? Whole communities were trampled on and union power to protect workers was, largely, smashed. The war on the coal miners particularly sticks out in my mind.
But back to the speech. Other than the apparent celebration of Thatcherism, the outgoing High Commissioner makes a few interesting claims about our own conservative government’s complete lack of interest in reducing our reliance on coal. She calls it a more “visceral and important” segment of our society than the UK and seems to lean on this argument as the reason why Australia seemingly cannot release itself from its addiction to coal-fired power.
But is there another, more venal, reason? I speak here of the power of the coal, and mining lobby in general, in Canberra.
The “revolving door” for former ministers has been an open secret for many years. Former ministers with connections to lawmakers are snapped up to act as mining spokespeople once they quit parliament. Far from being a “visceral and important” reaction to need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and build a renewable energy economy for our children’s future, energy policy is largely run by advisors and lobbyists with a connection to the mining industry and the need by them to return massive profits.
Need an example? Look no further than our current PM Scott (call me ScoMo) Morrison. He who is probably best known for happily waving a lump of coal around Parliament when he was Treasurer. The said lump of coal was provided thoughtfully by the Minerals Council of Australia, the loudest and most powerful of mining lobby groups. When Morrison became leader in a coup no-one wanted, or understood, who should turn up as his chief of staff but John Kunkel, the former deputy CEO of the aforementioned Minerals Council of Australia.
Just as an aside, the man who took Kunkel’s place in the Mineral Council was Patrick Gibbons, who acted as an advisor to then environment minister Greg Hunt. A miner helping to call the shots on the environment? I ask you. Curiouser and curiouser. More research is available here.
So, I hear you say, the alternative to rid ourselves of these corrupt fossil fuel lobbyists is to get rid of the COALition? Well, not so fast as they say in the classics. The Labor side of politics has been enmeshed in the revolving door palaver over decades just as much as the Liberals and Nationals. This Feb 2018 article published on the always excellent Michael West site details the lure of the mining dollar. One of the chief culprits was the infamous Martin Ferguson. Once Resources Minister, Ferguson resigned from his portfolio in 2013 to walk into a senior role for the industry lobbyists the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) only six months later. As the article remarks, this and other appointments can reasonably be perceived for Ferguson’s “hard work” on behalf of lobbying for mining interests, including coal, during his time as minister.
“Ferguson was also made a board member of British Gas, an appointment which could reasonably be interpreted as a reward for services rendered while in public office, given his facilitation (of the sale of Queensland’s gas before State or Commonwealth assessment and approvals) of BG’s $20 billion Curtis LNG/CSG export project in Queensland while resources minister.”
To get back to the outgoing High Commissioner’s comments about our apparent enslavement to coal. There may be some truth to her interpretations of our almost total inability to act to reduce our reliance, however I’d argue much of this may be caused by an “invisible hand” masked in the name of lobbying. A learned friend of mine says “the market will take care of coal” rather than the government and with renewables rapidly diving down the cost curve, she may be right. Certainly, we may have more luck relying on them than the policies of respective federal governments both Labor and Coalition. My own humble opinion though is that leaving it to a mechanism designed to make money is fraught with risk.
Love to hear your thoughts on this.
Rich Bowden is a freelance writer, podcaster, family man, coffee drinker and news junkie. He spends most of his time looking puzzled and saying stuff like “you’re never too old to learn” to anyone who will listen. Likes a laugh. Otherwise harmless. Podcasts at Climactic, The Real Food Chain and Permaculture Plus.