Back to All News

Adjournment: Climate change

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 30 Oct 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (02:04): In the last hour, the Liberal-National government has hammered another nail in the coffin of government action on climate change with the passing of the Carbon Farming Initiative Amendment Bill 2014. But, as is so often the case when governments fail to act on progressive change, people take action, speak up, stage protests and achieve change for the better, and that is what we are seeing in Australia today with climate action. While this adjournment is at five past two in the morning, I am pleased to be making it after the government has shown in the debate tonight the depth of its betrayal of the people of Australia and its ignorance in relation to climate change and in relation to our land, our water and our environment. The contrast between this Liberal-National government and people's actions is telling.

There are some extraordinary people's movements afoot in Australia today. I recently attended the Beyond Coal and Gas conference in Ipswich, Queensland, which brought together hundreds of people from across the nation who are taking on the fossil fuel industry in so many creative ways. One of the most prominent of these is a divestment movement. The Beyond Coal and Gas workshops on divestment from fossil fuel companies inspired many to take similar actions. The Australian National University experience is informative. On 3 October that university made a decision to sell its stock in seven companies. The decision followed lobbying from the university community, wanting them to divest all of their stock from fossil fuels. Instead, the ANU engaged an independent analysis of ASX 300 companies and looked at how they align with their socially responsible investment policy. Their consultants, the Centre for Australian Ethical Research, used an internationally recognised methodology to analyse the environmental, social and corporate governance of ASX 300 companies. The companies are essentially rated on a level of 1 to 5, and the ANU made the decision to divest from any companies which fell into the lowest category. That turned out to be seven companies-in all, $16 million, or about one per cent of the ANU's $1 billion of investment holdings. Those from which they chose to divest were these seven companies: Santos, Oil Search, Iluka Resources, Sandfire, Sirius, Newcrest and Independence Group. Not all of these are even involved in fossil fuels. The university maintains shares in some fossil fuel companies, so really this was a small but positive movement in relation to ethical investment.

The extraordinary response to this movement reveals how the fossil fuel industry and its backers are feeling vulnerable. Prime Minister Tony Abbott called it 'stupid'. Treasurer Joe Hockey said the university 'didn't understand economics'-that is a bit rich, coming from the Treasurer. For weeks running, The Australian Financial Review ran largely hostile commentary on the topic. The Minerals Council, of course, cried foul. And then we got to the Senate estimates last week, when the ANU's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Young, was called before the education committee for the first time. The hearing went for over an hour. The Vice-Chancellor said he had received phone calls from the companies, who were trying to convince the university to overturn the decision. While I have had my differences with Professor Young over his approach to the higher education plans of this government, I have written to him recently to congratulate him for his leadership on climate action through divestment. An article in The Conversation points out that this divestment at ANU involves a sell-off of shares at the low rate of one in 3,000. It is worth emphasising here that this is a small piece of the pie, so what is the fuss about?

The fossil fuel industry is giving every sign it is worried. This is not a surprise-demand for coal is dropping. The most recent data shows the coal use in China is slowing down, even though economic growth continues to rise. Indications are that the international price of coal is not about to recover. Yet here the industry-with government and some opposition MPs cheering them on-attempts to continue unabated, but the world is waking up to the lies of the coal industry. But mining companies are still used to getting their favours: the subsidies of coal-related infrastructure, hand-outs with development assistance, low tax rates and law changes if some community group has a win in court. These are a few examples of what the mining industry has come to expect and has received for decades from successive Liberal-National and Labor governments. If its easy ride is challenged, we hear its companies and its peak organisations, the state and national mineral councils, squawk about how the economy will fail and how jobs will go, hoping that we will forget that it is they who make the decisions about where they invest their money and it is they who fire the workers when their profits are low.

Many great organisations are spearheading action on climate change. In the last month, organised an effective and most memorable tour by the Pacific Climate Warriors. Representing 13 of the Pacific island nations facing devastation from climate change, these brave warriors have spent the weeks leading up to the Beyond Coal conference touring the country, highlighting the unequal-I would actually say criminal-impact of the reticence of our government to face up to climate change.

On 17 October, they went out into Newcastle harbour, the biggest coal port in the world, supported by hundreds of people in their canoes. It was an unforgettable sight, with the Pacific islanders taking to the water with the message on their canoes: 'We are not drowning. We are fighting.' I have had the opportunity to join these protests in some years. The organisers are to be congratulated for these creative and courageous protests taking on the massive coal industry. These harbour blockades have been held for a number of years now. They provide an amazing sight, with people in single and double canoes and small boats too enjoying the sunshine and the atmosphere of the harbour and the protest.

In the early years of this protest, I remember, the port authorities would hold off on sending the coal ships through the protesters' boats. Increasingly, though, they try to defy the protests and push giant coal ships through the small protest craft. This is what happened this year. The strength of the islanders in their canoes and the strength of the community there were an incredible sight. For half an hour, hundreds of people faced off against a massive coal ship, with absolute bravery and determination, stopping the ship from leaving the harbour. Yes, the coal ship did eventually leave port Newcastle, but the strength of the protest sent the strongest message to the mining industry and the government.

The action inspired people across the country. For the following week, people took their protests to the offices of companies whose actions are driving up greenhouse gas emissions. On the Monday after the harbour action, 50 people descended on Whitehaven Coal offices in solidarity with the Pacific warriors to protest the mine at Maules Creek, where the company is currently constructing the largest coalmine in the country. Protests continued at Buru Energy in Perth and even at the Minerals Council here in Canberra. Our government may not be making the connections, but people are. The constant bowing down to the coal industry is having real impacts, and this needs to stop.

This is why the call of the Pacific warriors, 'We are not drowning; we are fighting,' reverberated through the Beyond Coal conference venue at the end of their talk. For many, the conference was also a chance to share stories. Many participants were people from rural areas. Many had not been involved in environmentalism or protests of any form before. Many said to me that they felt now that they had no option but to take action against coal and coal seam gas mining. Many of the people at the conference are fighting these issues on a daily basis, often in the face of not only the big companies but also the mining companies' mates in government.

One shocking thing I learnt at the Beyond Coal conference relates to Queensland, where the Newman government have released a health report on coal seam gas. The report claims that there are minimal health risks from CSG in Tara, a region which has been inundated by the industry and serves as a warning to others. This report contains no baseline health data. There was only direct participation from 15 people-only 15-and two by telephone in the whole region. That really is meaningless. This is why communities are up in arms about CSG. Not only is there a lack of scientific analysis to assess health and safety issues; there is no political will to investigate it.

This is what the people of Gloucester have been telling the New South Wales government for years, but, as we know, their concerns are falling on deaf ears. Those politicians in the pockets of the mining industry continue to say yes to mining. This is an area I have had a long connection with. We have seen time and time again here and in other parts of the state and the country that, once the exploration starts, it is effectively the first stage of full-blown mining. The government might make out they have got a rigorous process, they might say they are protecting the environment and that there are all sorts of rules and standards, but, once that exploration starts, the full-scale mining rarely stops.

This is why people at Gloucester are taking direct action-many for the first time. At BeyondCoal I heard about Brett Jacobs, a father of seven children and long-time Gloucester resident, who locked on at his neck to a gate to prevent fracking in the region. I met Brett recently when I was in Gloucester, and I congratulate him for his courageous action. Three others were arrested that day, and the next day there were more arrests. They are continuing their actions. Gloucester residents still have hope. If the government will not stop AGL, they are saying the people will.

What is becoming increasingly clear to me through these actions and the stories I heard at BeyondCoal is that the people recognise the failure of government to act on climate change. People know that they have power and they are ready to take it. They are standing up to fossil fuel companies at the mine sites, in the harbours and through the institutions in which they invest. This is not 'stupid', as the Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, claims. It is not a misrepresentation of what our economy needs. What our economy needs is a planet that can survive and thrive. This is what people at ANU, people in the Pacific, people in rural Australia and workers in the energy sector are telling the fossil fuel industry. The time of the coal and coal seam gas industry is up and it knows it. Rather than engaging in the unseemly coal rush to bleed the last of the profits from the dying industry, it is time they changed their investment strategy, diversified their own portfolio and reworked their business case. Coal and coal seam gas mining companies take note. The people have spoken. Their voice is growing louder. King Coal is in its death throes.


Back to All News