Australia’s Carmichael Coal Mine: Slow Dancing in a Burning Room?

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them” – George Orwell.

The Australian government’s approval in April of the Carmichael Coal and Rail Project, just 3 months after ratifying the Paris Agreement on climate change, illustrates a paradox at the heart of the nation. A phenomenally successful economic model is now facing increasingly intense environmental effects, and a decade-long crisis in leadership. And while Australia struggles to reconcile its economic aspirations with looming environmental limits, the market is rapidly moving away from fossil fuels. The fate of Carmichael project could define the direction of Australia for the coming decades.

Understanding Australia is an exercise in irony and contradiction. The oldest culture on earth (continually lived for 75,000 years) sits alongside one of the world’s most technologically advanced societies (having developed Wi-Fi among other innovations). The national anthem sings a welcome to sea-faring immigrants (“… to those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share”), while federal leaders use imprisonment and boat tow-backs to ‘stop the boats’ of refugees. Even Australia’s geography is a fluid concept: while hosting the ‘AFC Asian Football Cup’ in 2015, Australia simultaneously competed in the Eurovision song contest.

In addition to Australia’s contradictions is an extremely proud history of mining and resource extraction. A series of mineral and energy booms over 150 years enabled Australia to rapidly achieve ‘industrialised’ status, rising to the 13th largest economy and second highest human development index globally. The mining industry accordingly holds great respect among the general population, and a genuine influence in national politics. In 2010 when the government attempted to increase taxes on mining companies, the industry mobilised a A$100 million attack campaign resulting in the eventual loss of leadership for the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd. The message to the political class was clear.

The influence of mining has been compounded by Australia’s media landscape, which has become one of the most highly concentrated ownership structures in the world. A handful of corporations and interconnected family interests now control most of Australia’s media. Newscorp, a dominant player in Australian media, also publishes Fox News in the USA and allegedly produces up to 80% of its stories on climate change as ‘misleading’. Additionally, Australian billionaire mining heiress, Gina Rineheart, purchased 13% of Fairfax Media in 2012. The Australian communications minister at the time acknowledged this was clearly an attempt to exert her influence, yet it was not against the law. What these actions point to is a media structure actively influencing information, arguably in favour of corporate interests.

However, despite its influence, minerals and energy are not the only industries of significance in Australia. Tourism also provides a major contribution to national GDP and character. Queensland, where the Carmichael coal project will operate, is also home to the Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest living organism, one of the ‘seven natural wonders of the world’, and a national and global treasure. The reef also provides serious economic value to Australia, supporting 69,000 tourism related jobs, and generating A$5.68 billion annually. Yet the reef, and the economy it supports, faces significant threats from climate change. Following 3 recent mass-bleaching events, the reef is now considered to be in such dire condition that it will never fully recover.

The Great Barrier Reef (Picture: FarbenfroheWunderwelt, Flickr)

Separate its threats to the reef, the Carmichael mine faces an increasing number of controversies surrounding its owner, the Adani Family. Adani’s CEO, Jeyakumar Janakaraj, failed to disclose to Australian authorities that a company he led faces serious environmental breaches in Zambia. Adani’s claims of generating 10,000 jobs for Queensland through the Carmichael mine is disputed by its own Australian-based expert, who predicted only 1,464 permanent jobs. Adani itself now faces a potential multi-million dollar fine for environmental breaches that occurred in Queensland in the same month that the Carmichael mine was approved. Finally, Adani has negotiated a A$1 billion taxpayer-subsidised federal grant for Carmichael to commence, questioning the economic viability of the mine itself.

The issues around the Carmichael mine exist within a decade of leadership instability in Australia. The current prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, leads a conservative party bitterly divided over climate change. While in opposition, Turnbull supported action on climate change, and lost leadership to climate sceptic Tony Abbott. However, after winning the 2013 election and repealing Australia’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), Abbott suffered such disastrous polling that he was replaced as party leader (and prime minister) by Malcolm Turnbull. To placate the conservative faction internally, Turnbull neutered any action on climate change and supported the Carmichael mine. Consequently, Turnbull’s public approval ratings have plummeted to lower than Tony Abbott’s, and Australia again faces unstable leadership.

Malcolm Turnbull (Picture: Veni, Flickr)

The Carmichael project’s controversies and the ongoing leadership crises suggest a profound disaffection of the Australian population towards its leadership. A 2016 survey by Australia’s Climate Institute suggested that Australians overwhelmingly support the science on climate change (77%), and believe the government has a responsibility to provide action (90%). Yet, Australia remains the first developed nation to have removed its CPRS. Tony Abbott’s chief-of-staff, Peta Credlin, recently admitted the removal of the CPRS “was never about carbon, or taxes, but simply brutal politics”. And while Turnbull’s conservative government has continually removed funding for renewable energy initiatives in preference of fossil fuels, Australian investors are flocking to renewable energy projects, with some investments selling out in minutes.

What the Carmichael coal mine ultimately reveals is a disconnection between the population and its leadership, and corporate influences operating outside the reach of Australia’s democracy. Having experienced 6 leaders in 10 years, the government is proving unable to reconcile these influences. A stalemate is occurring, between an industry who dictates the policy; versus the people, who still dictate the vote.

In 1987, the rock group Midnight Oil famously sung of Australia’s mining industry: “how can we sleep while our beds are burning?” It seems little has changed in the 30 years since, except perhaps the fire has now spread to the roof.

Peter Norris

2024 © The Perspective – All Rights Reserved