Saboteurs, Vigilantes and Lawfare

PhD student Christine Winter looks at how the Federal Government has created its own hurdle for the Carmichael Coal Mine

The Abbott government is indignant. Its upset a pet landmark project—the Carmichael Coal Mine development for the Galilee Basin in Queensland—has hit a hurdle, a hurdle the government appears to have created for itself by not following due process in granting environmental approval to the mine.

The government lays the blame not with their process, but rather with the law allowing people to challenge approvals through the court. The people who used the laws and courts, who followed ‘due process’ are, say liberal frontbenchers, ‘saboteurs’, ‘legal vigilantes’ and engaged in ‘lawfare’.

Very strange language to use for people who want to protect country, life-ways, landscape, waterways, plants, animals and the Great Barrier Reef.

It is not they who propose the use of explosives and machines of mass destruction. Not they who propose mining enough coal to tip the globe over 2 degrees of warming—with all the damage that entails.

Their aim is preservation of life and landscape in the present and for future generations.

And here rests the second paradox in the government’s narrative. The government regularly enlists two concepts to support policy intent in what I consider a misleading and inaccurate way: future generations/intergenerational fairness and sustainability.

Earlier this year the government produced Australia’s fourth Intergenerational Report (IRG)—projecting forty years ahead, it might have drawn a visionary picture of the Australia the government is ‘designing’ through current policy.

Instead it, like their designs on wrenching coal from the embrace of the Galilee, was a document rigged towards their short term, ideology and market based, GDP driven objectives. Admittedly its terms of reference are mainly economic, however the economy is not an isolated entity.

Intergenerational issues are bigger and wider than economy alone: they nest with the economy in society and the environment.

We have no direction from this government on how they want society or the landscape, waterways and seas to look in 40 years time. No vision for 100, 500 or 1000 years from now.

Of course a there are many things a 1000-year plan cannot detail: but there are very important things it can describe—issues of quality of life.

It can describe what values might shape the society—fairness, gender equity, aboriginal autonomy, tolerance, thriving arts….

It can describe the environment in which that society will be embedded—clean, pollution free, walking access for every citizen to green spaces, wilderness reserves, eco-tourism, thriving reefs…

It can describe some material ambitions of that society—clean energy production, self sufficiency in food production, no child poverty, no aboriginal poverty, secure and healthy aged population, high rates of access to higher education, secure and meaningful lives for the disabled…

If the IGR were required to tackle the substantive issues of intergenerational justice, the social and environmental issues, the government would be forced to govern for the only-just-born, and the yet-to-be-born as well as for the avarice of the living.

In painting the picture of benefits from the Carmichael mine the government talks only of jobs (in highly inflated numbers it would appear) and providing the global poor with coal for electricity.

But they elide the costs—because the costs are easily hidden, they are intergenerational, non-material, and affect the non-human realm.

Costs to the social fabric, the cultural integrity and intergenerational obligations of the indigenous Wangan and Jagalingau people of the nature-rich basin.

Costs to the Great Barrier Reef and all who live from it.

Costs to all coastal cities as sea levels rise.

Costs on health systems from climate change.

Long-term infrastructure costs…and so it goes on.

These are the costs measured by those with a truly intergenerational vision and sustainable perspective.

The government’s ‘narrative’ lacks imagination. Possibly their collective imagination lacks imagination! This government seems incapable of envisioning benefits from leaving landscape intact—perhaps the Prime Minister could have a meaningful discussion with the first peoples of Australia about land, landscape, place and country.

Perhaps he could learn from a peoples whose vision is intensely intergenerational. Their vision is not a mere three-year election cycle, not a measly 40-year IGR projection.  As Clayton Lewis of the Aboriginal Heritage Alliance, said to me recently, his plan is “for eternity”.

The government has a problem with temporal and spatial imagination: changing the law to allow only those ‘immediately impacted’ a claim in law is to mute the voices of those most affected—indigenous peoples, future generations, peoples world wide, animal, plant and landscape on whose behalf the environmental litigants speak.

It will deny intergenerational justice, indigenous justice and undermine Australian and global sustainability.



Image: Lock the Gate Alliance ‘Curtis Island’ via Flickr Commons