The fossil-fuelled political economy of Australian elections
The endorsement for coal mining from the Labor-Coalition duopoly that the election campaign has seen in the last week makes the token appeals that have been made about tackling climate change even more disingenuous.
In this election campaign, the major parties have only brought up climate change when they have been pressed to do so at public forums, like leaders’ debates, the ABC’s Q&A, or when they treat social media as something that needs to be quelled.
The Coalition’s response is simply to say that Australia participated in the Paris agreement, and that is good enough. Labor, on the other hand, points to having outbid the Coalition on targets. Yet neither party is planning to deliver the cuts needed for Australia to play its part in keeping global warming below the 2℃ threshold.
Which leads us back to a question I will deal with at the end of this article: if polls are consistently showing that Australian voters want climate change on the election agenda, why are the leaders keeping so quiet about it?
Neither party is shy of talking up coal, however. Bill Shorten declared last week that a Labor government would not ban coal mining – and that it would be part of Australia’s energy needs for the foreseeable future.
But then on Tuesday, Attorney-General George Brandis, campaigning for Queensland’s most marginal seat of Capricornia, put in one of the pluckiest coal-selling performances of the campaign. He cited the gigantic Adani mine in central Queensland a saviour for the electorate.
We know that Adani, the massive Indian coal company, wants to develop the Carmichael mine, which according to some estimates could generate up to 10,000 jobs. And people in Rockhampton know that and they know that the Greens are doing everything they possibly can to prevent the development of the Adani mine.
They see their future prosperity as being bound up in the development of the Adani mine, and they know that if there were to be a Labor-Greens government, that would be the end of the Adani mine, that would be the end of coal mining in central Queensland, and that would be the end of their best shot at economic prosperity in the future.
Just to the north, the federal government has quarantined A$1 billion from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation for projects to “save” the Great Barrier Reef. But this money is demonstrably not going to create any jobs that are relevant to Capricornia. Apparently pork-barrelling is not needed in Capricornia, as the promise of coal is a ready replacement.
But the largest contradiction of all is the complete illogicality of claiming (even if without foundation) to save the reef and solve climate change in one Queensland electorate, while proposing to unleash one of the largest deposits of CO₂ to the world’s atmosphere from the electorate next door.
It is worth heeding 350.org’s Bill McKibben’s warning that if all the coal in the Galilee Basin, of which the Adani mine holds one of the largest deposits, is exported for burning, it would use up 30% of the world’s carbon budget. 100% of the budget gets you 2℃.
And new climate research looking at the difference between 1.5℃ and 2℃, suggests the latter will make what we experience at the upper limits of present-day climate variability the new normal around the globe, and worse closer to the equator.
The influence of the mining and energy industry on election campaigns
This leads us to ask serious questions about the influence that mining and energy companies have on major political parties during election campaigns.
There is some variation in which particular mining companies are favoured by particular parties. Labor is certainly not as keen on Adani as the Coalition is. But, in general, the support for fossil-fuel industries is part of the DNA of the major parties today.
It is well known there is a perpetually revolving door between mining/energy companies and politicians/staffers from the major parties.
Take the Labor Party. When Labor lost the last election, Martin Ferguson, Craig Emerson and Greg Combet either took up management jobs with mining and energy companies and associations or worked as consultants for them.
Combet, a former climate change minister, took up consultancies for coal seam gas companies AGL and Santos. Ferguson, resources minister during Labor’s last term of office, landed the position as chairman of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association’s advisory committee only six months after leaving politics.
With the Coalition, former National Party leader Mark Vaile is chairman of Whitehaven Coal, the company at the centre of protest and controversy at the Maules Creek mine. Another former National Party leader, John Anderson, became chairman of Eastern Star Gas only two years after quitting Canberra.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Anne Davies last year found a complex web of interlocking networks of influence that tied together NSW Premier Mike Baird’s office, then-prime minister Tony Abbott’s office, and energy and mining companies including AGL and Santos.
At times, these companies brought together high-profile Liberal and Labor politicians. Santos engaged a lobbying company, Bespoke Approach, which listed former Labor senator Nick Bolkus and former Liberal South Australian premier John Olson as directors.
AGL lays claim to the same cross-party alliance between former Labor minister John Dawkins and former Liberal senator Helen Coonan, who co-chair lobbying firm GRA Cosway.
But what is less-well-known is the degree to which mining and energy companies have enticed media advisors from the major parties to walk through that revolving door. Davies included an interactive graphic in her report that shows the rotation of media people between Canberra, mining and energy companies, and state politics.
Understanding the rotation of media advisors does not just open up the question of lobbying – it also explains how governments may feel obliged to legitimate their support for fossil fuel.
Such staffers are a real prize for the companies. They give them access to the media strategies of government departments, which may translate into real influence about the kind of messages that might be most favourable to their company’s operations.
Carbon-laced political donations
It is now a matter of public record that fossil-fuel interests have bankrolled climate denialism around the world for decades. The case of the collapsing edifice of Peabody Energy, once the world’s largest coal company, is a paradigm example of this. Fossil-fuel companies even sponsored the Paris climate summit.
But can the donations of fossil-fuel companies also influence election campaigns? Well, yes they can, but we won’t find out who and how this might be happening until after the election.
A recent Four Corners program delved into the lack of transparency of Australia’s donation process. For example, knowledge of who is funding the parties in this election campaign won’t be revealed until the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) releases its data in February next year.
But we do know from the last election campaign that mining and energy companies loomed large as donors for both Labor and Liberal parties. The AEC’s data release from February 2014 showed the Liberal Party received more than $1.8 million directly from energy companies that supported the repeal of an emissions trading scheme (ETS).
Even more was donated via the Liberal-linked Cormack Foundation. Two of the biggest “receipts” to the Cormack Foundation were BHP and Rio Tinto.
Labor received only $453,000 from mining and energy companies in the context of the immense industry opposition to an emissions trading scheme.
Speculating on 2016 party donations
The 2013 election was all about mining and energy companies donating in return for killing the carbon tax. This has now been completed. Job done, time to move on.
With the carbon tax gone, and millions in corporate welfare flowing directly to the mining and energy companies from taxpayers, all that the PR departments of these companies would be worried about is that climate change is kept off the election agenda.
Such an environment would suit the fossil-fuel industries as they fight for a few more years of viability in a world that is abandoning them. As constitutional lawyer George Williams has observedof all forms of corporate donations:
These companies are hoping that giving money will lead to outcomes. That’s why they’re doing it, and that’s one of the key problems of the current system.
So, here is a hypothetical PR strategy that would make perfect sense for the mining and energy sectors in this election, in eight easy steps.
Step One: Mining and Energy companies donate to major political parties with a request to drop climate change from their campaigns.
Step Two: Major political parties agree not to run on a climate platform and continue to heavily subsidise the operations of mining companies.
Step Three: Parties use money for broadcast and newspaper campaign budgets.
Step Four: Newspapers and TV and radio outlets sell the attention spans of audiences to the advertisers of political parties for large sums.
Step Five: Major parties expect that audiences will be persuaded to vote for one of them, while fossil-fuel company donations are justified by backing both possible winners who will look after their interests. The investment would only fail if one of the parties had to share power with minor parties or independents.
Step Six: Major parties continue to support coal and energy companies, offering them mining exploration licences, mining leases and export licences.
Step Seven: A part of the donations that energy companies give to parties is paid by consumers of increased electricity prices as well as taxpayers who are subsidising the corporate welfare that goes to these companies.
Step Eight: With favourable regulatory conditions for mining and electricity generation, mining and energy companies have greater certainty with which to expand their investments, operations and profits – some of which can be injected back into the political process at election time.
To the extent that this hypothesis is proven to be correct, and repeats the processes at play in the 2013 election, what emerges is that although Australia enjoys the free speech of a multi-party democracy, discussion of climate change is not free from the influence of capital in the election process.
To the extent that the major donors to Labor and Coalition are dominated by mining and energy, it is in the interests of this industry to finance a political duopoly that encourages the closure of public debates that do not conform to its interests.
The winners in this process can be identified as a media-political-industrial complex. This complex is a kind of three-way protectorate, where each group looks after itself by looking after the other two.
Broadcasters and newspapers are winners as they generate large revenues at election time that is channelled to them by political parties from the donors.
Mining and energy companies are winners, as they are able to distract voters from climate change and reduce pressure on parties to decarbonise the economy and regulate against their activities.
The parties are winners as they only need to neglect climate change in return for millions of dollars in donations to their election campaigns.
The losers are the voters, who are not only forced to subsidise the political conditions that make their per-capita emissions four times higher than the global average, but also subsidise the conditions in which climate is taken off the public agenda.
The biggest losers are our grandchildren, who are going to inherit the climate mess created by the manipulative, influence-peddling mediocrity that plays out over three-year election cycles – and not just in Australia.