Illustration of a pool of oil.

Sophie Bond, Amanda Thomas and Gradon Diprose
Stopping Oil: Climate Justice and Hope

A few weeks ago, Melbourne’s Trades Hall unveiled a long-overdue monument honouring Zelda D’Aprano, a fierce campaigner for equal pay for women. Anyone concerned about climate change could not help but notice the irony of former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard lauding a statue depicting D’Aprano holding the chains with which she fastened herself to the Commonwealth Building in Spring Street. It’s precisely the kind of protest increasingly being criminalised by Labor governments everywhere.

In 2019, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk pioneered draconian laws specifically targeting demonstrators using locking devices. In the past few weeks, the South Australian government amended its Summary Offences Act so that anyone “intentionally or recklessly” causing obstruction in a public place – just as D’Aprano did back in 1969 – faces three months in prison.

As Stopping Oil: Climate Justice and Hope reminds us, similar crackdowns on environmental protests are happening everywhere – and have been for some time. The book documents the Oil Free campaign in Aotearoa New Zealand, a movement in which activists fought against offshore oil and gas drilling by disrupting ships, picketing banks associated with fossil fuels and protesting industry conferences.

Australians tend to think of Aotearoa New Zealand as innately progressive, forgetting that from 1984 the Labour government, under the stewardship of finance minister Roger Douglas, initiated some of the most extreme neoliberal reforms in the world. In the space of a few years, “Rogernomics” transformed a heavily regulated economy into a free-market experiment, deregulating the financial sector, cutting taxes for the wealthy, removing agricultural subsidies and privatising state assets.

Even today the country remains, as the authors put it, “among the most ‘neoliberalised’ countries in the world”. In 2008, the National government of John Key sought to develop local extractive industries, explicitly taking Australia as its model. As Key pushed for offshore mining, the Deepwater Horizon spill released some 210 million US gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, in one of the worst environmental disasters recorded. This was followed by a catastrophe closer to home, with the container ship Rena running aground off the east coast of the North Island, despoiling local beaches with oil and debris.

Key promised to make the “most use of the wealth hidden in our hills, under the ground and in our oceans”. But the “our” in his pledge begged some important questions in a colonial settler state.

In 1840, representatives of the British Crown and some Māori leaders signed a treaty. Or, more exactly, they signed two: an English-language document in which the Māori ceded sovereignty and a Māori one (Te Tiriti o Waitangi) in which they didn’t. The deception remains unresolved, with obvious implications for oil and mineral resources.

In 2011, the iwi (kinship group) of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui declared its opposition to oil company Petrobras exploring its waters. With the backing of Greenpeace New Zealand, the iwi mobilised a small protest flotilla to prevent a Petrobras survey vessel from conducting its work. The government responded by amending the Crown Minerals Act, imposing exclusion areas around oil or gas exploration sites, with huge fines and jail terms for anyone who breached the zones.

In their account of the campaign, Bond, Thomas and Diprose note how neoliberalism redefines freedom in market terms, so that the protests traditionally understood as central to a free society become instead an unjustified infringement on the rights of businesses. As one protester involved in blockading a bank explained, “People couldn’t quite register the fact that you know there’s a vast difference between us making the day of a couple of people a bit more inconvenient, versus climate change killing people…”

The book documents the tight nexus between the neoliberal state, the oil companies it encouraged and the private security agencies they employed. In 2017, Greenpeace NZ received a leak revealing the surveillance under which its activists had been placed for years by the firm Thompson & Clark, which dubs itself “New Zealand’s leading security, corporate intelligence and protection agency”. A request under the Official Information Act for emails exchanged between Thompson & Clark and the police was denied on the basis there were simply too many of them to release.

Rarely do activist campaigns become the focus of the scholarship devoted by Bond, Thomas and Diprose to the Oil Free campaign. That scrutiny draws out some important contradictions. They note, for instance, how protesters sought to garner support through an “eco-nationalist” narrative centred on a supposedly innately Kiwi passion for local beaches – and they describe how this backfired when modelling showed an oil spill would not affect Dunedin but rather pollute the Chatham Islands. “People were like, ‘Oh, okay sweet’,” one activist recalled, “and I was like, ‘ah no, no no! That’s not what we are trying to say’.”

Perhaps more importantly, Stopping Oil notes how environmental campaigns inevitably raise complex issues about colonisation and custodianship of First Peoples. In 2018, the new Labour government pledged to ban almost all fresh permits for oil and gas exploration in Aotearoa’s exclusive economic zone – a rare defeat for an industry that usually gets what it wants.

Many of the activists involved in the campaign recall how taking direct action changed the way they thought about politics. “[C]ivil disobedience,” said one, “isn’t just about breaking those external laws. It’s about trying to recognise when your own initial emotional or intellectual response needs to be disobeyed as well.”

Zelda D’Aprano could not have put it better.

MUP, 160pp, $30

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2023 as "Stopping Oil: Climate Justice and Hope".

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