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While the Greens fight over relevance, the movement from which they were born is going professional. By Mike Seccombe.

Who is running green politics?

Greens leaders present and past, Christine Milne and Bob Brown.
Credit: AAP Image

On a balmy evening in mid-August 2012, a dozen or so people are enjoying an al fresco dinner in Broome. Among them are the recently retired leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, and his successor, Christine Milne.

Also there is one of Australia’s best-connected businessmen, Geoffrey Cousins, and Ben Oquist, Brown’s long-time chief of staff, now working for Milne.

It’s been a big day out ferrying journalists, including this one, on the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin, so we could see with our own eyes how Woodside Petroleum lied about the whales. The company’s environmental impact statement, tendered in support of its proposal to build a $45 billion gas plant and port at nearby James Price Point, said humpback whales did not frequent the site. We counted 110 in eight hours.

Over Asian food and wine, Milne waxes critical of some in the environment movement. They are not tactically adventurous, she says. Not activist enough. They have become bureaucratised captives of Canberra, working endlessly on policy papers but ultimately failing to deliver the desired change.

They have become insiders, she says. They should be getting out, getting connected with the community and others in the movement, and taking concerted action.

There’s no mistaking about whom she is talking.

The venerable Australian Conservation Foundation has long been the most Establishment of Australian environmental organisations. Malcolm Fraser was among its founding members in 1966. The conservative chief justice of the High Court, Sir Garfield Barwick, was its first president. Later, the role passed to the Duke of Edinburgh.

If Greenpeace, which began five years later as a loose collective of draft dodgers, radicals, anti-nukes and tree huggers in Vancouver, Canada, was the archetypal “outside” green group, and the model for others such as Sea Shepherd, ACF were the ultimate insiders, committed to working respectably and restrainedly through the political process.

No doubt Milne had a point. The ACF’s political clout had declined, even before the ascension of the Abbott government. The zenith of its influence, when director Phillip Toyne and president Peter Garrett drove federal environment policy, was two decades past.

But that only makes recent events more ironic.

Fast-forward to this week and Geoffrey Cousins is the new president of ACF. He is all over the news, criticising the Abbott government in uncompromising terms over its Direct Action policy, which he characterises as a $2.5 billion act of corporate welfare disguised as a carbon reduction scheme.

The ACF also has a new CEO, Kelly O’Shanassy, brought on board along with Cousins because, she says, “ACF wants to change tactics, because there’s not a lot of point lobbying for policy in Canberra now. We find politicians of all stripes have failed to deliver.”

It is a blanket critique. She offers no exemptions for good intentions.

Henceforth, the foundation will spend a lot less time in Canberra and a lot more out in the broader community.

“I don’t know that the insider route was the wrong way to go about things in the past, but I know it’s not the right way for the future,” O’Shanassy says.

They will adopt new techniques, and act more in concert with other green groups.

“We have the strongest collaboration between groups that I’ve ever seen,” she says.

Greens bickering

Meanwhile, Christine Milne’s Greens are embroiled in a petty, insider conflict via Twitter.

The Australia Institute, the progressive think tank for which Oquist now works, has criticised the Greens’ decision to oppose the government’s budget proposal to reintroduce the indexation of fuel excise. A Milne loyalist and former staffer, Tim Hollo, wrote an opinion piece for Guardian Australia bagging TAI. Some of the Greens’ parliamentary members tweeted a link to their followers.

But senators Sarah Hanson-Young, Lee Rhiannon and deputy leader Adam Bandt, according to party sources, didn’t tweet it. And this is now a point of contention in the party. Was it an indication of the senators’ dissent?

Bandt issued this statement when we approached him on the matter: “I was on leave having an extended Cup weekend when the Hollo piece appeared and was never asked to retweet it, so this is all a bit contrived. This public debate is now veering dangerously close to personality politics and everyone should take a step back from the brink and refocus on the issues.”

Rhiannon also responded: “Inferring political allegiance from a retweet sounds desperate and lazy.” And a distraction from the real issues.

It’s all a storm in a teacup, except as an indicator of the great sensitivity of Milne and her people to criticism, which in turn relates to Greens’ uncertainty about how to respond tactically to a profoundly hostile government and a senate in which the balance of power is fractured.

It is a pointer, however, to why organisations such as ACF perceive the need to move outside the political sphere.

Which brings us back to Geoffrey Cousins, the millionaire late-life eco activist, who kindly picked up the tab for that expansive dinner in Broome two years ago. He has been at the forefront in developing the new tactics in this country.

How Cousins came to the ACF

To track how this happened, we need to go a little further back in time, to 2007, when Cousins got involved in his first big environmental battle. Having read an angry Richard Flanagan piece in The Monthly, about the plans of Tasmania’s biggest company, Gunns, to build a billion-dollar pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, Cousins emailed Flanagan, offering help.

“I’ve either run big businesses or been on boards all my life – from Optus to PBL to Telstra. And I was a consultant to Prime Minister John Howard for 10 years. Good grief, you say. Here is the Devil arrived in a silken cloak.”

But Flanagan accepted the offer, set up a meeting with Bob Brown, and soon a plan was hatched that serves as a textbook example of “outside” environmental strategy.

The first step was to garner national attention for an issue that until that point had received little. Cousins quickly managed this. Having run Australia’s biggest advertising agency, he knows a bit about succinct messaging. He came up with the media grabs. He labelled the minister responsible for approving the project, Malcolm Turnbull, “the minister against the environment”.

Turnbull reacted just as hoped, lashing back at Cousins as a “rich bully”, which was pretty funny coming from someone of Turnbull’s great wealth.

For bipartisan good measure, Cousins dubbed Labor’s then environment spokesman, Peter Garrett, “the shadow minister who doesn’t cast a shadow”.

And because there was an election in the offing, he organised a campaign against Turnbull in his seat of Wentworth, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Turnbull won, of course, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to publicise the issue, to ramp up the embarrassment factor for anyone associated with the Gunns proposal.

“After he approved the mill, we pretty much abandoned the political process,” says Cousins. “We turned our attention to putting pressure on the financiers of the project, particularly the ANZ bank, who had financed all Gunns’ projects previously.

“The Wilderness Society gathered nearly 20,000 signatures of actual ANZ account holders opposed to the development.”

Cousins approached the ANZ board seeking a formal meeting, and was turned down, but did secure one with the senior executives. He warned them that the Gunns project would seriously tarnish their reputation.

“They were signatory to something called the Equator Principles,” he says, “under which a number of financial institutions around the world say they will not finance any project that will damage the environment or have serious adverse social impact. Strictly, those principles only apply to emerging countries, but I put to them that they should apply them to this because it was a project of such significance. That clearly had some force. I also spoke to individual directors of the bank.

“We put a lot of pressure on shareholders, particularly the largest, Prudential.”

The campaign was a singular success. Not only did ANZ withdraw funding, but Gunns crumbled. The shareholders moved against the board, dumping the chairman.

“Prudential actually asked me if I could find a new chairman for the company, which I did. They asked if I would go on the board – I said no. There would have been an obvious conflict.”

Taking on James Price Point gas project

Cousins’ next target was even bigger: the proposed gas processing plant near Broome. The approach was similar. Draw attention to the issue in a media-savvy way, with the whales and Sea Shepherd and the dodgy EIS, the ancient dinosaur tracks in the rocks, the on-ground activists and the hostile Aboriginal traditional owners. Then work on the corporate pressure points.

Once again, this involved Cousins meeting with business heavyweights: Michael Chaney, chairman of National Australia Bank and Woodside Petroleum, and Woodside’s CEO, Don Voelte.

This time the key allies were market analysts, who saw no economic reason for the gas plant to be sited where it was. The gas from the offshore fields of the Browse Basin might as well be piped to Port Hedland in the Pilbara, where infrastructure already existed and where the environment had already been despoiled. Or it could be processed in situ on a floating facility.

One secret to successful activism, says Cousins, is to create delays and uncertainty using whatever sticks are at hand. His pitch was: Why have a protracted fight over the gas hub when you could simply move it?

And that, in the end, is what happened. It has gone offshore.

But it is important also to offer a carrot. To persuade the corporate target that if they do the right thing, they will get praise for it. That, he says, is necessary to counter the perception that the green movement can never be satisfied.

To kick off the James Price Point campaign, the ACF had a meeting with other green groups, organised by Cousins and a firm of lawyers who had been working pro bono for traditional owner Joseph Roe.

“We got together with virtually every green group in Australia – Greenpeace, TWS [The Wilderness Society], ACF and others – and … I said you’ve got to agree that if the company decides to build this project in a proper way, either offshore using floating technology or in an appropriate place in the Pilbara, then you’ve got to say that’s good.

“And indeed, when James Price Point was shelved, there was only one very small environment group that didn’t do that. They continued to criticise for one day, before we stepped on them.”

Likewise, when ANZ pulled the funding plug on Gunns’ pulp mill, Cousins and Bob Brown were quick and loud in their praise.

“There’s no doubt these new methods are the way to go,” says Cousins. “And the ACF council and board, when they came to me – I had not had any major involvement with ACF before – made it very clear they want to take a new approach, because they can see the times require it.”

He is referring in particular to the biggest environmental issue of all, global climate change brought on by the emission of greenhouse gases through the burning of fossil fuels.

Climate change politics

“Coal is good for humanity,” declared the prime minister a couple of weeks ago. And Abbott doubled down on his obstinacy this week, after the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its fifth and final report, which said coal use had to be largely phased out by mid-century and replaced by renewables.

“For the foreseeable future coal is the foundation of prosperity,” Abbott said.

Clearly there will be no serious action on the matter so long as the Abbott government lasts. And Labor has shown little sign that it is prepared to take the radical steps the science suggests.

So the hope has to lie in outsider campaigning.

We saw a little taste of it just this week. An advertisement was run in national print media, sponsored by nine groups, including ACF, Greenpeace, GetUp! and 350.org.

The target was Adani, the giant Indian conglomerate that is proposing a massive new coalmine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, and an associated port impinging on the Great Barrier Reef.

The advertisement noted that the US giant Citibank “has just joined Deutsche Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays and HSBC in refusing to fund this shonky project”. It called on Australia’s big four banks to do the same.

A small thing, you might say, but it’s only a part of something bigger. The greater threat of the Adani project is not the port. The ad focused on that because evocative pictures of reef life are more powerful propaganda than thousands of words about CO2 levels and the uncertain economics of coal.

Another part of the picture is the market analysis. As we’ve reported previously, one such analyst is Tim Buckley, of the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis. His detailed report on the economics of the Adani project and others in the Galilee concluded they were financially unviable, given the current and likely future state of the coal market.

The work was commissioned by Greenpeace, but Buckley was previously a 17-year veteran of Citibank, rising to be its managing director and head of Australian equity research. His report was widely circulated among potential financial backers. And now Citibank has said it wants no involvement in the Adani project.

Buckley has just won funding to double the size of his IEEFA Australia operation. He’s hired a colleague, Tim King, former managing director and head of research at Deutsche Bank Australia. Deutsche is another that has passed on the Adani project.

Greenpeace vs Shell

“You have to be simultaneously radical and sophisticated,” says David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. “The radicalism comes from the science. We’re talking about wholesale shifts in energy. The sophistication is in how you achieve those ends.”

The object is to chip away at what activists call the “social licence” of polluters. Ritter gives a recent example. Greenpeace was campaigning against the giant oil company Shell over its insistence on drilling for oil in the Arctic.

“Shell has had a longstanding relationship with Lego, which is the world’s largest toy company and probably the best known. It became important to us to end that relationship because it would say something about Shell’s declining social licence if Lego told them to get lost. That campaign rolled out in every country in the world.”

Part of the campaign was an amazingly professional animation that went viral online, featuring little Lego people in Shell garb, drilling among the ice floes and spilling oil.

And a couple of weeks ago, the toy company determined not to renew a lucrative deal to supply Shell-branded Lego sets.

Another example. Last April in the New South Wales Land and Environment Court, Christine Milne’s current bêtes noire, The Australia Institute, scored a significant win against coal giant Rio Tinto and its planned expansion of the Mount Thorley Warkworth mine.

They did it by taking apart the economic modelling the miner relied upon to bolster the value of the project.

The chief judge of the court, Justice Brian Preston, withdrew approval for Rio Tinto to expand the mine and largely rejected its claimed economic benefits. In particular, he rejected the claim that it would produce some 44,000 extra jobs, which was found to be vastly inflated.

In the end, the NSW government changed the law to ensure the Rio Tinto coal project got up. But the point still holds: these days, lawyers, economists, analysts, videographers and psychologists can be as useful to the environmental cause as bearded chaps with life-science degrees.

Divestment

Let’s move on to another of the signatory organisations of this week’s anti-Adani newspaper ad. That’s 350.org, whose mission is to encourage investors to divest themselves of holdings in fossil fuel companies.

Says Charlie Wood, campaign director for the organisation: “Of course, it’s morally unjustifiable for the industry to be profiting from polluting, but I don’t think the argument would be working if the economics weren’t also on our side.”

She ticks off the successes. “Globally there are now around 200 institutions that have divested from fossil fuels, including high-profile ones like the Rockefellers, Stanford University, Seattle and San Francisco.

“In Australia, since February we’ve seen UniSuper create a fossil-free portfolio for their members, we’ve seen Hesta and Local Government Super divest thermal coal across the board in their portfolios. We’ve seen AMP Capital, one of the largest fund managers in the Asia Pacific, create a portfolio that excludes anyone with more than a 20 per cent fossil fuel exposure. And Hunter Hall, a large ethical fund manager, has gone completely fossil fuel-free. Future Super, launched in September, is 100 per cent fossil fuel-free.”

The list goes on. Certain dioceses and agencies of the Anglican and Uniting churches, one Melbourne local council, and “most controversially, of course, the Australian National University, who have divested two fossil fuel stocks”.

“We have 19 campaigns happening at universities, and engage with folk in the faith sector,” Wood says.

She is not at all unhappy that Abbott chose to make a big news story of it, lashing the ANU for its “stupid decision”. That only gave the issue greater prominence. Abbott’s former boss John Hewson, for example, hit back, saying Abbott’s intervention amounted to “bullying” and “might have had more substance if he had an energy policy”.

The ACF's game plan

Back to Geoff Cousins, and his plans with ACF.

“If you want to make any serious impact at all on reducing emissions in this country,” Cousins says, “you’ve first got to look at the major emitters, which are largely coal-fired power plants, and then you’ve got focus on closing the worst of them down.”

“You can’t be fiddling about the edges,” he says, referring to Abbott and Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s claims that coal can be made clean.

“For the minister, Hunt, to come out a day after the IPCC report and say ‘this is in line with what we’re doing’ is outrageous. There is a difference between spin and misinformation, untruths.

“There you have Ban Ki-moon saying the world must not be relying on coal in any major way by 2050 and you’ve got the prime minister of Australia saying coal is our future.”

ACF’s first target, Cousins says, are the old dirty brown coal generators in Victoria. This time, their method is to target corporate governance.

“If you look at the major energy companies, most are running ad campaigns of one kind or another proudly stating how they’re moving to renewables. You can get into a lot of trouble under Australian corporate governance rules for making a set of statements in one place and doing something different somewhere else.

“The notable thing about corporate life in Australia is that the same people tend to appear on different boards. It’s very interesting that in one place they might be representing one thing and in another place something quite different.”

How could one, for example, have an interest in a high carbon industry and also in the insurance industry, which long ago recognised the actuarial risk posed by climate change and adjusted people’s premiums accordingly?

That might look a bit hypocritical. 

Does this mean Geoffrey Cousins is to be found again in the boardrooms of Australia, warning members and managers about the risk to their reputations and to their fiduciary duties if they don’t change their ways?

“If necessary,” he says.

None of which is to say that ultimately those who care about the global environment will not have to play the insider game again, for legislation and regulation remain vital.

But for now, given this intransigent government is “years and years behind and totally out of step with the rest of the world, companies are where the action is,” Cousins says.

This weekend in Canberra, the Greens party convenes for their national conference. The question for them is whether they will find a way to play themselves back into the political game or remain squabbling on the sidelines.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 8, 2014 as "Who is running green politics?". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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