Bill Wilkie
The precedent against Adani

As the Stop Adani campaign grows, and the heat around Adani’s coalmine continues to haunt the Queensland premier, it might seem ironic that at this year’s Queensland Literary Awards the premier’s award for a work of state significance went to a book about Queensland’s most significant environmental protest to date.

The irony wasn’t lost on me: my book, The Daintree Blockade: The Battle for Australia’s Tropical Rainforests, won the award last month. If Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk understood the irony, I’m sure she didn’t dwell on it for long. She has an election campaign to run.

As Palaszczuk was giving an award to a book about environmental justice, she and her government were supporting a coalmine that would deliver one of the greatest environmental injustices Australia has witnessed. Though the Daintree campaign was a lead national story at the time, it may well be dwarfed by the Stop Adani movement, such is the breadth and diversity of opposition that it has so rapidly amassed.

As I watch the Adani campaign unfold, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons to the Daintree. In 1983, when Douglas Shire Council began work on a road through the Cape Tribulation, Daintree National Park, in the state’s far north, locals formed a protest group to stop work on the road. The road would cut through some of the last remaining tropical lowland rainforest in the country. When work was delayed, the police were called in. The media showed up and supporters of the protest arrived from interstate. The confrontation escalated into a full-blown environmental stoush and became national news.

The blockade was the spark that ignited the ultimately successful campaign to have the wet tropical rainforests of far north Queensland listed as a World Heritage site. With the listing came protection for 8940 square kilometres of the state’s tropical rainforests, and an end to logging within the area. Though the blockade lasted eight months, the listing was a culmination of a decade-long campaign to recognise the beauty, uniqueness and scientific value of the Daintree and surrounding areas. At the time, the Daintree protesters weren’t really aware of how groundbreaking their campaign was. Nor were they aware it would become such a defining and significant moment in Queensland’s history.

One thing of note about the Daintree campaign was the role of everyday people. The protest started as a local affair, organised by a small group of people who had developed a deep understanding of the environmental significance of their surroundings. These people went on to do extraordinary things: participating in peaceful civil disobedience; investing their savings in the campaign; and generously volunteering their time, some for close to a decade.

At the Daintree, campaigners were written off as interlopers from the southern states. Little did they know the legacy these brave people would leave. As the front-line campaign to stop Adani heats up in central Queensland, politicians are once again seeking to vilify as troublemakers those putting their bodies on the line. But, as with the Daintree blockaders, their commitment and courage should be applauded.

The diversity of those opposed to Adani’s mine is impressive. The Stop Adani movement has already drawn the support of two million Australians, including farmers, conservationists, tourism operators, Indigenous landowners, and parents and grandparents concerned about the legacy fossil fuel use will leave for their children and grandchildren.

For the people who organised the wet tropics campaign, the battleground was always middle-class Australia. Locally, it was middle-class Cairns. If they could show the Labor Party that protecting rainforests would not cost them seats in the far north, they would have its support. When the polling stacked up, the federal Labor Party went to the 1987 election with a commitment to pursue the World Heritage listing. I’m also sure the premier, who grew up in Queensland in
a Labor family, would remember this campaign.

With Adani’s mine front and centre of the state election campaign, now is the perfect opportunity to show our politicians that their position on Adani could determine their political fate. That’s easier said than done, of course. The current political climate is more complicated. Today’s politicians don’t seem swayed by previous logic. There’s an arrogance and bullishness that allows little room for reconsidering a position based on evidence or public opinion.

At the Daintree, conservationists were fortunate that the Labor Party was, in principle, supportive of their campaign, even if they were slow to act. Support for the Adani mine is shaky among grassroots Labor Party members: this should be leveraged over the remaining weeks of the state election and in the lead-up to next year’s federal election. It’s time for Labor to take a stand on coal.

Similarly, alternative employment strategies need to offer plans for investing public funds in sensible projects that marry conservation with renewables and agriculture, not in ludicrous projects such as privately owned coalmines.

Can the Adani campaign create the kind of momentum that helped campaigns such as the Daintree and Bentley blockade succeed? The signs are promising. Most Australians do not support the mine, which is unsurprising given every Australian has a stake in the future of our agricultural land, the climate and the Great Barrier Reef.

Recent polls also show that a vast majority of Australians, from all sides of politics, don’t support government money being invested in the Adani coalmine. The premier’s most recent stand on the mine – committing to use her state option to veto $1 billion of public money being spent subsidising it – seems more like a political sleight of hand than anything else.

It is disappointing that we continue to debate this project, given it’s so riddled with flaws. From the mine’s use of billions of litres of groundwater every year, to the construction of a new coal terminal at Abbot Point, which would allow more than 500 coal ships to move through the reef each year, to the carbon pollution created from burning its coal at a time when we must keep fossil fuels in the ground, the project is or should be doomed. There is also the very real threat to farming communities and tourism operators, who rely on the Great Barrier Reef for their livelihoods.

Thirty years after the Daintree battle, environmentally sensitive tourism has become the mainstay of the far northern economy, generating more revenue than logging ever did. The scientific importance of the tropical rainforests has been confirmed, with new species found regularly and discoveries of medicines based on tropical rainforest plants. And, of course, a place of such beauty and uniqueness has been protected for its own sake and the enjoyment of generations to come.

Stopping Adani’s mine, through peaceful and courageous community action, could lead to another watershed moment in our history – when Australia, as a community, looks to the future. In this country blessed with coastline and sunshine, with our relative wealth and political stability, education system, and institutions such as the CSIRO, there is an opportunity to lead the world in research, development and investment in renewables. There are no alternatives if we are to live within our environmental means on this planet.

Like the story of the Daintree, the Adani campaign is about people standing up for what they believe in – taking courageous action to protect our future and the natural environment upon which it depends. As Adani promises to start work on the mine, we should remember that this is an issue that affects us all and step forward to offer our support.

It is sad that 30 years on another major environmental issue plagues Queensland. However, the groundswell of community opposition that’s building to stop Adani’s mine gives me hope that, not too long from now, the award I received last month will go to a book about the campaign to stop Adani’s mine and push Australia towards a fossil fuel-free future.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2017 as "The book, the reef, the mine and her government".

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Bill Wilkie is an author based in far north Queensland. His book The Daintree Blockade ​won a Queensland Premier’s Literary Award.

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