News | 3rd Feb, 2011

Tackle Big Coal at your own risk

Thursday, February 3, 2011
Clive Hamilton, The Age

As alarm among scientists about runaway global warming intensifies so do efforts by the coal industry and its backers in government to stifle citizen protests.

This week in Newcastle campaigners from the Rising Tide group face prosecution for a protest last September that shut down for a day the city's two coal export terminals operated by Port Waratah Coal Services. PWCS is a company owned by mining giants Rio Tinto and Xstrata.

Those who engage in civil disobedience expect to face the legal consequences. But PWCS has upped the ante by asking the police to prosecute seven activists under victims-of-crime laws, demanding they hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars.
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In an Orwellian inversion of the meaning of words, corporate goliaths whose activities threaten the conditions of life on earth – whose daily business is already, according to the World Health Organisation, contributing to tens of thousands of deaths around the world each year – claim they are being victimised.

The coal industry's action is designed to have a chilling effect on protests against burning and exporting coal. PWCS's action has all the hallmarks of a SLAPP, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

The purpose of a SLAPP is to frighten citizens with the loss of their houses and get them bogged down for years in court proceedings. Legal costs can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, chickenfeed for a big corporation but bankruptcy for ordinary citizens.

The intimidatory effect can be paralysing. One favourite tactic is to deliver writs on Christmas Eve so those who receive them have to sweat for a fortnight before they can get legal advice that may allay their fears.

A pattern is emerging in efforts to deter protests against Australia's coal industry. After meeting with state attorneys-general in December 2008, Martin Ferguson, the federal Energy Minister (and climate science denier), urged state governments to toughen up laws to impede protests against ''energy infrastructure''.

Ferguson seems to have been spooked by opposition to the Hazelwood power plant in Victoria (the dirtiest in the country) and by the acquittal of six Greenpeace activists over a protest at Kingsnorth power station in Britain. The jury accepted they acted to prevent greater harm. Since the meeting with Ferguson, state governments have begun passing draconian legislation aimed specifically at deterring protests against the coal industry.

The Labor government in Victoria introduced harsh new laws against climate change protests, with up to one year's jail merely for standing in the grounds of a coal-fired power plant, and two years for anyone painting a slogan on a smokestack. The Kingsnorth defence of ''lawful excuse'' can no longer be made in Victoria, no matter how much damage Hazelwood is causing to the climate.

In Queensland, the Labor government is considering similar laws. NSW has not yet followed the Victorian example, but since the meeting between Ferguson and the attorneys-general, climate activists have several times been threatened with victims' compensation claims.

An adverse court decision in Newcastle this week would set an alarming precedent not just for climate activism but for all protests in NSW. A corporation experiencing any disruption due to protests would be emboldened to go after the assets of protesters.

A democracy in which citizens are afraid of going to jail for peacefully protesting or losing their homes because of intimidatory lawsuits is no democracy at all. Yet Labor governments have been as willing as the Howard government was to silence dissenting voices, especially in defence of the energy industries.

Victims' support legislation was designed to compensate victims of violent crimes, including families of homicide victims, not to provide global corporations with a stick to beat their critics.

The average amount received by a victim of crime in NSW is $12,300. For having its coal loader shut down for a few hours, PWCS is demanding the courts award the company $525,000.

Big Coal has taken the gloves off and has signalled it will use every device available to defend its continued profitability. Its attitude seems to be that if the rights of citizens are collateral damage, then so be it.

Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University.