A word from the Leard

It’s hot, hot, hot at Leard State Forest protectors’ camp.  I’m slumped in a comfy chair, snatching some down time to watch the bees attracted to the wet hessian on the Coolgardie safe.  It’s probably the only water for them for kilometres.  There’s low muttering as today’s reconnaissance group frowns and points over a map.

Suddenly a mine security vehicle hoons past, honking its horn repeatedly and sending dust from the road swirling over the camp.  People look up, but just smile broadly and wave.  As far as I can see, the hoon-pasts increase with the success of the protectors’ activities, so instead of being intimidating, they’re a sign of progress.

This roadside camp is a home-away-from-home for people who have been coming from all over Australia.  They’re here in a last-ditch effort to save the things they hold dear from destruction at the hands of powerful mining companies.

It’s a diverse bunch.  There’s no consensus about which aspect of the destruction is most significant, and energetic discussion abounds about whether the miners’ activities should be opposed on the grounds of community health, and/or toxification of the environment, and/or climate change, and/or habitat destruction, and/or etc.   The only consensus is that the coal complex here is destructive in more ways than one.  It is also widely felt that the project approvals process was flawed (“dodgy” is the term often used to describe it) and that the miners have undue influence over the regulatory, approvals and legal decisions that govern their activities and those of the little people who oppose them.

The last few weeks have highlighted the power of the mining companies to influence government bodies – bodies that under normal circumstances are there to manage common resources for the benefit of the Australian people.  For example, there’s currently a push on to evict the protectors from their campsite.  The way in which the eviction has been attempted has raised eyebrows.

First, Forestry Corporation suddenly closed the state forest that hosted some of the campsite.  On Jan 14, police arrived with forestry workers and ordered any campers and tents within the State Forest area to move.  Humorously, it emerged that most of the camp was in fact on the road reserve, out of Forestry Corporation jurisdiction.  The few protectors evicted from the State Forest area were able simply to move their tents onto the road reserve with the rest of the camp.  However, the motivation for the forest closure remained a topic of discussion.

Forestry Corporation claimed on their website that the closure was “for fire season”.  But at the time of closure (Jan 14) and again today (Jan 29) the only other State Forest “closed for fire season” was Jack’s Creek State Forest.  Jack’s Creek also happens to host a camp for people opposing mining – this time Santos’ CSG activities in the Pilliga.  More intriguingly, as a Forestry spokesperson explained in the Northern Daily Leader (Jan 24, p1), the forest’s closure did not apply to Whitehaven Coal or the other mines in the area as “staff and contractors of those operators are authorised people and allowed to access restricted areas”. Additionally, as Lock The Gate pointed out, there’s no Total Fire Ban in the entire region.  If the risk of fire is sufficiently great to close the forest (at least to those of us who aren’t paid by mining companies) then it would seem sensible to ban the lighting of fires and the introduction of combustible materials.  Instead, tankers labelled “combustible liquid” continued to be driven into the closed Leard State Forest by mineworkers, and flaring (the burning of waste methane gas) continued in the Pilliga.  Consequently, many people in camp (and in the media) felt that the real reason the forests were closed was to stop the protests, and fire safety was simply an excuse.

I was looking around for a word that described this sort of thing.  I wanted a shorthand to describe the situation the camp found itself in: someone wanted to move us on for a reason for which they’re not allowed to move us on.  If they claimed they wanted the eviction because they wanted to stop us protesting, there would be an uproar, since the right (and even duty) to protest is a foundation of our cultural belief that we live in a free society.  So they have to find a different, acceptable reason they can claim is the real one.

I couldn’t immediately find an existing word, but what I came to call this sort of thing in my head is a “spuriosity”: a tactic where a spurious reason is used as a transparent smokescreen to achieve an illegitimate aim.  It’s like a “legitimating story“, except everyone can see through it.  And then, oh the glory of a name!  a heap of other examples of spuriosities came tumbling out:

  • This is a spuriosity: the practice of police pulling over protector’s cars, while ignoring cars that obviously belong to mineworkers.  The spurious reason is that police are simply doing their duty, carrying out licence checks, breathtesting and inspecting for defects.  The real purpose (as shown by the exclusion of mineworkers’ cars) is to make life harder for you if you protest about something.
  • So is this: the closure of the State Forest at Doubtful Creek where the community blockade camp was set up.  The spurious reason was that Forestry had to do “routine spraying” of poisonous chemicals, and the closure was for the safety of the protectors.  However, the closure came at such a “convenient” time that it was widely viewed as a transparent attempt to reduce the effectiveness of the blockade.
  • And this: Alan Roberts’ arrest at Glenugie Crunch Day.  Police wanted to move him from where he was protesting, even though he had a right to be exactly where he was.  So they arrested him for obstructing traffic, even though it was plain for everyone on the day to see that there was no traffic around to be obstructed.  Then they changed the charge at the last minute, to “attempting to obstruct traffic”, in such a way as to cause maximum inconvenience to Alan.  Luckily the court saw the spuriosity, and the magistrate David Heilpern granted a permanent stay of prosecution.  He wrote, “the courts will intervene where a criminal prosecution is instituted for a collateral purpose.”  In his judgement, he quoted a New Zealand case (Moevao v Department of Labour (1980) NZLR 464):

“The justification for staying a prosecution is that the court is obliged to take that extreme step in order to protect its own processes from abuse…  It may intervene in this way if it concludes … that the court processes are being employed for  ulterior purposes or in such a way … as to cause improper vexation and oppression.”

But back to the eviction, where this week the plot thickened.  On Jan 16, after closure of the forest failed to evict the camp, Boggabri Coal Pty Ltd, owned by Japanese corporation Idemitsu, wrote to Narrabri Shire Council, who controls the road reserve where the camp is.  In it, they wrote:

“we urge Council to investigate every possible avenue available to the authorities to enforce the removal from the area of these camps and persons”.

Boggabri Coal/Idemitsu own one of the coal mines the protectors are opposing.  The letter (which for some reason may not display correctly if you just click on the link – download and open in Adobe Reader instead) also refers to a planned meeting between the council and Boggabri Coal for the following day, Jan 17.

The council letter raises questions about whether Forestry Corporation had been treated to a similar letter in advance of the forest closures, because on Jan 21, Narrabri Shire Council held an Extraordinary Meeting,  in which councillors voted to do exactly what Boggagri Coal/Idemitsu had asked: to use whatever powers they had to remove the protectors.

They phrased it like this: “that Council instruct the General Manager to commence action under relevant Acts and Regulations, to issue fines and / or give notice to cease camping activities on road reserves without the appropriate approvals”.

The reason the wording is so vague is that Council didn’t even know yet what spurious reason they would be able to use for evicting the camp.  It’s kind of farcical.

What may help explain Narrabri Shire Council’s alacrity in attempting to suppress protest at the behest of a Japanese-owned mining company is that in April 2012, Narrabri Shire Council and Boggabri Coal negotiated an agreement whereby the council would approve the mining project if a) the miners satisfied some basic regulatory requirements and b) Boggabri Coal gave the council a total of $8.7 million, plus 7.5c per tonne of coal extracted and 25,000 tonnes of gravel per year.*  It sounds like bribery, but actually it’s quite legal.  It turns out it’s called a “Voluntary Planning Approval”.

So Narrabri Shire Council stands to gain millions of dollars from Boggabri Coal, which would make the request from the mining company to get rid of the protestors understandably compelling.  However, this is no small line we’re crossing here.  If a mining company is allowed to co-opt local government, not to mention a State Government department (Forestry), into using the tactic of spuriosity (or whatever you want to call it), then effectively we’ve given unelected, unrepresentative mining companies access to all the powers that we give to local councils and to Forestry Corporation.  How is that acceptable?

Many people in camp started their active opposition to this issue with the usual officially-sanctioned channels of civic engagement: submissions, writing to politicians, letters to the editor, public displays of banners and placards, court cases and so on.  Many have come out the other end of that process with the feeling that those activities are designed to keep them busy while the real work of extracting wealth from communities goes on behind closed doors.  When, as now, clear evidence emerges that the mining companies about which we are writing our submissions and letters have such substantial unwarranted influence over the institutions to which we are writing, the last recourse responsible citizens have is direct action.

At this camp, there are farmers, organic and otherwise, housewives, journalists, retirees, translators, students, engineers, paramedics, health professionals, all learning the ropes of direct action.  Not just how to lock on, but how to support those locked on, how to interact with police, media and mineworkers, and importantly, the social skills to work effectively in a non-hierarchical consensus-based culture.  It’s a lot to think about in this heat, but an incredible thing to experience.

I’m even getting fond of the security-guard hoon-pasts.

Find out more about the blockade and Leard State Forest.

PS As a footnote to the ongoing saga of the eviction push, on Thursday Jan 23, three brave councillors, Bevan O’Regan and two others, introduced a rescission motion (to overturn the original decision to evict the camp), to be voted on Feb 4.  On short notice, the rescission vote was brought forward to yesterday, and was defeated.  We’ll see what happens next…

*Whitehaven, another big coal mining company in the area, agreed to give the council over $13.4 million, plus 7.5c per tonne of coal, in return for council development approval.  See the conditions-of-approval documents for the Boggabri Coal Project (paragraph 23 and Appendix 3) and the Whitehaven Maules Creek Coal Project (paragraph 17 and Appendix 3).

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One Response to A word from the Leard

  1. Marion Gevers says:

    Great article! Keep them coming.

    Marion (Jono’s mum)

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