Macdonald Is The Tip Of The Coal Corruption Iceberg
It’s remarkable how often corruption in Australian politics is linked to coal.
The jailing of former NSW Resources Minister, Ian Macdonald, last week is the tip of the iceberg. It’s just the most recent in a line of explicit and proven corruption directly linked to the coal industry. But the corruption goes far deeper than this. Coal has corrupted the processes and the language of our politics. It has corrupted the basic facts that underpin our politics, from science to economics.
If any good can come of this tawdry affair, perhaps it can be that we look this corrupting influence in the face, drop coal, and clean up both our politics and our air. Ideally, we can do this quickly enough to prevent the massive mistake of handing over public funds to Adani to build a mine that would tip our planet’s climate beyond a point of no return.
Dodgy dealings over the granting of lucrative coal mining licences have put Macdonald away for ten years – around about the period of time that scientists tell us is the critical decade for tackling global warming. By the time he regains his freedom, NSW has to be well down the path towards full decarbonisation – towards a 100% renewable energy grid, electric cars, cleaner industry and agriculture.
Macdonald is far from the only one. His colleague, Eddie Obeid, already behind bars for corruption, is tied up in the same deals, with his family allegedly netting tens of millions of dollars.
While it never went quite as far, ICAC revelations about Newcastle MP Tim Owens receiving “under the table payments” from Nathan Tinkler as he was trying to lock in approval for the new coal loader, ended Owens’ career.
Those with a longer memory may recall the Queensland MP, Gordon Nuttall, who was jailed in 2009 for corrupt conduct related to coal mining magnate Ken Talbot.
But explicit quid pro quo is only one form of corruption.
When Gina Rinehart flew Barnaby Joyce, Julie Bishop and Teresa Gambaro to India for the lavish wedding of a coal mining business partner, do we assume that she did so out of the goodness of her heart? When she donated funds to Joyce’s election campaign, was it because they had become firm friends? What are we to make of Mr Joyce’s backing of the coal industry to the exclusion of others, supporting its access to water even above access by farmers? While there is no implication of criminal corruption here, is this not a corrosive and damaging relationship?
While Joyce and Rinehart seem to be particularly personally close, their association is far from unusual. Fossil fuel corporations donated over $1 million to the Liberal, National and Labor parties in the last reporting year, including major contributions from companies such as Aurizon and Queensland Coal Investments. These donations are entirely legal, but should they be? John Menadue, whose high-flying career in both public service and private business marks him out as no radical, call these kinds of donations “a major threat to our political and democratic system”. They may not be corrupt, but they are most certainly ‘corrupting’.
Then there’s the ‘revolving door’. Former senior Ministers Mark Vaile, Martin Ferguson, Ian Macfarlane and Greg Combet all went on to work as advocates for the fossil fuel sector in various positions after leaving politics, while Mike Baird’s Chief of Staff moved on to run the NSW Minerals Council. In the other direction, both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten have employed senior advisers direct from positions lobbying for the fossil fuel sector, and sitting and former MPs such as Gary Gray and Senator James McGrath have worked for fossil fuel companies.
Is this corruption? Not in the way superficial, black and white political analysis treats it. Nor as obviously as Ian Macdonald’s or Gordon Nuttall’s behaviour.
But it is a corruption of the process and language of our politics. It is a debasement, very often, of the very facts that underpin political decision-making. It leads too many politicians to make ludicrously inflated statements about job creation from coal projects, make claims about the economic role of coal which simply don’t match reality, and, of course, treat peer reviewed climate science with disdain. It leads them to treat coal very differently from how the great majority of citizens believe it should be treated.
Possibly worst of all, coal is corrupting public perceptions of politics at a time when we have a global crisis of confidence in politicians and political processes.
If we are to have a hope of tackling global warming, we absolutely need a vibrant democracy, where citizens are engaged, confident and enabled to have their voices heard. The corrupting influence of coal is undermining both our climate and our democracy. It’s time we cleaned them both up.