A natural wonder of the world, the Great Barrier Reef lines almost the entire coast of Queensland, Australia and is one of the most remarkable natural structures on Earth. Listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO, it is home to 400 types of coral, 1500 species of fish and 4000 types of molluscs and a diverse range of endangered species such as the dugong and the Green Turtle. The reef is also the main protectorate of coastal property and farms that line the coastline that are regularly ravaged by seasonal cyclones.
Recent events regarding the Great Barrier Reef have not only angered Australians, but also the international community. The Australian government and other connected bodies have given the go-ahead for a major expansion of the Abbot Point coal exporting facility, which will take its exporting capacity from 50 million tons of coal per year to anything upwards of 450 million tons per year. Currently the port is located 100 kilometres away from the iconic Whitsunday National Park. The signing of an open letter by 233 scientists and conservationists concerned about the GBR’s future status as well as widespread public condemnation seemingly has not affected the decision making process. This highlights both the state and federal government’s lack of concern in regards to conserving the reef while bowing to business interests.
The expansion of the Abbot Point terminal would require three million cubic tons of sand to be dredged and placed in the waters outside the town of Bowen, resulting in devastating habitat destruction. The tourism industry may also potentially feel the burden of this decision, as the industrialisation of the Queensland coastline would do no favours in regards to regional aesthetics or employment related to tourism.
If all goes to plan, shipping along the GBR and coal exports is set to increase. Federal government projections show that currently 4000 cargo ships travel through the GBR marine park and by 2032 will reach upwards of 10 thousand. More than half of the ships in 2032 will be coal related. With increases in ship traffic, accidents such as the Shen Neng incident in 2009 will have the potential to become a regular occurrence. This event alone left a three kilometre long scar ranging 250 metres wide across the reef. This area is now completely devoid of any marine life and a resulting oil spill created ever more havoc.
Currently, the media is portraying the Australian Government and Federal Environmental Minister, Greg Hunt, as the main protagonists, while the public are expressing a blame Tony Abbott rhetoric. However, the money trail and links between the governments, big banks, as well as mining and infrastructure corporations demonstrate an alternative narrative.
The decision for the expansion of Abbot Point arguably dates back to 2011, when the banks Standard Chartered (UK) and the State Bank of India both lent Indian conglomerate, Adani $1 billion each for the acquisition of the export facility. This was later refinanced and funded by a syndicate of banks, which included three of Australia’s ‘big four’ banks: Commonwealth Bank of Australia ($300 million), Westpac ($250 million) and NAB ($250 million). Foreign investment came from not only the UK and India, but also Japan and Singapore. The Japanese banks of of Tokyo-Mitsubishi and Mizuho Bank collectively contributed $250 million and Singapore bank Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. with $75 million.
These figures suggest that the returns on investment will be enormous. The Galilee Basin in Queensland is essentially what you would dub a ‘gold mine’ of coal. Current estimates show that mines, if given the go ahead, will have average lifespans of up to 90 years and will produce 330 million tons of coal per year. Abbot Point is in a prime position to export those reserves. Much of the projected exports are destined for India and China. Organisations, such as Greenpeace, describe the Galilee Basin as a ‘carbon time-bomb’ as the exported and finally burnt coal will release over 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, something that is not needed in an already warming world. Gina Rhinehart’s Hancock Coal whose majority owner is Indian conglomerate GVK, Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal, Indian owned Adani and Queensland railway line contractor Aurizon and every bank invested in the expansion all have their profit motivated stakes in making the expansion at Abbot Point go ahead. It is big business.
Following the trail of money being left behind via political donations and investments points towards government and business interests and makes the links between entities clearer. A Transparency International poll suggests “Australians see political parties as the most corrupt institutions in the country”. Political parties in Australia are given up to a year to report on whom their donors were and only publish donations above $12,400. However, as state, territory and federal divisions are considered technically separate legal entities, in essence one could donate $12,400 multiple times to separate branches of the political party. This has the potential to reach over $100, 000 and no one would ever find out. These donations are generally repaid in favours by the government to business. The Abbot Point situation is a perfect example.
Currently, the three major decision makers for the approvals at Abbot Point are the Federal Government of Australia, the State Government of Queensland, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). During the current Australian Prime Ministers election campaign in 2013, Clive Palmer, owner of Waratah Coal, donated $459,000 through his companies Mineralogy and Queensland Nickel and in the same year $176,000 to Queensland State Premier, Campbell Newman. ANZ bank, one of the largest investors in coal exporting ports and industrialisation of the Queensland coastline ($1.1 billion) also donated $80 thousand to Prime Minister Abbot’s campaign. On the other side of the spectrum, Gina Rhinehart’s Hancock coal and Indian giant GVK donated $55 thousand to the Labour government in 2013. The conflicts of interest do not stop here.
In 2013, GVK was given approval by the current Liberal government and environment minister Greg Hunt to begin the process of constructing Australia’s largest coal mine, located in the Galilee Basin, which has the potential production rate of 80 million tonnes per year. An expansion of the Abbot Point port would be high on GVK and Hancock Coal’s agenda, amongst other mining giants and conglomerates like Adani and Waratah. Additionally, over the course of four years (2010-2014) the Queensland government has received over AUD $10.2 billion in royalty payments from the coal mining. Profits are set to go in one direction; upwards, if expansion goes ahead.
Shortly after the approvals given by environment minister Greg Hunt, one official body stood in the way of the project getting the full green light. The GBRMPA, initially delayed the decision due to public pressure, but eventually gave the go-ahead, despite continued public resistance. Yet further conflicts of interest were evident. Two board members of the GBRMPA, Tony Mooney and Jon Grayson both have substantial interests within the mining industry. Mr Mooney, whose position as an executive at Guildford Coal earns him a handsome $250,000 per year and Mr Grayson, who owns one sixth of the shares of Gasfields Water and Waste Services, a company that was newly started in June 2013.
With habitat destruction, species loss, tourism damage and most prominently a potential to exacerbate climate change, the Abbot Point development is a lose-lose situation for all who do not serve to gain something from it. Propaganda like statements from government bodies and companies that have vested interests in such projects claim that the environment is in their best interests. Such examples can be viewed in ‘sustainability reports and/or policies’ released by Australian ‘big four’ banks that are involved. However, these investment decisions clearly contradict these reports and/or policies and are more aligned with public relations stunts. Similar trends are found within government statements, which demonstrate there is only an interest and agenda on money and profiteering. Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, states that the environment will be “protected”, but not at the expense of the economy.
Deals and links between big banks, businesses and governments are becoming less transparent and vastly more complex. Democracy, in some cases like Abbot Point, has been replaced with plutocracy. Important public issues, such as coal port expansion are no longer decided upon within the public domain, but rather by people who have the deepest pockets. Money is swaying decision-making and moulding policies to suit those who stand to derive profit both domestic and internationally.
The conflicts of interest are rife throughout the government and business worlds that both intersect between the expansion at Abbot Point. It begs to ask the question: if Tony Abbott, Greg Hunt or Campbell Newman were stripped of their powers, would anything change? Money talks and short-term politicians are merely puppets in a much larger game being conducted by powerful financial and business forces. The protagonist at the end of the story is money and the victims are the public and the GBR.