Policy Making As Violence – The Case Of The Carmichael Mine


There’s violence, ­­­and then there’s violence. A few years ago, one of my more eccentric friends swept aside my idea of a peace conference in favour of a violence festival. “C’mon mate, we love violence”, he opined, “we can’t get enough of it. Just take a look at what’s on TV”. He had a point, although I hastened to add that viewing such behaviour on the small screen is not the same thing as endorsing it. My friend was, of course, talking mainly about physical violence of the fast and furious sort. Yet there’s more to such behaviour than meets the eye, at least according to widely respected Norwegian peace scholar, Johan Galtung.

Pluralities of violence

During the course of a long and distinguished academic career, Galtung alerted us to varying forms of violence that result from both the direct and indirect actions of one individual or group against another. Physical violence is only one manifestation of such behaviourDecisions taken by corporations, governments and institutions can and do have devastating and often fatal consequences on certain populations, even when sanctioned by law. As criminologists have long observed, some of the most significant historical harms have occurred within legal parameters. There are many examples of this, whether in theatres of war or in the criminal justice system.

Less apparent perhaps, are the indirect expressions of policy-related violence in which decisions made by powerful agencies produce harmful effects, even though this might not be the stated intention. It’s not always easy to discern motives of course, mainly because the actions of the powerful are so often shrouded in secrecy and obfuscation.

Still, when certain policies and practices impact negatively on particular sections of society, or when societal and institutional arrangements are such that they prevent the realisation of human needs (as in the case of Australia’s treatment of refugees), then this delivers what Galtung refers to as “structural violence”. This form of violence is not immediately apparent; its effects take time to unfold. For instance, policies that exacerbate social and economic inequalities, or which place additional burdens on individuals and families, can contribute to long term psychological and physical health problems. Such harm can occur through seemingly benign decisions, and in some cases, is justified as necessary for the collective good.

You don’t have to look very far to see how this works in practice: government fiscal policies that benefit the rich rather than the poor, or which attack welfare recipients, or which weaken workplace health and safety; exacerbate anthropogenic climate change, or that deny access to food, housing, social support and decent health care.

“Slow violence” of this sort – that is, the gradual emergence of harmful consequences, or what Rob Nixon refers to as “attritional lethality” – has been a feature both of deteriorating climatic conditions as well as growing economic hardship brought on by neoliberal policies. Such policies have led to growing global inequality as well as wage stagnation across the worlds’ richest nations, along with increased personal debt, underemployment and casualisation. Millions of the so-called precariat have little or no prospect of achieving the capitalist dream peddled by advocates of the so-called free market. Slowing economic growth along with austerity programs, have given rise to widespread anger and disaffection, with citizens in many liberal democratic states seeking radical solutions to their many problems. This has manifested in political polarisation, ultra-nationalism, anti-globalisation and protectionism – all laced with the bile of xenophobia and racism.

Such reaction has occurred in large part because of the actions of political and economic elites whose various self-serving decisions (including trade treaties) have depressed wages and undermined the bargaining power of organised labour.

Interestingly, the governing coalition government in Australia is, in effect, being led by conservative elements eager to shift its policy agenda even further in the direction of deregulatory free market economics. Inevitably, such a move would contribute further to increased economic hardship and a range of allied problems -problems which were brought into sharp relief during the 2008 GFC when over 5,000people in the US alone committed suicide as a result of job losses and housing foreclosures.

Galtung’s conceptualisation of violence is therefore useful in helping us to understand the lived realities of economic and political power. It also allows for the reframing of the language we use around contemporary policy making. In viewing policy making as a direct or indirect contributor to experienced violence, it is also necessary for us to consider if and how powerful agents should be held to account for their actions. Decisions made in boardrooms, executive suites, parliaments, administrative offices and official residences have specific outcomes that can prove as harmful as the most direct forms of lethal violence.  That said, legal actions taken by citizens’ groups around the world against governments and corporations show the many possibilities for redress in situations where harm has been caused.  Equally, actions to prevent harm through various forms of political activism have also proved successful.

The Carmichael mine

On 9 November 2016 – the day after the US election result was announced – the Queensland state government granted a lease to the Adani mining corporation to proceed with its highly controversial Carmichael mega-mine in north-west Queensland. With over $16 billion supposedly scheduled for investment in the project, and with questionable claims of super profits and mass job creation, the mine became the subject of considerable public interest.

The Queensland government justified the project on the grounds that it would contribute to jobs and growth, while also claiming that everything had been done to ensure environmental protection. Yet on economic, political and environmental grounds, the mine makes little sense. Economically, coal is an increasingly stranded asset – prices are collapsing – and the federal government’s proposal to donate $1 billion toward a rail line linking the mine to Abbotts Point on the Queensland coast could be better invested in job-generating clean energy schemes. Additionally, the damage to the Great Barrier Reef and therefore to tourism, including the almost 70,000 jobs directly tied to the Reef, is alarming.

But the story of the Carmichael mine’s impact is much more wide-ranging. The most immediate and concerning consequence of this sprawling complex covering 280 square kilometres is on the local environment, its people and ecosystems.

In March 2016, a meeting was held with the Wangan and Jagalingoutraditional owners whose land will be destroyed by the proposed project. In resolving to oppose the mine, traditional owners – who have said no to Adani three times – noted that there are inadequate funds to proceed with the project. Quite simply, no-one wants to fund it: “No banks will give them money and most financial analysts and energy agencies say the mine will not be built.”

As eminent economist, Professor John Quiggin at the University of Queensland has observed, the proposedmine is“unlikely to cover operational costs”. Professor Quiggin adds that a third of Queensland’s mines are loss-making ventures, and the rest continue to operate only because they are locked into existing contracts.

The Adani corporation faces the additional problem of insufficient operational funds which, according to Professor Quiggin, means the mine is not a sustainable proposition given that the revenue gained from the sale of coal would not meet loan interest and principal repayments.

Traditional owners have also highlighted questionable financial arrangements associated with the Adani operation, not least when it comes to compensation for native title and remuneration levels. For instance, in other mining sites across Australia Indigenous people have been offered millions of dollars to compensate for the effects of mining developments on native title, much of which ends up concentrated in the hands of a few who may benefit, while causing considerable social disruption to communities. While the native title system was meant to recognise traditional owners in nay proposed mining developments, in fact, it enables mining companies to enter onto land, giving little choice to traditional owners who are forced to accept the arrival of extractive industries. “All Adani are offering to pay is $510,000 per year”, say the Wangan and Jagalingoupeople. Only $398,750 was offered for “the surrender of 2750 hectares of native title land”.  Additionally, Adani “do not offer one scrap of land to us for the extinguishment of our native title”.

While job creation has been touted as a major justification for the project, “the only full-time jobs Adani are projecting from the business and contracting opportunities that they offer are 50 [at $35,000 per year] jobs for a Wangan and Jagalingou Bus company”. Most jobs in the areas of cultural heritage, environmental and land care will be casualised. Under Adani’s Indigenous Participation Plan, Indigenous people in the region would in fact receive about $5000 annually per person. This is hardly the well-paid job creation scheme promised by the Queensland government. But most concerning is the fact that if the mine were to go ahead it would do so without the approval of local Indigenous people, meaning that once again their voices would be ignored, traditional lands destroyed and rights trampled on.

What of the damage caused to Indigenous land in the Galilee Basin?  According to various sources:  the effects on the local environment will be catastrophic. It would mean the extraction of 750 billion litres of water from waterways – river systems and acquirers – resulting in significant harm to plant and wild life. The mine would further lead to the possible extinction of endangered black-throated finch, and pose a significant threat to many other animal species. Communities all around the site will be impacted by the industrialisation of the landscape. The rail link will mean more coal dust in the atmosphere and the destruction of many habitats and ecosystems. Moreover, as has been well documented, considerable damage will done to the Great Barrier Reef as a result of dredging and run-offs.

These problems would be seriously compounded by the threat resulting from increased carbon emissions.  “Each year”, say the Wangan and Jagalingoupeople, the mine will emit into the atmosphere “four times the total carbon pollution emissions of the whole country of New Zealand – 128.4 million tonnes”. This is tantamount to an assault on the planet as a whole. One scientist, Professor Gideon Polya, has estimated that  more than 13,000 people around the world will die every year as a result of carbon emissions from the Carmichael mine. While such estimates are open to question, there is little doubt that the mine would add significantly to global CO2 emissions, thereby increasing the threat of global warming.

Moral vacuity

Given the declining value of coal, the difficulties in obtaining finance, and the recent announcement by the Indian government of an energy plan based on the development of clean energy, you might assume this would spell the end of the Carmichael project.  But this is not necessarily the case. Australian governments continue to regard coal as part of the energy mixinto the future, despite the evidence highlighting its contribution to anthropogenic climate change.

But even if coal extraction continues – remember, the Carmichael mine is set to operate for decades – why rely on such a shady company like Adani?  As the Wangan and Jagalingoupeople note: Adani “has a murky past, and a disastrous environmental track record in its home country of India”.  In addition to reportsof bribery and corruption, the company has, say the traditional owners, “a history of destroying environments and the livelihoods of traditional communities where they operate, as well as failing to follow the government regulations that are there to protect the people and their environment”. Such aberrant behaviour continues to this day, with the company misleading the public about the potential benefits of the mine, claiming for instance that it would create around 10,000 jobs when the likely total is around 1,400. This is particularly cruel given the fact that many thousands of jobs could have been created by investing in clean energy – a much better long term prospect.

But the most worrying aspect of the proposed mine is its contribution to climate change; this at a time when such change is proceeding at a rate much faster than most scientists predicted (witness, for instance, the melting of the world’s largest ice sheet in eastern Antarctica). In effect, by contributing to the acceleration of a catastrophe that has already impacted on millions of people, as well as rendering many parts of the world uninhabitable, the mere thought of a vast new mine is beyond comprehension. But what’s worse is that the approval granted by the Queensland government – in cahoots with its federal counterpart – is a wilful act of violence given that most politicians now accept that human activity – and particularly the extraction of fossil fuels – exacerbates climate change.

Even if the mine does not proceed, the moral vacuity of Australia’s governments is there for all to see, and their contribution to violent policy making as obscene as any wanton act of destruction.

Dr Richard Hil is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Human services and Social Work at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia.

Thanks to Associate Professor Kristen Lyons and for comments on earlier drafts of this article, and to Jo Jones for helping with research.

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