February 2016


Opened ground

By Guy Rundle
Opened ground

Protesters in the Pilliga region of New South Wales block the movement of a drill rig. © Dean Sewell / Fairfax

The big fracking mess of resource politics

Big blue sky, wide over red dirt roads and grey-green ironbark and gum, and beneath them, fine grass, shading away into the distance. On the gate at one end of the clearing there are signs – an official one (“SANTOS: We have the energy”) and unofficial ones around it (“CSG Is Not Safe!”, “No Drilling in the Pilliga!”). Young men in hard hats and wraparound sunglasses watch from the other side of the wire fence, tapping away on smartphones. Behind them are diggers and caravans and work.

Here at the entrance to Santos’ Leewood facility, in the middle of New South Wales’ Pilliga state forest, west of New England, protesters of the company’s coal seam gas (CSG) project are enjoying the mid-morning slow groove of blockades. The Pilliga, spreading in all directions, roads running into deep forest, has a calming effect, lulling. Then through the trees comes a Santos truck, and everyone scrambles to assemble on the road. Forty-five seconds after the protesters have stopped the irritated driver, a police car pulls up behind. Either the Pilliga is well serviced or this is a set-up. A young cop gets out, looking angry.

“We’re the police liaison,” says Jo, a protester, in greeting.

“Did I talk to you? You’re obstructing the road! That’s an offence!”

Everyone looks a little bewildered. Protests like this often move with the courtly procedure of medieval war.

“You could give us a move order …” says Jo.

“I want your IDs! If you won’t give ’em, we can arrest and you can think about it in the station for 24 hours!”

There is a quick meeting, roadside, in hushed voices, and it’s decided: no civil disobedience today. Five people hand over IDs.

After the blockade is moved and the signs taken down, five other trucks barrel through, with gravel for construction. Some of the protesters howl in frustration.

“We shoulda locked onto the gate,” says Megan, young, slight, in a black pentagram T-shirt, fingering the lock-on chains around her wrists.

“We stopped ’em for two hours,” says Jo. “It’s a good day.” She pauses. “But we’ll need a debrief.”

We head back to camp, stopping on the way to check out one of the spill zones: areas in which contaminated water has left holes in the forest where no trees will grow. This one is a circle about 100 metres across, covered in tanbark like a giant school playground. The spill zones began accumulating a decade ago, when Eastern Star Gas was exploring and taking advantage of an essentially unregulated industry process. There are more than 20 of them in this part of the Pilliga.

This is week four of the Pilliga Push, the blockade of the Narrabri Gas Project site at Leewood. Santos is trying to build a wastewater treatment plant to connect to a few leftover wells, in apparent preparation for the hundreds to be built. Jo, Megan and a floating group of others are trying to stop them. The morning’s work is both a small, unfocused skirmish in a war – another forest war – and possibly the place where CSG will live or die as a viable industry in New South Wales.

Officially, Santos has come to the Pilliga because of the promising reserves of CSG in the region. The Narrabri Gas Project’s website promises approximately 1200 jobs during construction, 200 thereafter, and $1.6 billion in royalties. It could supply “up to half the state’s natural gas needs”.

Well, maybe. But the truth is that Santos, as a company, is in a tricky situation, carrying a staggering $8.8 billion in debt. Its share price fell by more than half, from $15 to $7, over the course of 2014–15, and in recent times to below $3. The financial papers are openly speculating about who will buy it up, and pointing to the ambitious move to build a natural gas export industry via conversion plants at Gladstone in Queensland as a reason for its ills (and also a reason why New South Wales wouldn’t see much of that CSG, or a reduction in energy prices from it). But mainly, Santos wants an asset that will add value so that it can sell up and get out of here. In 2015 Santos announced that it would pursue an asset sales program as part of a $3.5 billion debt reduction strategy, and a functioning plant around Leewood – complete with gas flare towers shooting bursts of waste flame all year round – would be more attractive on a balance sheet than some half-worked lease. “That’s what this is all about,” says a senior Queensland public servant, who’s been campaigning with and advising anti-CSG groups covertly. “They want to sell it, that’s all.” Ostensibly, it’s a strange reason to drill wells that pull a toxic gas – methane and trace elements of worse – out of ancient rocks and water, through soil and aquifers used for fresh water, to the surface.

Santos has been here before, as part owner of Eastern Star Gas. When CSG drilling began in earnest in Australia in 1996 (there had been sporadic uses before that), few knew of the dangers associated with extraction and fracking – fracturing the rocks to get at the gas. Today, the documented risks of CSG to both land and soil, in the form of contamination and the draining of water reserves, and to people, in the form of skin rashes and possible carcinogen release, are well known. Ten years of campaigning by local groups, and by larger coalitions brought together by the Lock the Gate Alliance, have turned farmers and many rural townspeople heavily against CSG. Santos is well established in Queensland, albeit under continual protest, but it’s been driven out of both the Northern Rivers and the Liverpool Plains in New South Wales.

The Pilliga protesters’ camp is filled with people who a decade ago wouldn’t have been seen together. Today they look like the most natural coalition in the world. Farmers in Miller shirts and battered hats, thumbs hooked in belt, chat to lithe young protesters in black or tie-dye; women with a touch of the CWA look talk to the peaked-cap and disposal-store crew in from Lismore.

At the big picnic dinner table beneath a plastic awning, Neil Kennedy has pride of place. The “local” farmer – “we’re about 200 ks west of here” – tells of how he locked on at the last blockade: “And the cop who I know is saying, ‘Oh Neil, can you just go home,’ and I’m saying, ‘No, you’ve got to arrest me and take me in,’ and he’s saying, ‘But we’re going to be here all night,’ and I say, ‘Well, I’ll come into town but only if you promise to arrest me,’ and he says, ‘All right.’ So we drive back, pretty much yakking all the way, and he says, ‘You know I have to say “Don’t do it again”,’ and I say, ‘You know I will.’ Anyway, we go for a drink …” The story trails off into the evening, when discussion starts as to whether they’ll lock on tomorrow, and who will do it.

Later, we go around the group, with people stating their name and where they’re from: “Lismore”, “Gloucester”, “Darling Downs”, “Southern Highlands”, all fronts in this country’s coal and gas war.

“This is the first day the cops were aggro,” says Jo. “Till now they’ve been totally polite. So the company’s getting nervous.”

“Well, they’d want to be. They’re fucked, aren’t they,” one man replies. “Allegedly!” he adds, grinning, watching me write it down. “The whole industry’s fucked.”

That opinion has been canvassed before and often, in the financial pages as well as the protest camps. Put another way, now that the Asian gas price has collapsed and is likely to stay down for some years, due to the low oil price, the whole industry has become doubly troubled, saddled with debt. Hence talks in January of a merger between Origin and Santos. What has been less observed is where the wretched decade-long “policy” of open slather on resource extraction has landed us.

The industry doesn’t see it that way, of course. The websites of the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association, Natural CSG and the NSW Minerals Council beam with good cheer. But it is whistling through adversity. In both China and India, coal imports dropped dramatically in 2015. The price of thermal coal, used for fuel, has fallen from a high of $110 per tonne in 2011 to around $43 per tonne today. The price of coking coal, used in steel production, has fallen further – from $330 per tonne to $75 over the same period. The price of liquid natural gas (LNG), which CSG is converted into for export, has fallen as hard and faster – from $20 per million thermal units in 2014 to around $7.30 at the end of 2015 – and is expected to hit $5 or even $4 in 2016.

When the current wave of CSG and coalmine expansion began in New South Wales and Queensland a decade ago, energy demand seemed limitless and coal was king. China and India were booming, and their own coal production was low. The mining industry also had friendly state governments: Queensland, with a long history of doing the bidding of primary industry, was about to get some competition from New South Wales – and it’s the history of coal and gas over the past decade in that state that illustrates the full absurdity and the destructiveness of recent resources development policy.

During his decade as premier of New South Wales from 1995, Bob Carr held environment and resources in some sort of check – even though he had obliged the mining industry with State Environmental Planning Policy 45, which exempted mines from a whole series of judicial objections. Principally, he had kept things on track by keeping a half-dozen or so factional heavies at arm’s length from ministerial power.

When Carr went in 2005, they came in: Michael Costa in Treasury, Joe Tripodi and Eddie Obeid, and the frenetic Ian Macdonald in a new primary industries ministry. Notorious now, unknown then, they had a fervent development-at-all-costs attitude.

With the government frequently consumed by factional warfare, Macdonald went hell for leather granting approvals for CSG exploration and open-cut coalmine expansion. He was particularly willing to do so in areas of rich farmland hitherto spared much of it – the more verdant part of the Hunter Valley, the Southern Highlands, and especially the Liverpool Plains at the southern end of New England. The Plains’ huge coal reserves had been known about for decades, but so too had the land’s phenomenal productivity.

The Plains is an area of approximately 1.2 million hectares, over rich aquifers replenished by rushing floods. Its now famous “black soil” cracks in the dry and reseals in the wet, trapping huge amounts of water. In a country of sandy ground, it’s a rarity, capable of two harvests a year. The area has the highest agricultural productivity in New South Wales. A key document, Effects of Land Use on Coal Resources, prepared in 1994 by the Coal Resources Development Committee in the NSW government, identified agricultural production and the “locking up” of lands for conservation as key challenges to the expansion of mining.

The report, prepared by the “coal first” faction within the NSW public service at the time, makes interesting reading. It anticipates that a major challenge to coal will come from new conservation areas – in other words, it sees Bob Carr coming – and protests associated therewith. But it never explicitly considers the possibility of mass resistance in prime agricultural areas.

That was a mistake, for almost as soon as an exploration licence was announced for a big mine on the Plains – BHP Billiton’s at Caroona in 2006 – it met concerted resistance. The Plains farmers are a tight unit, groups of people who harvest their farms collectively, each helping the other out. By 2005 they’d also had ten years of “water wars”, bitter struggles over drawing rights, which had made many experts on geological hydrology. By 2006, the Caroona Coal Action Group was mounting a broad resistance against BHP. In 2008, they started a blockade of properties affected by BHP’s licence; it lasted 615 days and drew support from across the political spectrum. (It was visited by Lee Rhiannon and Alan Jones, Bob Brown and Barnaby Joyce.) That plus a court win stopped the mine in its tracks – though in 2014 it was waved back through by the state’s hilariously named Mining & Petroleum Gateway Panel for new mine developments, despite failing on multiple environmental criteria.

When Santos began prospecting on the Liverpool Plains in 2011, a new blockade was called. That only needed to run 20-odd days before the company took cognisance of what BHP had been through and hightailed it to the Pilliga. Though the Plains people attracted some criticism as “rich farmers”, the struggle, the support gained, and the blockades springing up elsewhere had seen the start of a major shift in the political ground in Australia. The lifestyle and cultural differences between green activists and conservative farmers had ceded to a shared sense of common ground. It was a starting point from which to re-evaluate the political divisions in rural Australia, and across the whole country. The people of the Plains had a right to feel they were on solid ground. But then another proposal landed on Minister Macdonald’s desk, and the Plains was set to become a battleground all over again.

In the combined cafe, gift store and pharmacy of Werris Creek, a town at the southern end of the Plains, Tony Windsor, the former independent federal member for New England, is telling a story. He’s told it before, but it’s a good one. “I went to the minister’s office for a briefing on the Shenhua mine, because I happened to be in Sydney. And I said to them, ‘Aren’t you concerned about groundwater issues on the Liverpool Plains?’ And the [Shenhua] guy said to me, ‘Oh, we’re not on the Plains, we’re in the Hunter Valley.’” The Hunter, part of which has hosted large open-cuts for decades, lies well south of the Liverpool Plains. “I just looked at him. That weekend I saw them asking for directions in Armidale.”

He laughs. I laugh. So does Rosemary Nankivell, co-ordinator of SOS Liverpool Plains, but it’s a rueful laugh, with a hint of trepidation in it. An elegantly coiffed 50-something in rock-star shades – pretty much how many people imagine well-heeled Plains farmers to be – she has been campaigning against open-slather CSG and open-cut exploration for more than a decade. There’s a pause. “Well, maybe the coal price will kill it,” she says.

It’s a hope that will be expressed all through the afternoon, in one farmhouse after another. We roar around the Plains in the standard-issue white LandCruiser, visiting veterans of the last blockade who are now gearing up for the next one. The Shenhua Watermark open-cut coalmine has already been approved by the federal government; it now requires only a mining licence from the NSW government, a relative formality. The people of the Plains are ready to scramble when that happens.

Ian Macdonald’s department granted Shenhua an exploration licence in 2008, just before it granted one to Cascade Coal for the Mt Penny mine in the Hunter Valley, which gave Eddie Obeid a multi-million-dollar windfall from recently acquired property. At the end of 2008, the department granted an exploration licence for a “training mine” at Doyles Creek to John Maitland, head of the CFMEU (NSW) Mining and Energy Division. Maitland then sold it on to NuCoal for a handsome profit. Those last two mines would become the stuff of Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) hearings in New South Wales.

There is no suggestion that there was active corruption in the awarding of the Shenhua licence. Which makes what it tells us about standard operating procedure all the worse. Proposed by a state-owned Chinese company, Shenhua Watermark would occupy 35 square kilometres in the area of the greater Plains. Shenhua Watermark would yield 10 million tonnes of coal a year, most of it high-grade coking coal for steel production.

Shenhua wants the mine very badly indeed, wherever it is. It paid $300 million for the licence, with another $200 million to come, and it has spent $200 million buying out farmers – more than 30 of them, close to where the mine would be – at prices many multiples of their farm’s value. Some people on the Plains were slow to oppose it, because, as Juanita Hamperson, a cotton farmer, says, “We didn’t believe it was even serious.”

The mine’s defenders argue that there is no risk of groundwater contamination because the mine would sit on “ridge country”, near a “choke” point where the floodplains narrow and replenish the aquifers. The argument has been parroted all the way up the line, as far as Tony Abbott, prime minister when the water issue came to a showdown.

It’s a tendentious line, relying on the notion that ridge and plain country are separated here. “How do they think the water gets onto the plain?” harrumphed Plains matriarch Patricia Duddy as she showed us the floodplain from her verandah, and the point just above it, which would mark an entrance to the mine. The “ridge country” argument gives the appearance of safety: the mine will be dug 40 metres above the floodplain. But it will go to a depth of 240 metres below it.

The idea that the mine presents virtually no risk of major contamination is dependent on an optimistic geological theory, of “impervious aquitards”, the argument being that aquifers are so absolutely separated that a contamination of one would not flow onto any others. Unsurprisingly, the mining industry has taken to it with gusto. Yet the process by which this argument is maintained is almost farcical. Standing between two irrigation fields filled with deep green cotton plants, John Hamperson, Juanita’s brother, explains why: “They say to the best possible knowledge there is no connection between this saltier aquifer and this one here.” He gestures to each in turn. Why ‘best possible knowledge’? Because they haven’t tested them!”

The “imperviousness” theory took a battering when the mine was considered by the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (IESC), the federal body established in 2012, at the urging of Tony Windsor, to give the Commonwealth a “water trigger”, among other things, by which state-approved mines could be stopped. In polite language, the IESC report of May 2013 slammed the evidence given by Shenhua and its consultants as filled with gaps created by investigations not conducted, and expressed “limited confidence” in the company’s predictions. The IESC’s report should have been enough to stop the mine right there. But a federal election was looming – and with it a new government that disagreed not only with many of the IESC’s objections but with most of the words in the IESC’s name. By 2013, the coal price was falling rapidly, and Ian Macdonald had been recommended for prosecution by ICAC. Shenhua Watermark continued on.

Setting up the mine would involve part removal of a hill that lies at the centre of the Plains, and the destruction of the “grinding grooves”, a traditional site of the indigenous Gomeroi people, where axe heads and blades were sharpened. The act would amount to a double vandalism, particularly as the amount of coking coal Shenhua wants could be obtained by buying existing mines already on the market. The superfluity of the mine and the huge cost of simply getting it licensed breed various theories about the drive to build it. Over beers at Spring Ridge’s pub, the Royal Hotel, these theories are discussed: Shenhua Watermark is a power play by Shenhua against other parts of the Chinese government; Shenhua Watermark is a ploy to make farmers sell up, and Chinese agribusiness will buy up the farms; or Shenhua really thought they were in the Hunter, where all the open-cuts are, and no one can admit the screw-up.

But the most plausible theory is also the most alarming: that Shenhua wants to deep-mine beneath the Plains, using the Watermark mine as an entry point. That would give them access to vastly more coking coal than that envisaged in the current spec. It would make sense of the extraordinary expense. But if so, and if it is something that the NSW government considered in its approval of the mine, it amounts to a hair-raising risk with the water table, one far beyond that of the existing mine proposal.

But to suggest a conspiracy would be to credit both the Iemma and Keneally Labor governments, and the O’Farrell Coalition one that followed it, with a degree of long-term intent. The waving through of Shenhua stands as a symbol of an important truth about resources planning in New South Wales in the past decade: during the agenda-setting reign of Ian Macdonald, an actual mining policy was abandoned in favour of a mining rights market, with actual mining an added extra. The government gets money from huge licence fees, the conglomerates use mine expansion and exploration as a way to fatten their overall value on paper, so as to refinance their debt, and sometimes, as a by-product, mining happens. The government then goes to the people to claim that they’re keeping the lights on, and that mining fuels prosperity, and that anyone objecting to it is a “selfish greenie”. Or, more recently, a “selfish farmer”, a charge levelled against the prosperous farmer-warriors of the Plains.

Such claims are themselves tendentious. A 2011 paper by the Australia Institute, Mining the Truth, gathers together much of the research on mining and the Australian economy, and finds the industry’s contribution to overall employment growth small, its multiplier effect exaggerated, and its opportunity cost, in terms of investment that could go elsewhere, significant. The farmers on the Plains feel aggrieved by the “selfish cockies” rhetoric. Most are asset rich, but in terms of cashflow they are no more than comfortable middle class. And as Paul Nankivell, Rosemary’s husband and an agronomist, among other things, points out, most farmers could live rich and easy lives by selling up – “even before Shenhua, agribusiness was coming through the Plains all the time, buying anything on offer” – and living off investments. They don’t, and many work extraordinary hours; 24-hour sessions on tractors or combines are not uncommon.

“I was going to Sydney to see Jimmy Barnes,” one guy at the bar of the Spring Ridge pub says to another, “and I heard there was going to be 40 millimetres, so I, ughhhh, turned around and got back, and I did 48 hours straight on the tractor and got it in, and then I thought, Well, he’s playing tonight as well, so I hopped in the car and drove back down.”

They see themselves as fighting for a way of life – but also for the country’s food bowl, and south-eastern Australia’s water system, on behalf of a wider population that hasn’t twigged to the threat yet. They’ve been amazed at the cynicism on display – what they see as the utter duplicity of the National Party in joining the anti-Shenhua protest before the 2013 election, and then promptly knuckling under to its passage. The story echoes round the Plains of the visit by a senior NSW state politician who stood on an irrigation barrier, was shown the interconnection of ridge and plain, how the aquifers worked, and said this mine was going to happen, because we don’t want to piss off the Chinese.

At his farm, speaking about the regulatory process, and of the years of submissions and playing by rules of evidence that appear to have been discarded, John Hamperson gets angry: “They think we’re easy to pick off.” He names a couple of places that caved in. “Not here! Not here!” He bangs the table in the farm’s down-at-heel office.

Across the state, there’s a rebellion from the ground up, against a system that has become inimical to any notion of managing it rationally. The campaign they’re gearing up for is potentially epic, drawing on water, the food bowl, and group civil disobedience with the Gomeroi. (Although the unity of the two groups is not as tight as some farmers believe. “They call us in when they want us,” one Gomeroi elder told me, at a harvest festival held in November to restart the campaign.) The Gomeroi leaders who oppose the mine are juggling a difficult situation, since their community, a large one, is as divided as white rural Australia over whether or not to accept such mining. But those who do oppose it are ready for action. “We’ve played by the rules, we’ve had enough,” I’m told. “The government never played by the rules at all.”

Something more than cynicism is at work, when you have not a national resources plan but a mining rights market in its place. At that point, a kind of nihilism has taken over, and it seems to have gripped NSW Labor in the latter half of the first decade of this century. In his book, The Fog on the Hill, former NSW minister Frank Sartor recalls a telling conversation with state treasurer Eric Roozendaal in 2010, one Sartor noted down at the time, and that Roozendaal never challenged when it was published in 2011:

Sartor: We need to settle the [Riverina red gum] issue soon.

Roozendaal: Who cares?

Sartor: If the industry falls apart, we will have failed to properly deal with this issue, and will be seen as an incompetent government. It is about good government.

Roozendaal: I don’t give a fuck about good government. It is all about deals.

How did we fail to see the way in which these apparently separate processes – the moral and political collapse not merely of a government but of the NSW Labor movement, and a resources policy hurtling to wanton destructiveness – were in fact one and the same thing? The answer, I’d suggest, is that the lurid and incidental corruption revealed at ICAC as it began to roll out in 2011 – the tales of the sweetheart deal by which Obeid got a free mine, and Maitland got a licence for a “training” mine, which he sold on to NuCoal – distracted us. The epic Chinatown banquets of Ian “Sir Lunchalot” Macdonald, the free trips, and Tiffanie, the company-supplied prostitute, were all a sort of corruption we could recognise. And to a degree the mainstream media was willing to tell it as a rollicking story, rather than probe the lower depths of it.

There was also a sense in which the conveyer belt between politics and mining had operated so long in favour of the Nationals and Liberals that a kind of acceptance washed over most people.

But such activities are not that structurally important. It’s the systemic trashing of any rational process, or due process or rights, by which the modus operandi becomes nihilistic. That continued after NSW Labor had departed, and it came to rest in a place called Bulga.

“Why do they want to expand the mine? They want to sell it! Isn’t that obvious?”

In a dining room in the Hunter Valley village of Bulga, members of the Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association are starting to lose their temper with me. Seven or eight people are gathered around: retirees dressed in Sunday best, others in old band T-shirts and jeans. A less prosperous, less powerful crowd than the Plains folk, telling their story again, answering the same questions about how they’re about to lose their homes, their village, the life they chose.

I can’t blame them for being tetchy. The people of Bulga, “Bulgarians”, as they call themselves, are famed throughout the frontlines of Queensland and New South Wales. In a war that has no end of stories of absurdity, loss and disappointment, Bulga stands out. “I feel so sorry for those people,” Rosemary Nankivell said as we roared around the Plains, visiting her fighting cousins, facing the loss of their own places. Bulga? Bulga was the town that won. Then the O’Farrell government changed the rules, so it was the town that lost.

Bulga sits at the foot of the Great Dividing Range, close to the village of Broke, where Lock the Gate was founded. Bulga itself was founded in 1820, as settlers spread out from Sydney. Thirty or so houses cluster round a centre, with St Mark’s church and graveyard, a village hall, and a pub; another hundred or so houses cluster round in an amphitheatre style. For decades the place was dairy country. Open-cut mining came in the 1960s. The Warkworth and Mt Thorley mines, opened in the 1980s, were kilometres away from the village, separated from it by Saddle Ridge, a natural barrier. Saddle Ridge is also a traditional site for the Wonnarua nation, whose domain extends across the Hunter. After several expansions, Warkworth and Mt Thorley are now the same mine, run by Coal & Allied, which is majority-owned by Rio Tinto. Now Rio Tinto want to vastly extend the mine, over land that was earmarked as a buffer zone, bringing it to within 2.6 kilometres of the village. (The company has also surveyed for a proposed subsequent expansion to within 500 metres of the village.) In doing so, they will entirely remove Saddle Ridge. This is West Virginia-style mountaintop removal, two hours from Sydney.

“Submissions? Oh, we wrote submissions,” says John Krey, president of the association. The Bulgarians were well prepared, putting in thousands of hours. They won in the NSW Land and Environment Court in 2013, and then in the NSW Supreme Court in 2014, on the grounds that the expansion would breach previous limits put in place when the mine was granted its latest one. The O’Farrell government then changed the rules – in the same way that started this whole cycle 20 years ago – by eliminating merit-based review of department decisions and prioritising economic interests. Rio Tinto went back to the Planning Assessment Commission, and, although Mike Baird’s government ultimately scrapped the O’Farrell government’s rule change, the extension was granted afresh in November 2015.

Eventually, Rio Tinto offered a limited buy-out of people affected. Very limited. To one house. Then to 12. Then to 24, essentially the “old town” of Bulga. This would leave the village and the occupants of another hundred or so houses stranded, with property of virtually no value. A complex and well-knit community – new arrivals, old families – would be scattered. The proposal is nothing less than sociocide.

And for what? The market for the coal is dwindling fast. Glencore’s nearby Blakefield North project was mothballed just before Christmas. The vast expansion of Mt Thorley Warkworth is to make it a saleable asset on a balance sheet.

The Bulgarians look exhausted, drained. Their protests have received little coverage in the media.

The plight of Bulga and Saddle Ridge is something out of the ordinary. The sacred places of two peoples once in conflict, now joined to oppose the destruction of a shared heritage. The destruction done to extend a hole in the ground. “Even when the mine is finished, they’ll have no obligation to fully clean up,” says Krey. “Some of these voids will be left unfilled.”

What makes the chances of victory so much greater than the numbers suggest is that one side is composed of people drawn together by a deep commonality, a grounding, while the other side has been corrupted by the nothingness at the heart of its process. Were we mining to fill a future fund with profits – a real future fund, not the inconsequential one we have now – or for national development, it would be that much harder to argue against. But it’s not.

Ian Macdonald is now famous only for being before ICAC. Everyone assumes that his frenetic activity in the post-Carr years was a simple case of fixing and featherbedding, but there is no reason to disbelieve his claims that he was doing it for the state, or believed he was, and that a touch of the Melbourne Maoist survived – it was to put money in workers’ pockets. Fair enough. There would be an argument for it if more real money was coming back to the public, but the point at which whole regional water systems come into play is the point at which that becomes something else.

The way I’ve told this story is only one way into what is yet to be fully documented: the way in which New South Wales, in the post-Carr period, became a focus for the worst tendencies that lurk within the Australian Labor movement, and the country more generally. Ian Macdonald is only one person to put at the centre of such a disaster, but nor is the choice arbitrary. There are people who will swear by the man, his energy and his drive. But as Mark Aarons’ profile of him in the March 2013 issue of this magazine made clear, there is something of a mystery about him, and his involvement in what became vast potential environmental and existential disasters for a whole state.

What these struggles really amount to is a contest over ground, over the most basic questions of how we shall live. Ground is not “land” or “nation” or even “country”, not projecting as per map a territory for extraction and evisceration. Ground is the place that is already there, the condition of being somewhere, of being in place. The sense of it is so buried beneath other more immediate layers – of culture, of habit, of commerce – that it takes some extraordinary event to bring the question of ground into everyday life. Removing a mountain ridge so you can extend a dying coalmine will do it. Fudging the science on essential water so that you can dig an open-cut mine will do it. Cracking the rocks on which the world moves so as to release a toxic gas into the land above, with no scenario of profit – that’ll do it too.

When a crisis-ridden system starts to seep into the natural world, to undermine its ground, then what draws people together – marginal farmers and vegan warriors, Plains ranchers and Gomeroi, the stalwarts of Bulga and the city people who have taken up their cause, from Broome to the Galilee Basin, from the quiet forests of the Pilliga to the rainbow patchwork of the mountain-fringed plains – is not the process of burying their differences, but the discovery of a deeper commonality. At some point, such a battle simply becomes that of life against death since, as the poet Hölderlin observed, we cannot live in the air. What is offered in return for the destruction proposed is nothing, literally nothing.

Guy Rundle
Guy Rundle is the global correspondent-at-large for Crikey. He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 US Presidential Election and two Quarterly Essays, ‘The Opportunist’ and ‘Bipolar Nation’.

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Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

Loud, quiet, loud

Fledgling musicians hit Girls Rock

A very, very bad word

Sometimes you need to swear on the radio

Double happiness

Convergence and contradiction at the NGV’s ‘Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei’

When the doctor needs a doctor

Medical professionals can be hypochondriacs too

More in The Monthly Essays

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Andrew Tate in dark sunglasses flanked by two men, attending his trial in Bucharest, Romania, July 2023

The Tate race

Online misogyny touted by the likes of Andrew Tate (awaiting trial for human trafficking and rape) is radicalising Australian schoolboys

Close-up of smiling Kathleen Folbigg after being acquitted at the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, December 14, 2023

By her own words

How systemic misconceptions around women’s guilt led to a 20-year miscarriage of justice for Kathleen Folbigg

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality