7am is a daily news podcast brought to you by the publishers of The Saturday Paper and The Monthly.
How to listen? Submit Newsletter signup Submit Website Submit

Listen

7am Podcast

How an unlikely trio stopped China funding Australia’s biggest coal mine

Four years ago the mining giant Adani was struggling to fund its massive coal project in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. So they turned to the Chinese government to try and secure financing.

Four years ago the mining giant Adani was struggling to fund its massive coal project in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

Public pressure and a political backlash had stalled the company’s plans to build the biggest coal mine in the country.

So Adani turned to the Chinese government to try and secure its financing. 

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe on how a group of Australians stopped China from backing Adani, and what the story says about our approach to fossil fuels.


Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

BETH:
From Schwartz Media I’m Beth Atkinson-Quinton, this is 7am.

 

Four years ago the mining giant Adani was struggling to fund its massive coal project in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

 

Public pressure and a political backlash had stalled the company’s plans to build the biggest coal mine in the country.

 

So Adani turned to the Chinese government to try and secure its financing. 

 

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe on how a group of Australians stopped China from backing Adani, and what the story says about our approach to fossil fuels.

[Theme Music Ends]

BETH:
Mike, businessman Geoff Cousins, investment banker Mark Burrows and former Minister for Foreign Affairs Bob Carr are a pretty unlikely trio. What do they all have in common? 

 

MIKE:
Well, you're right, they are an unlikely trio. But what they have in common, I guess, is a great concern for the environment and in particular for the effects of climate change. And in particular, they formed a rather unlikely alliance to tackle one of the biggest climate threats in Australia right now, which is the Adani coal mine in Queensland.

 

And the story of how they did it is pretty extraordinary. And it goes right to the heart of the big question facing not just Australia, but the world really, in relation to the future of fossil fuels. 

 

BETH:
So where does this story start? 

 

MIKE:
Well, it starts with Geoffrey Cousins. 

 

Archival tape -- Reporter 1:
“The reference was to anarchists and it seems that you’ve been included in that reference, what’s your response?”

 

Archival tape -- Geoffrey Cousins:

“More than included, I think Michael Chaney specifically named me, as an anarchist and you know this is high praise indeed, to be grouped with people like Nelson Mandela, Leo Tolstoy…”

 

MIKE:
Cousins, until a couple of years ago, was president of the Australian Conservation Foundation. But before that, he had a long and storied career in business. He was originally an ad man. He's been an adviser to John Howard. He sat on corporate boards most of his life, you know, amongst them, Optus, PBL, Telstra, a lot of the big ones. And so in the process, obviously, he's amassed a lot of money and a lot of powerful contacts and given his advertising background. He knows how to run a public campaign. And given his corporate background, he knows how to run an inside campaign. And so over the past decade or so, a couple of decades, he's used those to conservation causes. 

 

Archival tape -- Protestors:
“They say pulp mill way, we say no, they say pulp mill, we say no.”

 

MIKE:
A decade ago, he took on Gunns, which was then the biggest company in Tasmania, over its plans  to build a two point three billion dollar pulp mill. 

 

Archival tape -- Reporter 2:
“After months of controversy the Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has announced that the Gunns pulp mill can be built in Northern Tasmania..”

 

MIKE:
And through a combination of public and boardroom pressure, you know, he enlisted people like Bob Brown, but also business contacts. 

 

Archival tape -- Geoffrey Cousins:

“My method of operating hasn't been to go to the barricades, it's been to use the skills I have in the corporate world and go to the shareholders and the financiers and people like that...”

 

MIKE:
They got the ANZ Bank to cut off Gunns finance. 

 

Archival tape -- Reporter 3:

“Gunns' chief financier, the ANZ bank, decided it wouldn't fund the $2-billion pulp mill. At the time, Gunns said it would push on but now it's admitted that finding another source of money is very difficult.”

 

MIKE:
And by the time the whole thing was over, the company was insolvent and its chairman, John Gay, was convicted of insider trading. So, you know, that gives you some idea of Cousins' effectiveness. 

 

And a few years later, up in the Kimberley, Australia's largest oil and gas company, Woodside, in partnership with giants including Shell BP, PetroChina proposed to build a huge gas hub at James Price Point, just north of Broome.

 

Archival tape -- Reporter 4:

“Environmental groups in Western Australia have reacted with dismay to plans to build a gas processing plant on the pristine Kimberley coast, indigenous owners, the state and federal governments.” 

 

MIKE:
And in 2013, following a similar campaign in the media and in the boardrooms, Cousins succeeded in having that 45 billion dollar plan abandoned.

 

Archival tape -- Geoffrey Cousins:
“Look I've gotta say, I think this is maybe the greatest win there's been.”

 

MIKE:
So, he gets results. 

 

BETH:
Hmm. OK, so it sounds like Cousins has some strong form in taking on these big environmental campaigns. When did he turn his attention to Adani? 

 

MIKE:
Well, to answer that question, we have to go back to the history of the Adani project itself. 

 

Back in 2010. Adani, this big Indian conglomerate with fingers and all sorts of pies, including energy, acquired a lease in the Galilee Basin, which was an untapped coal basin in Queensland. That was in 2010. And in 2014, it was given the go ahead by both the Queensland and federal governments to build this huge mega mine there. 

 

It's been embroiled in numerous court actions brought by conservation groups and local landholders and indigenous title holders. And it's had enormous trouble getting finance. One by one, all of Australia's big banks declined to fund it, as did dozens more around the world. And this is where Cousins comes in, because in late 2017, word reached him that Adani was approaching several banks and financial institutions in China to try and secure funding for its mine. 

 

BETH:
Okay, so what did Cousins do then, Mike? 

 

MIKE:
Well, he picked up the phone and he rang the Chinese Embassy, just cold called them.

 

BETH:
I mean, personally, I've never tried to influence a major foreign investment portfolio by just picking up the phone. Approaching the Chinese Government directly. It seems pretty unorthodox, doesn't it? 

 

MIKE:
Well, it certainly is. It certainly is. But anyway, Cousins rang. Cold, called them had had no previous, you know, engagement with the embassy or anything. 

 

And sought an urgent meeting to talk to them about Adani’s potential financing - because he heard that they were close to stitching up a deal. So the embassy agreed to a meeting, but they told him that the ambassador couldn't be there because he had a prior engagement, although another senior official, the embassy. Mr. Council for Trade in Economy would attend. 

 

So next thing Cousins did was he rang an investment banker mate, Mark Burrows, who's an expert in finance with a CV in some of the world's biggest investment banks going back decades. 

 

Then Cousins made the third phone call, which was to Bob Carr, Australia's former Foreign Minister, because he knew that Carr had strong relations with the Chinese. 

 

Archival tape -- Geoffrey Cousins:

“He said, when are you seeing this fellow - and I said Monday, Tuesday or whatever it was, and he said what time and I told him.”

 

MIKE:
And when he told Carr when the meeting was, Carr said, well, I know the reason why the ambassador won't be there. 

 

Archival tape -- Geoffrey Cousins:

“And he said, that's extraordinary because I had a small lunch with the ambassador at that time, on that day.” 

 

MIKE:
It's because he's having lunch with me. So send me your material and I'll raise it with him. 

 

Archival tape -- Bob Carr:

“Certainly, I found the ambassador wherever I spoke to him as being receptive. I said you'd be cast as villains, funding something that I think the majority of Australians don't want to proceed.” 

 

BETH:
Okay, so Bob Carr and Geoff Cousins team up, with the support of investment banker Burrows, all use their influence to sway the Chinese Government. What happened then, Mike? Did it pay off?

 

MIKE:
When Cousins approached Carr to ask him how to go about the meeting, Carr told him that when he and Burrows met with the Chinese officials, they would most likely just sit there politely, take lots of notes and be noncommittal.

 

Archival tape -- Bob Carr:

I advised Geoff not to expect a huge level of interest from the Diplomats.”

 

MIKE:
But in fact, the Chinese minister greeted him like a long lost brother. 

 

Archival tape -- Geoffrey Cousins:

“The Minister came in at the meeting, strode across the room up to me and said, ‘Mr Cousins, you are a winner’. I said ‘am I?’. And he said ‘yes, you won on Gunns. You won in the Kimberley and now you’ll win on Adani’.” 

 

MIKE:
And that was before they even made their case. Clearly, the official had done his homework. He knew about Cousins previous successes and using sort of unorthodox means to fight environmental battles. 

 

Archival tape -- Bob Carr:

“I think he was quite heartened by it and it meant his arguments were being taken seriously.” 

 

MIKE:
And then, of course, the Minister Counsel, had a brief discussion with his people and told them, I promise you, every word you say will be in Beijing tonight and told them that they didn't really need to go to China to lobby further. And Cousins said he left thinking, you know, they'd either been conned or the Chinese were actually going to do something about it.  And sure enough, about a week later, he got an email saying that no Chinese bank would fund the project

 

Archival tape -- Geoffrey Cousins:

“My memory is less than two weeks and that email came through one evening, from him directly to me saying that no Chinese bank would fund that project. And shortly thereafter, Bob Carr got a similar email.” 

 

MIKE:
He’d never had a result that quick and that convincing.

 

BETH:
Yeah, it's pretty extraordinary. So is that all it took Mike a few phone calls and a meeting. Was it over and done with just like that? 

 

MIKE:
Well, that part of it was yeah. But that's not the end of the story, because having succeeded in stopping Adani from securing finance in 2017, three years later, he got word that Adani was making another play for Chinese money. And so he got the band back together. And then he picked up his phone and he dialled the same number at the Chinese Embassy. 

 

Archival tape -- Geoffrey Cousins:

“So I rang the same phone number of the Minister that I had been given in 2017. To my absolute amazement, the same man answered the phone.” 

 

BETH:
We'll be back in a moment. 


[Advertisement]

 

BETH:
Mike, we’ve been talking about how Geoff Cousins and Bob Carr teamed up to stop the Adani coal mine getting investment from Chinese banks back in 2017. But what happened this time? What was Adani trying to get?

 

MIKE:
Well, they were looking for someone to insure their mega mine. You know, clearly, insurance is a big factor in all major developments. And the thing is, of course, insurers are increasingly disinclined to underwrite fossil fuel projects because they can read the writing on the wall. Basically, in a decade or so, most of these projects will likely be stranded assets because no one will want to buy what they produce anymore. And Cousins and Carr used exactly the same tactic, reaching out directly to the embassy and following up with a letter. And so, you know, he made representations to the Minister and then Carr wrote his letter. 

 

Archival tape -- Bob Carr:

“Geoff was concerned with advice he received that there was one big Chinese insurer that did make commitments to insure investments outside China. And I wrote a letter to the Chinese Ambassador...” 

 

MIKE:
I have the letter and it's a great letter. It begins by complimenting China’s recently announced commitment to a net zero emissions target and noting that Australia's other major trading partners in East Asia, Japan and Korea have made similar commitments. And he goes on to note that the People's Insurance Company of China, one of the biggest ones, was one of the few still prepared to offer cover to non Chinese mining ventures. And he asks that the government intervene to stop it and other Chinese insurers from covering Adani. 

 

Archival tape -- Bob Carr:

“He texted me that your letter has been well received in Beijing or words to that effect...” 

 

MIKE:
Anyway, same thing happened. Carr promptly got a text message back saying your letter has been well received in Beijing and moving ahead with appreciation. 

 

BETH:
OK, so the gang's back together. Did it work a second time?

 

MIKE:
It did! So shortly after the text message came official word that no Chinese insurer would cover Adani. 

 

BETH:
Mike, this story is just fascinating. But why is it that the Chinese government was happy to stop funding Adani at the request of a motley team of Australians?

 

MIKE:
I don't know if they'd appreciate being called motley, but anyway, it is a great question. And, you know, there's been some speculation about this, whether it's about the worsening ties between China and Australia, you know, the Chinese government wanting to embarrass Australia. But I think it's a much bigger issue. 

 

And some of those involved in putting together the case against the Chinese investment think that they were simply persuaded by the weight of the case that was put to them, that the climate risk, the business risk and the reputational risks of financing or insuring the Adani mine just made it bad business. 

 

BETH:
Mike, ultimately, this story shows that getting an outcome on the Adani coal mine wasn't the result of lobbying in the corridors of Parliament House, but instead knocking on the doors of the Chinese Embassy. What does this tell us about our current attitude to climate policy, that perhaps it takes an unlikely alliance using such unorthodox tactics to intervene and to try and stop the world's biggest coal mine from going ahead? 

 

MIKE:
Well, I think it says a few things. 

Archival tape -- Geoffrey Cousins:

“And I mean, the basic message out of it is that the politicians are never of any use at all in these matters, even when it is dealing with another government.” 

MIKE:
To Cousins, the result was further confirmation that in the absence of decisive action by politicians, the best way to affect change is to convince banks and insurance companies and superannuation funds and other big investors that they shouldn't get involved in fossil fuel projects.

 

But that's that's kind of a measure of how much the world has changed in the past decade or so, because, as Cousins says, when he went after Gunns, that was one of the first times that anyone had thought of going to the bank and saying, you know, don't invest in this, don't finance this environmentally destructive activity. But now, you know, as he would say, the whole finance industry around the world is very much opposed to funding environmentally damaging projects, you know, particularly fossil fuels. 

 

Archival tape -- Bob Carr:

“Well, I think it confirms that the private sector is moving way ahead of Canberra.” 

 

MIKE:
And the other thing it speaks to, of course, is just how the Australian government is with the rest of the world. And, you know, the Chinese government was ultimately making rational financial decisions about what to invest in and recognising that the future is not in coal. 

 

Archival tape -- Bob Carr:

“We're seeing China pivot away from coal fired power, accepting the international consensus. And it's leaving Australia under the Morrisson government in the shade.” 

 

MIKE:
You know, in a few decades from now, it just won't be part of the energy mix. And Australia hasn't woken up to that yet. 

 

BETH:
Mike, thank you so much for your time. 

 

MIKE:
My pleasure.

[Advertisement]

[Theme Music Starts]

BETH:
Also in the news today,
 

The latest outbreak of Covid-19 has continued to spread across the country.

 

NSW recorded a further 78 cases on Tuesday.

Victoria recorded 13 cases yesterday as Premier Dan Andrews extended the state’s lockdown by a further seven days. The lockdown is now due to end next Tuesday.

 

And South Australia has joined the states currently in lockdown. Premier Steven Marshall announced yesterday that the state will enter a seven day lockdown after a number of new cases of the Delta variant were recorded.

Queensland recorded one new locally acquired case of Covid-19, but no restrictions have been announced as yet.

I’m Beth Atkinson-Quinton, this is 7am. I’ll see ya tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

 

From the front page

Image of Lieutenant General John Frewen. Image via ABC News Breakfast

The back of the back of the queue

Young people have waited patiently through the government’s slow rollout, but it’s now killing them

Image of Scott Morrison holding a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine. Image via Facebook

Vaccine resistance

Despite historically high vaccination rates, Australia has developed a significant anti-vax movement in the middle of a global pandemic

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Racing against time

The I-Kiribati Olympic sprinter hoping to draw attention to his nation’s climate catastrophe

Image of Julian Assange in London, April 11, 2019

The end game

WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is slowly dying in a UK prison, as the US maintains its fight to have him die in theirs – but there is hope


Read on

Image of Scott Morrison holding a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine. Image via Facebook

Vaccine resistance

Despite historically high vaccination rates, Australia has developed a significant anti-vax movement in the middle of a global pandemic

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Jenny Morrison laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier during the Anzac Day commemorative service on April 25, 2020. Image © Alex Ellinghausen / AAP Image/ Sydney Morning Herald Pool

A rallying crime

For a country that loves invoking the virtues of wartime sacrifice, why have our leaders failed to appeal to the greater good during the pandemic?

Photo of installation view of the exhibition Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow at NGV International. Photo © Tom Ross

Simultaneous persuasions: ‘Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow’

Radical difference and radical proximity are hallmarks of the French-born artist’s NGV exhibition

Still from The White Lotus. © Mario Perez / HBO

Petty bourgeoisie: ‘The White Lotus’

Mike White’s scathing takedown of privilege leads July’s streaming highlights