The Kritic

From the blog of Over Our Dead Bodies – Written by Ben Pennings.

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Big Coal? We’re talking the biggest. The Galilee Basin is the biggest proposed coal complex in the world. The numbers are staggering, frightening; well past the point of insanity.

The great news is that the nine mines planned are very marginal economically. The ‘quality’ of coal is low, the price of coal is low, and the debt levels of many companies involved are high. However, a company called Aurizon is planning to bail out the debt-ridden company GVK, allowing them to dig up the first 2 mines. These mines alone would be responsible for carbon pollution 6 times that of the UK.

A broad cross-section of the mainstream environment movement have signalled their intentions towards Aurizon, but thus far been pretty much ignored. Millions of emails have gone unheard. Aurizon continues unabated towards investing billions to mine the Galilee Basin, before solar makes it completely economically unviable.

The Over Our Dead Bodies campaign is adding a new dimension to the decision-making processes of Aurizon, and has garnered significant interest from both the company and police. Aurizon now face sustained direct action and civil disobedience strategies, on top of the increasing pressure from mainstream groups. The campaign is blatantly honest, starting to document the number of activists in Australia and globally who will do whatever it takes to stop Aurizon.

Activists started the campaign by stealing a ‘carbon bomb’ from their offices, visiting the CEO’s mansion (twice) and messing with their football sponsorship. All in one weekend. While also hunger striking! But the real deal is still to come.

How can activists be honest with Aurizon about what may be on the way? Go along to their AGM of course! I was one of twelve activists who bought enough shares to attend and ask questions that were not the usual fare. For the first time in AGM history (as far as we know), activists asked audacious questions to directly challenge a company about the security, insurance, industrial action and recruitment costs related to direct action by environmental activists – providing an honest warning to shareholders of risks the company has thus far refused to disclose.

A multi-organisation protest was also held outside the AGM venue. Police inside and outside the AGM outnumbered protesters two to one – uniformed, plain clothes, photographers and high-ranking officers. Walking from our briefing to the venue, the anti-terrorism police made their presence known, greeting me by name. As did other officers throughout the morning. Nice to be loved! Here’s one of the anti-terrorism police ‘Aaron’ (real name is Bruce) talking to an activist on the day.

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Activists know they can’t stop Aurizon’s plans through appealing to their ethics or values. Those who have tried have failed. The chair of the board John Prescott confirmed this belief when answering the first question:

“The fundamental business of this company is transportation, the majority of it by heavy haul rail systems, and a key part of that is certainly the carriage of coal… it is a fundamental part of this company’s business to carry coal for interested customers. It is a perfectly legitimate activity and it is one that to withdraw from would not be in the interest of shareholders, customers, employees, and the communities in which we serve.”

He also admitted to shareholders in this first exchange that Aurizon “have not made any estimates” when asked about the costs of activism by organisations with many millions of members. This is an important admission but the point needed to be laboured. The next question about their security strategies got right to it:

“It seems to me that Aurizon are very vulnerable to direct action strategies from environmentalist groups. Given you have thousands of kilometres of rail line and have difficult to secure facilities around the country, what strategies do you have in mind to secure what seems to be in-securable?”

After questions about climate change, water and the future of coal, it got serious with a question about targeting the board and executives:

“As Aurizon’s planned investment in the coal mines in the Galilee Basin (involves releasing) truly massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, threatening life as we know it on this planet, such a radical step calls for a radical response. Are you aware that over two hundred activists from one group alone have thus far committed to use direct action against the Aurizon Board of Executives to remind them of their personal responsibility regarding runaway climate change; and given they claim to have home addresses of most of the board members and senior executives, and considering activists have already visited the CEO’s home twice, are you concerned that executives and board members will leave the company if they are seriously challenged in their homes and neighbourhoods about these responsibilities, their responsibilities beyond Aurizon, responsibilities to the future of all of our children, our grandchildren, the community, country and the world we live in?”

Despite protestations, a further audacious question was asked, this time about stopping trains with cardboard boxes:

“In 2011, an activist stopped a coal train in New South Wales using a lightweight box contraption. Now he was inside that box, but it’s easily conceivable that you could stop a coal train with an empty cardboard box. Now given you’ve got thousands of kilometres of track, how do you envisage oversight over those tracks and managing that; I can see it would be quite easy for activists to stop coal trains and get away with it scot free. So is there a cost each time a train is stopped like this, and have you factored those kinds of costs into your business plans?”

Just by chance, this happened to be outside the building when shareholders left the meeting.

Train Stopper

You can imagine the company (and some shareholders) were not too happy with such questions. The chair of the board said repeatedly that they would not divulge security strategies, but it seemed reasonably clear such strategies did not exist. But the shareholders did respond with applause to the question about coal dust, public health, and the excessive salary of the CEO:

“My question is to Lance Hockridge, CEO, and my concern is about dust. I’ve been reading a bit in the media the last few months about coal dust coming from wagons and about the particles, and the doctors and health experts’ concerns about the dust particles; the larger ones and the smaller ones which can get lodged in the lungs and in the bloodstream and the concern, particularly for children… My question, given that Aurizon has so far refused to cover the coal wagons and that there is quite a bit of public outcry about this issue is, Lance, you earned $6 million more than the average Australian last financial year, would you personally be willing to donate some money to stop the damage to public health, and if not, would you personally live on a railway line and breathe in what you transport?”

That question was bound to be popular but this question hit a different nerve:

“Are you concerned that once environmental activists start direct action strategies that your unionised staff will undertake industrial action due to perceived safety risks? Have you factored in these potential massive costs to your investment in the Galilee?”

A shareholder responded to this, saying she was “absolutely appalled at the suggestion that lives would be put at risk because of ideological beliefs.” I jumped up to defend this activist before question time ended. It is Aurizon in fact who are putting millions of lives at risk over an ideological belief, the belief that profit by any legal means trumps ethical considerations, or a liveable planet for that matter.

After the AGM some shareholders spoke freely with activists. Many were concerned about climate change, coal dust, and the shortening future of the coal industry. Aurizon have since sent a strongly worded legal letter, threatening a Supreme Court injunction against Generation Alpha, Over Our Dead Bodies and their ‘members’. What a shame that Generation Alpha is a Facebook page, Over Our Dead Bodies is a website, and neither have members!

Aurizon write that they are ‘disappointed’ in us, and if we do what they say we’ve threatened, we’re in big trouble! But now they just have to wait and prepare, knowing they can do little to stop the next move by the 221 (and counting) activists who have said “Over Our Dead Bodies”

Written by Ben Pennings. Please consider supporting the campaign with your time or money here.

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