Where and how should the public expect negotiations between fossil fuel industries and governments be carried out?
What kind of relationships should exist between fossil fuel corporations and the politicians and public servants who are part of the decision-making process that those corporations seek to influence?
Should reasonable details of those negotiations be recorded and take place in government offices, during office hours? Should lobbying by industry and companies be available for public scrutiny?
When a government awards a licence to dig up and sell fossil fuels, those decisions represent the transfer of assets from public to private hands worth billions of dollars.
With that in mind, you might expect the answers to all those questions to reflect the highest levels of accountability and transparency.
But in Queensland, Australia’s biggest exporter of coal, this accountability and transparency appears to be lacking.
The Australia Institute has published a report – Too close for comfort: How the coal and gas industry get their way in Queensland – detailing the complex interactions between the coal and gas industries in Queensland and the state’s previous governments.
The report, researched and written by me and paid for by the institute, explores some of the close relationships between lobbyists, politicians, public servants and fossil fuel industry executives.
To build the picture, I surveyed documents released under Right to Information laws (Queensland’s version of Freedom of Information), expenses claims, ministerial diary entries, news reports, lobby register entries, documents tabled in parliament and political funding disclosures.
There’s a common theme that runs through the stories described in the report: a troubling level of access for the fossil fuel industry to decision makers and administrators – access which in most cases is almost entirely undocumented.
For example, Indian coal mining company Adani wants to develop a coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin that would extract 60 million tonnes of coal per year.
The company wants to build a rail line to the coast, where the coal will be exported and burned in Indian power stations. The greenhouse gas emissions from burning the coal would be in the order of 700 million tonnes a year – almost one and half times Australia’s entire annual greenhouse gas footprint.
My report shows how executives from Adani and another coal miner with aspirations in Queensland Galilee basin, GVK, held meetings on numerous occasions with the head of a key government department in Brisbane restaurants.
Sometimes the taxpayer picked up the tab because, as the documents claim, paying for the meal would help “develop and maintain working relationships” with the mining giant.
At one point, the Queensland taxpayer stumped up $500 for a “framed and personally signed tennis racquet” as gift for Indian mining billionaire GVK Reddy.
But the issue isn’t the money (even though some in the community may find it outrageous). The issue is the level of access companies appear to have and the impression which it leaves that the relationships are cosy.
At one point, a document shows how a GVK lobbyist gave a ministerial advisor the chance to review a press release before it was released, leaving the distinct impression that the Queensland Government was on that occasion part of the public relations arm of the coal company.
Meetings between company executives and government representatives are not classified as “lobbying” under the state’s already relaxed lobbying rules. That’s because in Queensland, like other states in Australia, state-based lobby registers only apply to individuals who are paid as third-parties to lobby on behalf of fossil fuel clients. The report highlights these inadequacies in the state’s lobby register.
For example, it seems perverse that the most powerful lobby groups – the peak bodies representing the mining industries – are exempt from the lobbying rules, meaning that meetings do not need to be recorded on the lobbying contact register, where minimal details are disclosed.
The report also provides detail on a phenomenon known as the “revolving lobby door” where politicians, high-level political staffers and senior civil servants move into roles with fossil fuel firms or lobby companies, and sometimes move back again.
The state’s burgeoning multi-billion dollar coal seam gas industry is also examined in the report, where this revolving lobby door seems to spin particularly loosely.
In the report, I note how state government ministers of the day met with key gas industry personnel at sports events and how key government staff moved into the industry which they had previously been charged with helping to regulate.
The report also looks at the political donations from major resources companies and how the political parties themselves have set up forums that allow executives to pay for access to ministers.
Former Queensland Integrity Commissioner Gary Crooke QC has described these arrangements as “bipartisan ethical bankruptcy”, noting that:
Not only is this behaviour wrong from the point of view of perceived and actual fairness, it is deeply flawed because it wilfully and arrogantly disregards a fundamental principle of our democracy: that those elected to govern must use the power entrusted to them for the benefit of the community.
Simply put, the attributes of government have been temporarily reposed in those elected. These attributes are not their property and are not for sale to augment the coffers of sectional interest in the form of a political party.
A foreword to the report from the institute’s principal advisor Mark Ogge and research director Rod Campbell says:
This report is, as far as we know, the first to look deeply at a single jurisdiction, in this case Queensland, and attempt to rigorously compile a profile of the relationship between fossil fuel companies and governments and political parties, their interactions and their influence.
The results are startling. Compiled together in this manner, individual incidents that might otherwise appear minor, become part of a systemic web of access and influence for fossil fuel companies. The larger view revealed is that of special advantages and pervasive pressure which casts long shadows across our democracy.
As I ask in the report’s conclusion, even improvements to accountability and transparency in the state can only take you so far.
Does simply declaring a gift or political donation make it an acceptable transaction?
Can concerns about a lack of action on climate change and fossil fuel emissions ever be addressed in the public interest when you have an environment where governments, public officials and political staff at all levels have such close and secretive relationships with coal and gas industries?
Image: Abbot Point coal port in Queensland, where coal firm Adani wants to expand the port to export coal from its proposed giant mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. Credit: Greenpeace/Tom Jefferson.