Youth activists challenge new Clive Palmer coal mine on human rights grounds

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In what the ABC has described as “an Australian legal first,” an environmental group called Youth Verdict has lodged legal action against Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal. The group claims the company’s proposed Galilee Coal Project in central Queensland violates their human rights because of the contribution it will make to climate change. 

The Objection

Youth Verdict lodged an objection to the Galilee Coal Project’s Mining Lease and Environmental Authority in the Queensland Land Court this week, arguing that coal mining can now be said to contravene Queensland’s newly effective Human Rights Act. The risk ongoing fossil fuel mining presents to future generations, argues Youth Verdict, is tantamount to a human rights violation. 

Obviously, considering Australia is still very much bickering in some of the ambiguities of climate change, at least politically, a human rights violation through the court system is not particularly auspicious. However, Youth Verdict is not exactly pulling their objection out of thin air; indeed, in some parts of the country, the air is still thick with smoke. 

Legal action of this kind is not unheard of around the world, indeed it is becoming more common. In countries as disparate as Colombia and the Netherlands, and indeed throughout the U.S., fossil fuel companies have been sued under various types of law. In September 2019, in her Opening Statement to the 42nd session of the Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said: “Climate change is a reality that now affects every region of the world. The human implications of currently projected levels of global heating are catastrophic. Storms are rising and tides could submerge entire island nations and coastal cities. Fires rage through our forests, and the ice is melting. We are burning up our future – literally.” 

This is all to say, climate change and human rights law are now strongly connected, and Youth Verdict sees an opportunity to put Waratah Coal in its place and hit Clive Palmer where he hurts most, his public image. “We’re facing a future that is increasingly uncertain,” Youth Verdict founder Mel McAuliffe told the ABC, “and that impacts our right to have a safe future. It means we won’t have access to the same opportunities that generations before us have had.” 

The Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) is set to represent Youth Verdict along with the Bimblebox Alliance against Waratah Coal. EDO will file papers this week to become active objectors, arguing that the mine will infringe upon six human rights: “the rights of the child; the right to life; the right to be free from discrimination; the cultural rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples; the right to property; and the right to privacy.” They may as well throw the right to bear arms in there too, if only to have the complete set. 

 “This is a case about the incompatibility of new coal mines with established human rights,” said EDO CEO David Morris, “and it’s about the kind of world we want to leave our children. Decisions to open new coal mines today unfairly burden the next generations who will suffer the worst consequences of climate change.”

If the Land Court of Queensland sides with the EDO, it will recommend to the minister to refuse the Galilee Coal Project its Mining Lease and Environmental Approval. “The evidence shows,” continued Morris, “we cannot afford to dig up any more coal, but the more coal we dig up and burn the worse these impacts are…Our clients are using the Queensland Human Rights Act, exactly as it was intended to be used, to allow Queenslanders to stand up for their human rights. They have the right to a safe and healthy future and to be able to make genuine choices about their lives.” 

The Project

In its brochure, Waratah Coal describes the Galilee Coal Project as a “clean coal” project, but don’t let that fool you, the same brochure also describes Clive Palmer as a “Professor”. The “Professor” tag, which sits about as comfortably on Palmer as his belt buckle, refers to two periods in the 2000s in which Palmer was appointed an adjunct professor of business at Deakin University and adjunct professor of management at Bond University. Lets be serious, being a professor of business is no less absurd than being a poetry tycoon.

LNP Senator Matt Canavan complained to the ABC that environmental groups lodge objections such as that of Youth Verdict “to use our court system just simply to delay projects, not necessarily to protect the environment or even win the court case.” One might remind Canavan that in a country beholden to the rule of law, and in which coal miners have legal permission to destroy the environment, the only way to save the environment is through the courts. 

Canavan went on to suggest Australia’s court systems are not set up to handle an issue which is essentially political, no doubt conveniently forgetting that issues are often made political for political reasons. 

Anatomy of a Guilty Conscience 

Speaking of political reasons, there is more to this story than another file on the heap at the Land Court of Queensland. 

When billionaire Waratah Coal boss, political lightweight, and literal heavyweight Clive Palmer announced in late March 2020 that his foundation had, with the approval of the Australian Government, purchased almost 33 million doses of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, as a donation to Australia’s fight against Covid-19, many heads were turned. Now, many of those heads are still turning, wondering what on earth Palmer is up to. 

Knowing he had a controversial coal mine worth billions on the way, Palmer clearly thought a few million spent on an apparent panacea would put him in Australia’s good books. But, of course, panaceas are only ever apparent, and never for long. 

Hydroxychloroquine came to the world’s attention when U.S. President Donald Trump described the drug as a “game changer”. Many jumped onboard the bandwagon, describing the drug as a cure, and spurring a mass buy-up of the drug which is not proven to cure Covid-19 and is in fact now in short supply for patients who actually need the medication. 

Politifact found that the evidence of the drug’s utility in the fight against Covid-19 was based on loosely controlled studies. And The Washington Post’s coverage of “The rise and fall of Trump’s obsession with hydroxychloroquine” exposed the President’s hype as mere short-term political posturing, a fact borne out when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration offered a public warning about the risks of the drug. 

Joan Donovan, Research Director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center told The Washington Post that mass prescription of hydroxychloroquine would only engender another crisis while failing to cure the first. 

We must remember that people don’t become billionaires because generosity comes naturally to them; and grand gestures tend to be more gesturing than grand. What is perhaps more likely to be behind Palmer’s apparent generosity is an attempt to buy Australians off as the Galilee Coal Project comes closer to reality. 

In 2014, I had the surreal experience of meeting Roberto Escobar, brother of infamous drug trafficker, and maniac, Pablo Escobar, in one of Pablo’s former homes in Medellin, Colombia. Roberto, who had been blinded by a letter-bomb attack while in prison after the fall of the Medellin Cartel, had been the Cartel’s accountant and supposedly the engineer behind the its drug trafficking submarines. The surrealism in meeting Roberto was not solely the man’s intricate role in one of the most vicious organisations in human history, but the fact that Roberto was insistent on convincing me that he had developed a cure for HIV. Yes, HIV. Roberto claimed to have been recently profiled by TIME magazine but couldn’t say anything specific about the cure because it was currently being patented. 

I kept an eye out for the TIME feature, or indeed any news of this miraculous and generous discovery, but, of course, no news of the discovery came because the discovery wasn’t true, it was a distraction – a way to manufacture ambivalence toward a man whose judgement would otherwise be final.  

Of course, considering the ambiguity of climate change, it is unlikely that legal action against Waratah Coal on the grounds of human rights will be successful. However, let us not forget that when someone as gluttonous and greedy as Clive Palmer suddenly offers grand gestures of generosity, we have to weary that the giving hand is merely a distraction from the taking hand. Waratah Coal may not be found guilty, but considering Palmer’s pretentious behaviour, we can at least say that even he knows he’s guilty of something. After all, Palmer is a guy who still claims to be building a Titanic II, so it is no wonder he’s trying to melt the world’s icebergs.