Alan Jones’s ongoing campaign on coal seam gas — his Press Club speech yesterday was more or less a reheat of his extended railing on the issue on his radio program — has produced more than just the unusual sight of a Greens-Jones unity ticket. One suspects, though, the Greens would have found Jones’ complaint that fracking EISs lacked “peer review” ironic, since Jones generally prefers his climate science to have no peer review of any kind.

Australia isn’t the only country where coal seam gas is causing deep disquiet, especially in rural communities. Far from it. It’s a huge issue in the US, where protests continue in several states and particularly in New York State. There, a bitter debate over lifting a state ban on fracking prompted several municipalities to impose their own bans, with some dragged into court by mining companies, many of whom have aggressively litigated against any local government that has tried to regulate or ban coal seam gas development. Just like in Australia, there’s deep anger and division about fracking in these communities (two weeks ago, I encountered a street corner fracking protest in a small upstate NY town, with “Honk if you hate fracking” placards drawing a merry cacophony of horns from the traffic).

The issue is one of the many that are in the #Occupy Wall Street mix. The protest at which author Naomi Wolf was arrested this week was specifically targeted at New York governor Andrew Cuomo over his lifting of the fracking ban. Fracking is described on the New York protest’s blog as “the ultimate corporate usurpation of the rights of people, of communities, of nature.” The anti-fracking group Food and Water Watch has established a permanent representation at Zuccotti Park. None of this is any surprise, given the complementarity between much of the anti-corporate rhetoric of the #occupy movement and the concerns of fracking opponents.

And strangely, Jones’s rhetoric is little different from that of the #occupy movement. The picture the hard-right broadcaster painted yesterday was of mainstream politicians captive to the interests of mining companies, addicted to the royalties provided by miners and incapable of saying no to them or of effectively representing the view of the communities affected by CSG developments. For Jones, governments have given up trying to regulate or constrain corporations because it’s not in their interests to do so — sentiments that would be perfectly at home in Zuccotti Park in New York or at any of the #occupy sites in Australia.

For several years, coal seam gas has been an issue playing out in rural communities with little urban media profile. The Greens, particularly in NSW, spotted the potential of the issue early, understanding it was a way to make inroads in regional communities traditionally resistant to the party. But Jones has put a rocket under it not merely by constantly raising the issue but by the temperature of his rhetoric, which happily juggles references to foreign invasion, property rights, food security and health concerns, enough to catch out Tony Abbott when he ventured into the issue earlier in the year.

The mining industry has been slow to react (too gorged on profits, perhaps?) and has done little to counter Jones’s and the Greens’s campaigns. This morning the PR company Media Manoeuvres used Jones’s Press Club address to tout for business with mining companies via email, referring to Jones’s “emotive attack on the Australian coal mining industry” that was “remarkable and damaging”:

Media Manoeuvres is concerned that the mining industry is not achieving a balanced media “voice” and as a result, people like Alan Jones and other media are shaping the public’s opinion very aggressively. We have developed a specialist mining media and local community engagement, communications package that address this imbalance:

Step 1: Mining Media Messages — a journalist-facilitated, sensible mining messaging workshop — develop messages that have impact in the media so the public and your stakeholders hear them — including the all-important local community
Step 2: Mining Spokesperson Skills Training — powerful delivery of those messages — be heard by the people who matter.

But the company seems to have missed the point that this isn’t a media battle. This is an issue that has emerged from the ground up, in rural communities. And while energy prices remain high, the fundamental tension between mainly agricultural-based regional communities and mining companies will continue, regardless of how it is spun by PR experts.

Peter Fray

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