One of the many sounds I can’t excise from my head is President Trump saying “We’re going to have clean coal, reeeelly cleeeen co-al…”

As the Truth Wars rev up, patently silly things said by powerful people become white noise. Our own politicians are adapting with impressive speed to the licence Trump has given everyone to construct their own reality and attack their enemies with weaponised hypocrisy. 

Clean coal is a noble oxymoron not just in West Virginia, of course; it has a regular seat at the Australian feast of energy policy failure. You’d think, from the degree of political capital the Australian government continues to sink into its irrational insistence that the Adani coal mine in Queensland must be built no matter how economically pointless and environmentally disastrous it is expected to be, that there were some massive national stakes at play. But no.

Adani is really about, weirdly, ideology. Coal, of course, has no ideological basis (the Bible is silent on the subject of fossil fuels and renewables). Then again, neither does Anzac Day. It commemorates personal sacrifice, not our national beliefs. Yet these and so many other random subjects are being constantly co-opted into what are usually referred to as the culture wars but are actually a struggle for ideological supremacy. In this war, truth and untruth are wielded as weapons of equal power.

Ideological wars have a couple of problems. One is that they tend to be extremely shouty, which just makes everyone switch over to Masterchef. Another is that, when you’re arguing simultaneously for a position you insist is gospel truth, and against the right of your opponents to speak their alternative truth (on the basis that they’re obviously wrong), you get caught out. A lot. 

Today’s prize idiot is Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, the National Party’s Matt Canavan, who is so outraged by Westpac’s announcement of its refusal to lend money to Adani that he’s calling for a consumer boycott of Westpac.

[Call in the Green Army! Threat of ‘green lawfare’ takes down … wait … only two projects?]

In a press release that should have had pictures, the minister went to town on Westpac, suggesting it should revert to its old name as the Bank of NSW since it’s come over all anti-Queenslander. After pointing to the ever-expanding number of jobs the Adani mine will create if only our banks would join the government in throwing money at the Indian billionaire who wants to secure our energy future — the 1400 jobs Adani’s own expert predicted is now sitting at 16,000 in the government’s mind and still rising — Canavan closed with this call to state arms:

“May I suggest those Queenslanders who are seeking a home loan or a long-term bank deposit or some such in the next few months might want to back a bank that is backing the interests of Queenslanders.”

Ooh, that sounds like a direct call for a consumer boycott of Westpac, does it not? At which point, Canavan disappears into the suck-hole of the National Irony Generator.

He is, after all, of the very same government some of whose members have been calling loudly for years for secondary boycotts by environmental groups to be criminalised.

Wait, what? A secondary boycott is a thing that the Competition and Consumer Act makes illegal. It’s what happens when some people get together to take actions that prevent or hinder a business from doing its usual business. For example, by maintaining a picket line outside the store or conducting a social media campaign telling everyone not to shop there.

That’s what section 45D says. It’s one of the sections in the act about which I, wearing my competition lawyer apron, get asked most frequently and with almost 100% irrelevance. In reality, it rarely applies. One of the main reasons for that is section 45DD, which exempts boycott activity engaged in for the purpose of environmental protection or consumer protection.

Greenies, therefore, can chain themselves to as many trees as they like, and be openly collusive about doing so, without fear of prosecution. Likewise, Choice can tell us to stop wasting money on dietary supplements or bottled tap water, no problem.

This exemption for do-gooders has long stuck in the craw of many in the Coalition, especially the free market-loving Nationals. When the current review of competition law, which will probably outlive us all, began several years ago, they jumped on the opportunity to argue for removal of the exceptions to the secondary boycotts prohibition.  

The libertarian position on this subject is, of course, entirely confused. The IPA’s free-market warriors generally insist on the untrammelled right of businesses to do business without interference from pesky complainers. As IPA alumnus and current government MP Tim Wilson once famously tweeted about the Occupy protesters, set the water cannons on them. Capitalism needs elbow room.

[Water cannons and blowjob receipts: the adventures of Freedom Boy, possible member for Goldstein]

But isn’t protest as much an exercise of freedom as building a coal mine? And isn’t refusing to lend money to the owner of said coal mine also a pure exercise of free will?

Ah, no, not in the Clean Coal wonderland. Coal, as Tony said, is good for humanity. Or, as Canavan has it: “Westpac say they are making this decision to try and tackle climate change, yet the coal in the Galilee Basin is 60% better, it has an energy content of 60% greater than the coal in India which it will displace by the development of this basin.” 

Wow, 60%! If you suspect that sentence of being gibberish, that’s because it is.

Still, truth and untruth are just opposite sides of the same two-headed coin in Wonderland. Coal is good. Clean coal is double-plus-good. We, in the national (National?) interest, should all have absolute freedom to speak well of coal and those who would dig it up.

The same does not apply to those who speak ill of coal. They are not good. They say things that are untrue, or rather that contradict the self-contradicting narrative of coal as the solution to the existential crisis of climate change. In Canavan-speak, “to reduce emissions around the world, our coal industry has an important part to play”. Yep.

The point, as Qantas discovered when it dared speak for marriage equality, is that corporations are free to do whatever they like, within the prevailing dimensions of what is Right and True. The rest of us, the citizens, are free to alternatively acquiesce in silence or storm the parapets, as we are instructed. The resulting festival of hyperbolic hypocrisy, in which this government is learning to excel, rolls on. Coal is clean. Black, don’t you know, is white.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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