Removing the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Influence on Politics and Parliament | Senator Larissa Waters

Senator Larissa Waters addressing the Australia Institute’s Climate Integrity Summit 2024


Removing the fossil fuel industry’s influence on politics and parliament is how we change the story and restore trust in government decisions.

Senator Larissa Waters addressed the Australia Institute’s Climate Integrity Summit on 20 March 2024.

Good afternoon everyone, I would like to start by thanking this wonderful man, the former President of Kiribati, His Excellency Anote Tong. Thank you not only for that very moving and very morally driven speech, but also for your powerful advocacy over so many years, thank you very much.

We also have the former Prime Minister of Tuvalu in the room. Thank you also for your presence. And I’d like to also acknowledge former Green’s leader, Christine Milne, who’s joining us today, and I think also the Greens Attorney General in the ACT Shane Rattenbury.

Of course I would like to add my acknowledgement of the First Nations owners of this land, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and just note that sovereignty was never ceded anywhere in this country. I hope that we will soon at some point have not just Voice, but also truth telling and treaty, long overdue in this nation.

Thank you to the Australia Institute for convening today’s climate integrity summit.

Today I’m going to speak about removing the fossil fuel industry’s influence on politics and parliament – no small task but a vital one if we are to have climate policies based on science and to rebuild trust in our democracy.

The fossil fuel industry’s influence on politics and parliament

We know that coal and gas are the leading causes of the climate crisis, but since being in government, Labor has approved 5 coal mines. These approvals will create almost 150 million tonnes of carbon emissions combined.

Two weeks ago, the release of Australia’s quarterly emissions data confirmed that we are not on track to meet even Labor’s inadequate emissions reduction target of 43% by 2030.

In fact, emissions under the Albanese Labor Government rose 3.6 million tonnes in 2023. And yesterday’s State of Global Climate report confirms last year was the hottest year on record by a clear margin, with records broken for ocean heat, sea level rise, Antarctic sea ice loss and glacier retreat.

We know that we are in the critical decade for climate action. And this could be one of the most significant fortnights in the life of this Parliament.

Instead of strengthening environment laws like they promised to in the last election campaign, Labor is seeking out every opportunity to work with Peter Dutton to weaken environment laws, and fast-track new offshore petroleum and gas mines at the bidding of Santos and other fossil fuel giants.

They’re doing so in the middle of a climate crisis and ignoring the voices of traditional owners.

The Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Bill was introduced by Minister King in February and is largely about uncontroversial work safety changes, but sneaks in a Schedule with an extremely problematic proposal.

Part 2 of Schedule 2 would mean that any action approved under the offshore petroleum regime, including the offshore environmental management regime, is taken to be within the scope of the original EPBC accreditation. So no matter what changes might be proposed, there is no need for fresh EPBC accreditation and the OPGGS environmental management regime is taken to be accredited forevermore.

This is, in effect, a total carve out of offshore oil and gas from the EPBC framework, and gives the Resources Minister the power to be the sole arbiter of environmental management.

As an environmental lawyer, that sends shivers down my spine.

But it’s the sneakiness with which it is being done that should also ring alarm bells. This schedule tacked on to a largely unrelated bill. It’s almost like Labor knows how unpopular it would be if the public knew this is what they’re doing, so they attach it to some unrelated bill and make it sound nebulous.

They’ve done this before too. The plan to only marginally increase the tax paid by massive gas corporations in the weakest possible reform to the PRRT was tacked onto a bill addressing the scandalous behaviour of consultants PwC. Two distinctly different issues.

Labor are clearly attempting to disguise their flagrant boosting for the fossil fuel sector. They are also seeking to work with the climate denying Liberals to help them pass these laws, rather with the Greens and crossbench for strong climate action.

So why is our government doing sneaky favours for the gas industry, and approving new coal mines and gas wells at all in a climate crisis? When more and more Australians are saying “no more coal and gas”? And when our Pacific neighbours keep urging Australia to stop approving new coal and gas projects?

We know that gas is as dirty as coal and pollution from gas corporations is rising, pushing a safe climate out of reach. The last thing we need is a backdoor loophole for gas giants like Santos, who are cranky that the Government worked with the Greens on the Safeguard Mechanism to make it harder for them to open new gas, and who actually wrote to Resources Minister Madeleine King urging her to gag First Nations groups & bypass existing environment law to fast track new offshore gas.

Just like they asked for the loophole in the Sea Dumping Act to falsely legitimise carbon capture and storage as a commercially viable and effective climate solution.

I’m starting to see a pattern here.

Australia is a captured petrostate

Our Government is plainly captured by the fossil fuel industry.

The major parties are so hooked on fossil fuel money that they have lost the ability to govern in the public interest, instead of the interest of their donor mates.

In the last financial year, Labor received donations of $110,090 from Santos and $84,700 from the Minerals Council, just to name a few.

Coal, gas and oil corporations don’t donate hundreds of thousands every year to the Liberals, Nationals and Labor because they like democracy, they do it because their climate-wrecking projects keep getting approved. They’re buying outcomes.

Our government is that cheap – fossil fuel companies donate a few hundred thousand and they get $10 billion taxpayer dollars of subsidies in return to turbo charge their climate-wrecking projects.

Our current system is one of legalised bribery. Money shouldn’t be able to buy government contracts, development approvals, political access or political influence. That’s not a controversial statement, it’s common sense.

And it’s a commonly held opinion in the community. Australia Institute polling in August last year confirmed that 74% of Australians support banning political donations from organisations that receive funding from government contracts, including 80% of Coalition voters and 70% of Labor voters.

Sadly, common sense doesn’t seem to be so common among the major parties as they couldn’t even back my Fairer Contracts and Grants Bill. The Bill, which I introduced in the Senate last year proposed to stop corporations who make political donations from putting their hands out for public money 12 months before and after seeking a contract, grant, tender or environmental approval.

I designed this bill to be the lowest common denominator and still the big parties could not agree on the basic principle that decisions regarding the allocation of government money should be guided by the public interest, rather than the interests of their donor mates.

This isn’t rocket science. Donations to political parties shouldn’t be able to buy government contracts or grants, and nor should they be able to buy environmental approvals.

Yet this is what happens time and again. Adani and its subsidiaries donated $250,000 to the Coalition in the same financial year as it received final environmental approval for its mega coal mine in Queensland, including receiving $100,000 of that sum in the month after that final approval was given.

This level of undue influence is dangerous for our democracy. At a bare minimum, we need to stop those with wads of dough gaining unequal access to government.

And it’s not just donations that talk, it’s who knows who and what overpaid job is on offer. The revolving door between parliament and the fossil fuels sector is another way large companies are able to have a disproportionate influence on our democracy.

How to stop the revolving door & dirty donations

Every single resources minister in Coalition and Labor governments since 2001 has gone to work in the fossil fuel sector.

Ian Macfarlane was the Liberal Minister for Industry and Resources in the Howard and Abbott governments. Immediately after retiring from parliament he was appointed to the Queensland Resources Council, where he quickly became CEO.

His appointment was in breach of the Ministerial Standards Code of Conduct, which requires an 18-month cooling off period before former ministers take lobbying jobs. A largely unenforceable Ministerial Code.

Gary Gray was the Labor Resources Minister in 2013 and is now the General Manager of External Affairs of Mineral Resources. Immediately before he was elected to parliament, he worked as a Senior Executive at Woodside Energy.

Martin Ferguson was the Labor Resources Minister from 2007-2013 and just six months after he stopped being the minister, he became the Chairman of the national oil and gas lobby, APPEA.

The former Prime Minister Scott Morrison appointed his gas industry mates to the National Covid Coordination Commission without even declaring their conflicts of interest. And then, surprise, the Commission ultimately called for a “gas led recovery” that directly benefits the gas industry, despite strong support for a renewables-led recovery from scientists, economists and policy analysts.

There are too many loopholes permitting big business and big polluters to have unfair influence on government decisions.

One of the ways to close some of these loopholes is to strengthen the Lobbying Code of Conduct, by including in-house lobbyists, making Ministers diaries public, and enforcing the cooling off period for post-Ministerial work.

Another way we could restore integrity to government decision making would be to get dirty money out of politics.

It’s been Greens policy for decades to ban any political donations from fossil fuel companies and other harmful industries like tobacco, gambling and property developers.

I once again reintroduced our Banning Dirty Donations Bill at the end of 2022 but it’s no closer to passing. Fossil fuel donations continue to cloud the judgement of the Albanese Labor government as new coal and gas projects keep getting approvals and public money.

We desperately need our government to end its attachment to fossil fuels, and yet the Albanese government refuses to rule out any of the 117 new coal and gas projects currently under consideration, and continues to hand out public money to support destructive new projects in the Beetaloo Basin, Scarborough, and more.

We saw the might of the Minerals Council after a $24 million dollar campaign to kill the Rudd government’s mining super profits tax, and more recently the Minerals Council used the same tactics against the Queensland Labor government’s plan to get resources companies to pay more of their fair share.

These threats only work because the major parties are scared of the ad campaign of lies working (instead of just passing laws to require truth in political advertising), and because the major parties rely on dirty donations from those big polluters to fund their re-election campaigns.

2022 was dubbed the integrity election. We saw the lowest vote share for the major parties in 75 years and now have a parliament that’s more diverse than ever.

The time to restore trust and integrity in our politics is now. We can do this with political financing reforms that remove the fossil fuel industry’s corrosive influence on our democracy. We can do this by levelling the access to politicians and by embedding more transparency and accountability in political processes.

More and more Australians and our Pacific neighbours are calling for an end to government decisions that fast track coal and gas industry profits at the expense of our climate, environment and our democracy.

Removing the fossil fuel industry’s influence on politics and parliament is how we change the story and restore trust in government decisions.

Senator Larissa Waters, Leader of the Australian Greens in the Senate at the Australia Institute’s Climate Integrity Summit 2024

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