2011: an intense year! (in Illawarra)

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2011 was an intense year. In the Illawarra, two campaigns emerged that would define most of our activity: the campaign to stop coal seam gas mining and the campaign for greater left unity, culminating in the Community Voice experiment that contested the local council elections. We encouraged our members, supporters and friends into these important campaigns and helped take real responsibility for their success (or failure).

Stopping coal seam gas

The campaign to stop coal seam gas in the Illawarra has seen unheard of growth. Since its launch in March, Stop CSG Illawarra has organised the two biggest environmental demonstrations in the Illawarra's history — the May 29 human sign on Austinmer beach that spelled out “Stop Coal Seam Gas”; and the October 16 Bridge Walk to stop CSG across the iconic Sea Cliff bridge.

They are two of the biggest political mobilisations of the Illawarra community ever. Monthly organising meetings attract 100+ people and an effective organising structure has emerged that includes working groups, suburban organisers and an elected leadership body. SCSGI has an amazing website and organising capacity. For example, between April and October, nearly 150,000 leaflets were letterboxed to local residents.

The inclusive approach of SCSGI has resulted in an incredibly broad and diverse leadership and active membership. Participants include environmental campaigners, socialists and Greens, right through the political spectrum to Labor and Liberal members and Alan Jones listeners. Also includes farmers, real estate agents, students, workers from a range of industries, retirees, managers, the list goes on!

In early November 2010, a couple of us attended a screening of the US film Gasland, with some friends in the Wollongong Climate Action Network (WCAN). After the powerfully moving film, there was some discussion including a report from Natasha Watson (from the Otford Protection Society, screening organisers) that CSG exploration had been approved in the local area. There was little discussion about a campaign locally but, especially given the 90 or so people in attendance, it was clearly necessary.

A couple of weeks later, we organised a discussion on CSG at our December branch meeting of SA; some WCAN members came along. After an educational discussion on the potential impacts of CSG and the local approvals, we resolved to discuss with WCAN the idea of launching an independent campaign group to stop CSG.

At WCAN's January 2011 meeting it was decided to do just that. Some seemingly unimportant debates at that meeting were important, e.g. the name of the new group (Stop CSG Illawarra versus No CSG Illawarra) and its political and organisational independence.

WCAN decided to launch the new group in early March from a well-built community screening of Gasland. Over 100 people turned up in Thirroul to watch the compelling film. It was announced the first organising meeting would take place the weekend after. From the Gasland screening people took leaflets to letterbox for the organising meeting.

That first meeting a week later was a huge success, attracting over 100 people, in part because:

  • It was well publicised with letterboxed leaflets, phone contacting, posters etc;
  • The issue of CSG and the local approvals were painstakingly researched and reported on;
  • It was well prepared including clearly explained proposals for action and immediate participation

After the name Stop CSG Illawarra had been ratified, the group clarified its political independence and discussed its demands. In order to reach as many people as possible and aim for the broadest campaign, we decided upon: An immediate moratorium on all CSG projects until the outcome of a Royal Commission, and a ban on hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”).

In addition to this we resolved to affiliate to the Lock The Gate Alliance, the national peak body campaigning against CSG. It was then decided to launch a mass information campaign in recognition that the first problem the community faced was a dire lack of information. Few people understood CSG let alone understood what was going on in the Illawarra. The meeting resolved to print 20,000 leaflets to distribute. It was agreed that an uninformed community is easy to deceive and manipulate, whereas an informed community could make educated decisions about whether or not it supported an industry such as CSG.

The lack of information and knowledge about CSG was the key factor in deciding the specific name and demands too. This first meeting also established democratic organising, including simple majority voting on all decisions, as the norm. It was also made clear that everyone in the room could play a role in the campaign.

From its launch, SCSGI developed a rounded and multi-pronged campaign. At its heart is a mass participation and mass, public action approach to pressure governments to implement the community's demands.

Around this basic strategy were a myriad of complimentary tactics: networking with community groups, liasing with trade unions and the Aboriginal community, lobbying politicians, developing a professional website, submissions to government inquiries, merchandising and fundraising etc etc. At any one time, SCSGI has up to 200 people actively involved in the work of the campaign, e.g. staffing a stall, doorknocking for petition signatures, researching an aspect of CSG, data entry, book keeping, exploring drilling sites, writing speeches, drafting media releases, the list goes on and on.

The high points of the campaign have included its monthly meetings as well as the 3000+ actions mentioned above, the July 1 fundraiser attended by over 300 people and the public meeting in August that debated the local CSG companies, attended by over 200 people.

Since March 2011 we've seen quite a bit of political change — inadequate but reflective of the growing campaign. Some of the changes have included the Coalition government's temporary (then extended) ban on new fracking projects, ban on evaporation ponds and BTEX chemicals in the drilling process; the Wollongong City Council resolution to urge state government to ban CSG in water catchments; the ALP's complete backflip to now support a moratorium on all CSG exploration projects in NSW; and most recently a review of the five-year royalty holiday for CSG production in NSW.

None of this would have happened in the absence of such a powerful community campaign. We've also seen the Greens' bill for a moratorium on new CSG projects and a CSG ban in the Sydney metro area. As the campaign grows, more and more people and organisations are getting behind it, from GetUp! to 2GB's Alan Jones.

Media coverage is now sustained with most commentary sympathetic to community concern. One exception to this was The Australian's October 10, 2011 article, "Locals warned over anti-CSG activists", which attempted to undermine the credibility of SCSGI. But due to the trust and mutual respect that's developed in the campaign, people responded by defending SCSGI and its leading members, and asserted the inclusiveness of the campaign.

The campaign has been a truly amazing experience for its participants. The value of the campaign goes well beyond the issue of CSG because of the networks consolidated, the relationships built, the daily collaboration experienced and the real community building that has happened. It's been a school for developing new skills, confidence and lessons for campaigners. This community is now more organised and connected to defend its health, water and environment in the future if the need arises.

Community Voice and uniting with other progressives

In late 2010, we were arguing that the progressive community in Wollongong should work closer together and consider running joint candidates in the NSW election, set for March 2011. For reasons that I won't go into here that didn't happen.

After we felt that discussion had gone as far as it was going to go, we decided to stand an SA candidate in the seat of Keira, support the progressive Independent Gordon Bradbery in Wollongong, and support the Greens in Shellharbour and Heathcote. A lot of the discussions we had helped lay the basis for launching a united, progressive ticket for the 2011 local council elections.

After discussions with various community activists, unionists, Greens and migrant community leaders, an attempt at a united ticket was launched in mid-June 2011. Community Voice, as it was named, inspired a large section of the radical community in Wollongong. One of its high points was a 100+ pre-selection meeting which openly debated and decided on candidates for the local wards.

We energetically threw ourselves into the campaign and worked hard to convince many others to join, despite loads of cynicism and “baggage” from historical disputes on the left.

SA members took on real responsibility in CV and argued strongly for democratic and participatory organising. Unfortunately, when democratic decisions didn't go their way, quite a few members withdrew from CV citing various reasons, from the bizarre to the insulting.

Also, the Greens and Independent Gordon Bradbery decided to withdraw from the process and run their own campaigns. They assessed, rightly or wrongly, that their electoral prospects were greater if they went it alone. Who knows how a united, community-backed, progressive team would have fared? I think it would have fared very well but that's another contribution.

Despite these departures Community Voice ran an inspiring campaign. The ticket influenced the public debate on a number of issues including youth unemployment, culture in the city, public transport, coal seam gas and much more. CV's campaign for ongoing community democracy pressured all candidates to highlight the need for the community to be involved in local politics beyond the election.

On election day, CV had over 120 polling booth staffers across the three local wards. CV's Lord Mayoral candidate Michael Organ won 4.3% of the primary vote, while CV's lead candidate in Ward 1 Jess Moore won 4.7% of the primary vote. Independent Gordon Bradbery won the mayoral race and three other candidates who had attended early CV meetings were elected: Independent Greg Petty and the Greens' Jill Merrin and George Takacs.

Prioritising to do things well

As a branch we decided to prioritise the above two campaigns to ensure we could make a meaningful contribution. In order to carry out this work properly we reduced our contribution to a number of other campaigns, including LGBTI rights, trade union solidarity and general climate action activity. We still maintained relationships with other groups, campaigns and activists — and helped out where we could — but not at the expense of the two priority campaigns. We honestly explained this to our friends and most understood and respected the decision. At times, we also had the capacity to initiative further campaigns. In solidarity with the democracy movement in Libya, our members helped organise actions in February and March. Later in the year our members initiated the re-launch of the Refugee Action Collective to campaign against the Malaysia “Solution”. The success of the two priority campaigns vindicates this approach in my opinion. It's better to do less things and do them properly, than it is to do too many things badly.

Campaigning with Green Left Weekly

Campaigning every week with Green Left Weekly helped maintain a balanced involvement in politics. We struggled to maintain local circulation of GLW, especially given the pressure of the campaigns we prioritised, and discussed the problem regularly. In 2012 we're planning to devote greater attention to this, in particular to building up the subscriber base of GLW. GLW has developed a lot of respect in the campaigns we've been involved in, providing regular news coverage and analysis of the issues. The pro-corporate bias in the mainstream media remains a great threat to campaigns for social and environmental justice. 2011 was an intense but incredibly rewarding year.