Why Marcia Langton is wrong on Adani

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Marcia Langton (image via

For all her powerful and peerless leadership of Aboriginal rights, Professor Marcia Langton has it wrong on Adani.

Her speech to the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) last week made headlines because she provocatively accused environmentalists of wanting to send Aboriginal Australians back to terra nullius. That’s simply wrong. But perhaps just as bad is the fact that, just as the #StopAdani campaign is gearing up, Ms Langton was shilling for Big Coal.

There was no sugar-coating it: environmentalists, she claimed, were “using Aboriginal people” in the campaign against Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine and some of these organisations were – gasp! – funded from abroad.

The first problem, then, is that no one in the country is richer or more international than Langton’s benefactor audience of incredibly wealthy multinational mining companies. MCA counts among its members Rio Tinto, BP and Mitsubishi.

Langton’s cause is justified: Aboriginal Australians deserve economic enfranchisement and prosperity. Mining is cashed up and can help Indigenous people earn a living. The Native Title Act’s provision of Indigenous Land Use Acts (ILUAs) gives Aboriginal Australians an influential seat at the table. A mining company can provide finance and other benefits if an Indigenous community signs an ILUA allowing its land to be mined.

The problem is that Langton’s argument boils down to mining, good, anything that stands in its way, bad. That’s why it falls apart when faced with Adani’s proposed coal mine in the Galilee Basin, slap-bang in the middle of which is Wangan and Jagalingou country.

Adani’s proposed mine has become the Coalition’s cargo cult and its free-marketeer ministers have happily ditched their principles to promote it, fund it and change laws (including the Native Title Act) to try and force it to happen. (Apparently, the Liberals’ core beliefs of "small government" and "private sector initiative" no longer apply.)

Langton could have made the distinction between coal and less contentious mining projects but did not. She could have acknowledged that what could be country’s biggest coal mine in paradisiacal Queensland is a unique circumstance. She did not. Instead, she said opposing it was to deny Aboriginal people their livelihoods.

A further problem is the Aboriginal people fighting the mine: the Wangan and Jagalingou People. For Langton’s un-nuanced stance to be right, this mob must be wrong. And Langton made no bones about taking them to task.

She referred, dismissively, to the Wangan and Jagalingou people as a “small group”. The implication being that the fewer there are of you, the more irrelevant. She described them as being led “by a man who calls himself Adrian Birrigubba [sic]. The curious phraseology by the woman who calls herself Marcia Langton implies that Mr Burragubba, whose surname she also misspelt, is somehow not who he says he is and is therefore illegitimate.

For this treatment to come from a non-Aboriginal person would be suspect, but for it to come from a fellow Indigenous Australian is surely unforgivable.

Let’s not overlook the fact that it’s not just Mr Burragubba opposing the mine on behalf of his people, but also Murrawah Johnson and Irene White, among others. The Noongar people are also in a similar position in WA.

But she didn’t stop there. She implied that the Wangan and Jagalingou people didn’t really oppose Adani’s mine and didn’t really mean that it would “would tear the heart out of the land”. By wrongly suggesting that environmentalists are “using Aboriginal people”, she implied that Wangan and Jagalingou people are simply unwitting patsies being exploited by forces they can’t understand. Could she be more patronising? 

Talking to The Guardian, leading Indigenous barrister, Tony McAvoy SC, dismissed Langton’s attack, saying that to suggest that “the greens are puppet masters pulling the strings and we’re somehow puppets” was wrong and disrespectful to the many families opposing the mine, including his.

Langton’s blanket argument seeks to hide a diversity of views, which should not be stifled. Looking overseas, at the Sioux opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, the Archu struggling against oil drilling in the Amazon and the Pacific Islanders struggling to survive rising sea-levels, it is wrong to dismiss and delegitimise Indigenous people who call out environmental destruction. I wonder what they’d say to Langton’s "jobs-at-all-costs" mantra.

I know what I’d say: it hasn’t really worked. Since the 1945 free-market experiment began, we’ve achieved massive leaps but at an untenable cost: soaring inequality, flat wages and climate change — the market’s biggest-ever failure.

Oxfam’s recent 'More Coal Equals More Poverty' report also flies in the face of Langton’s Big Mining PR. It makes clear why coal isn’t a poverty panacea, saying, for example:

'Beyond fuelling dangerous climate change and deadly air pollution, the coal industry has also forced communities from their homes, depleted scarce water resources, and violated the rights of Indigenous peoples across the world.'

Perhaps Langton’s most stinging accusation was that the

“Green Party [sic] and extremists in the environmental industry [are] hijacking our most serious concerns, and in their own way, trying to return [Indigenous Australians] to the pre-1992 era of terra nullius." 

Pretty much all environmentalists believe in stronger rights for Aboriginal Australians, as well as halting this country’s widespread destruction of ecosystems. These two things aren’t and shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

When I worked for the Tasmanian Greens, Indigenous rights were front and centre: protecting takanya/the Tarkine and its world-class Indigenous heritage and campaigning for a Tasmanian Aboriginal treaty. In addition, it was the Tassie Greens who introduced the country’s first dual English-Indigenous naming convention.

Every environmentalist worth their salt knows the challenge is to secure a decent standard of living for everyone without compromising the very systems we depend on for our clean air, water, food and jobs. (If this is the Anthropocene, that looks to be exactly what we are doing.)

This is what the fight against #Adani is all about. It’s not just that we know coal needs to stay buried. It’s also that we don’t have a choice. And let’s not forget, Adani’s coal mine wouldn’t just be the equivalent of a climate bomb, spewing 200 million tonnes of CO2 in its lifetime but would also emit soot, mercury, nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, lead and arsenic, among other nasties. That’s what happens when you burn coal.

Strangely, Langton didn’t mention CO2, climate change, the Great Barrier Reef, or renewables and the jobs and opportunities they could also provide, just without the pollution.

Instead, she dialled up the rhetoric to attack environmentalists, calling them anarchists, the alienated, uninformed, extremists, dangerous and deceptive. Her thrust was that naughty environmentalists are cleverly exploiting Indigenous people using “sophisticated manoeuvres” and “flimsy evidence” to conduct “lawfare”. Talking of flimsy evidence, Ms Langton couldn’t provide a single example of these subversive activities. And you thought academics liked evidence?

Blaming everyone’s favourite whipping boy, the media, Ms Langton also castigated the stupid and lazy public, and their politicians. That simply leaves her and her humble billionaire Big Mining benefactors who, please, don’t want to ship their profits offshore, they just want Indigenous Australians to get ahead. Honest. It doesn’t matter that the Turnbull Government is chucking a billion dollars Adani’s way for just 1,400 carbon-intensive jobs. In Langton’s book, that’s all good.

Aboriginal Australians deserve prosperity arguably more than anyone in our country. But that can and must come without coal. Whatever our identity, coal is good for none of us. If she acknowledges that, instead of shilling for the Dark Side, Langton can stand with Wangan and Jagalingou people, and the Jedis who stand with them against Big Coal and, who knows, some of the more enlightened mining companies might even join her. 

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