For the first time, the University of Wollongong has been forced to cancel a major conference of mining magnates and coal companies due to the threat of a blockade by activists. The Illawarra Climate Justice Alliance was promoting protests and pickets of the COAL2020 conference when the conference organisers announced the event would be indefinitely postponed.
The Coal Operators Conference was originally slated to run this year from 12-14 February under the name COAL2020. For 19 years, it has been organised annually by the University of Wollongong. It gathers together authorities on coal extraction and production from across Australia and around the world. Until now, these enemies of the planet had gathered without any disruption each year to peacefully discuss the best ways to find, dig, package, sell, ship, and burn coal for profit.
Wollongong is a coal town. Coal mining and the steel industry are long standing staples of the city’s economy, and are an important part of the way the city thinks of itself. From most vantage points you can see the steam of the steelworks, or the escarpment where the Dendrobium coal mine sits.
If the conference had gone ahead this year, these discussions would have taken place on the backdrop of a coast ravaged by fires caused by climate change. Amidst an ecological crisis of infernos and droughts, three million litres of water a day are drained from the Greater Sydney water catchment by the Dendrobium mine – water that could be better used to prevent regional towns from dying of thirst. More than sixty fires still rage across eastern Australia, scorching more than ten million hectares to date. Shutting it down was the only option for those who care about a just future.
But the conference was not shut down by pandering to the coal industry bosses or talking about the important role that coal will play in the future of Australia's economy, as both ALP opposition leader Anthony Albanese and local lord mayor Gordon Bradbury have done. Instead, it was shut down by a campaign group, the Illawarra Climate Justice Alliance, which proudly and openly declares its opposition to the existence of the coal industry as a whole. At a recent press conference organised by the group, they summed it up with a placard reading “ban coal mining”.
The University of Wollongong pulled the plug on the conference after extensive meetings with the local police force. Management asked the police if they thought the conference would be able to go ahead without disruption or arrest. The police answered in the negative. And so, the University of Wollongong announced that, “while this conference provides a valuable forum for sharing best practice and innovation in safety and environmental performance for the mining sector, the University has considered the immediate needs of its communities at this time and adjusted its priorities accordingly.” The conference was killed.
Over the past year, the climate movement in Wollongong has grown dramatically. Street demonstrations of thousands of people have repeatedly refused police orders, marching on the road and occupying intersections.
At the climate strike held on 20 September 2019, police used riot squads from Sydney to block off the intersection that protesters had planned to occupy. In response, protesters rushed the next intersection on the route and occupied it before police could reach it. At all subsequent protests, intersections across the city have been occupied and disrupted despite police repeatedly telling organisers that they would not allow occupations. For years previously, police had prevented most protests from marching on the road. Now they have been forced to accept a new norm: mass protests which do not listen to their orders.
After Melbourne’s climate activists drew national attention by blockading the long-running IMARC mining conference in that city, a similar action in Wollongong was an obvious next step for the climate campaign here. It was the threat of this kind of demonstration that prompted the cancellation of the conference. Unlike lobbying politicians or writing letters to corporations, disruptive mass action puts fear into the hearts of the rich and powerful.
Despite the historic importance of coal mining and steel production in the Illawarra, over two thousand activists gathered in Wollongong on January 10 to vent their anger at government inaction during this climate crisis. People are angry and want things to change.
The nature of these street protests, combined with our proven willingness to protest in Wollongong despite police intimidation, showed the organisers of COAL2020 that there can be no confidence in controlling an angry mass of people determined to inflict disruptions on their conference. This win should give confidence to all climate activists when they are thinking about defying the authorities to go ahead with confrontational protests.
Although the conference is cancelled for now, the University of Wollongong has stated that they will “continue supporting [coal] industry innovation via other means.” The Australian government and the ruling elite have no interest in abandoning or challenging the coal mining sector, but the shutting down of COAL2020 has proven that activists taking to the street can force their hands.
Dylon Tomasi is a member of Socialist Alternative and organises activism with the Illawarra Climate Justice Alliance.