Coal industry tightens embrace with Coalition as ex minister becomes MCA chair

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The links between the Coalition and the coal lobby grow ever tighter, as new Minerals Council chair Helen Coonan seeks to fast-track new coal mine approvals.

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(AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)
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The revolving door between conservative politics and the fossil fuel lobby has sat uncomfortably for many working in the energy space.

It has however been reinforced once more, with former Liberal Minister Helen Coonan being appointed as chair of the Minerals Council of Australia, which has led the efforts of Australia’s coal lobby, running pro-coal campaigns both inside and outside of Parliament.

The influence of the Minerals Council on Federal politicians is so strong, that LNP Senator Ian Macdonald wore a pro-coal branded high-vis jacket gifted in the senate chamber, gifted to him by the Minerals Council.

The Minerals Council also orchestrated the now infamous stunt by Scott Morrison, where the now Prime Minister brandished a lump of coal in during Question Time.

Former CEO of the Minerals Council, John Kunkel, has been subsequently elevated to the position of Scott Morrison’s chief of staff and continues to serve in that role. Other staff have jumped from the MCA to key advisory roles with former PM Malcom Turnbull and ex environment minister Greg Hunt, and back again.

Coonan served as minister for communications, and as assistant treasurer under the Howard Government. Since retiring from politics, Coonan has served as a presenter on Sky News and as a director for Crown Resorts and Snowy Hydro Limited.

There has been a veritable revolving door between the largest industry and resources lobby groups and the Coalition ranks. As Coonan heads to the Minerals Council, the former executive director for members at the Business Council of Australia, Andrew Bragg, heads to parliament by virtue of winning a senate spot for the Liberals in NSW at the recent Federal election.

Coonan will also join former Howard cabinet colleague Ian Macfarlane amongst the ranks of Australia’s coal lobby, who currently serves as chief executive of the Queensland Resources Council. Ex Labor energy minister Martin Ferguson has a key role with gas and oil lobby APPEA.

In a statement following her appointment, Coonan called for an expedited approval process for new projects, with the Minerals Council likely to push to maintain the momentum following the accelerated approval process secured in the last week for Adani’s Carmichael coal mine.

“If Australia is to stay in front of its global competitors in an increasingly competitive world, we must continue to push for faster project approvals, greater sustainability and reforms in a whole range of policy areas.” Coonan said.

“I am excited about taking on this challenge and leading a high-calibre board and a great organisation to advance the industry and benefit all Australians,”

The strength of the Minerals Council’s pro-coal position has attracted criticism from its own members.

Previous CEO of the Minerals Council, Brendan Pearson, was pushed out of the position following pressure from mining giant BHP. Pearson had largely been responsible for the Minerals Council’s strong focus on leading pro-coal lobbying efforts, which earnt the ire of council members, who view the future of their industry in resources other than coal.

Australia’s two largest resources companies, BHP and Rio Tinto, have proactively restructured their businesses to reduce their exposure to the thermal coal market. Rio Tinto has sold off all of its thermal coal assets, and BHP recently issued a strategic plan that sees the best opportunities for the business laying with minerals used to supply the growing market for batteries.

They had faced shareholder pressure to review their membership of the Minerals council, along with the financial contributions the companies make to funding the Minerals Council’s activities. Following a concerted campaign by shareholder activist groups, pressure was placed on Pearson to step down, and for the council to take a more holistic view of its lobbying campaigns.

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