Santos changes tack: rugby charm offensive replaces lobbying efforts

Feb 21, 2021

The issue of gas extraction in the Pilliga, in north-west NSW, has caused conflict. Early this month, mining company Santos tried to win hearts and minds in the town of Narrabri by sponsoring a rugby carnival. This charm offensive was a change in tack from lobbying governments and enlisting police and courts against protestors.

Ever since the days of the ‘paint them black and send them back’ Springboks boycotts against apartheid half a century ago, it has been clear that elite sport can never be separated from politics. The resignation of the Collingwood boss following his failure to understand the offence he caused over racial bigotry shone a light on the ongoing problem.

Players in a range of sports who recognise their privileged positions will continue to protest at the killings of black people by authorities. In Australia for the cosseted tennis open, Naomi Osaka, adorning her Covid masks with the names of American victims, is the latest in a long line of players showing their humanity.

Back in 2014, rugby international and Waratahs captain David Pocock courageously took direct action to prevent coal mining. This was a conscientious decision based on the knowledge that commitment to the environment has to be personal and not just theoretical. The reaction of the rugby authorities was predictable enough. They censured Pocock and gagged him.

At the time, it was difficult to know whether rugby administrators were taking a principled stance based on possible damage to the game’s reputation. The media, alert to the fact that a celebrity such as Pocock was risking life, limb, career and reputation, aggravated the situation. Unlikely as they were to say it, conflict involving a public figure is more newsworthy than a local man joining other locals in a local campaign. The protest gained a national and international profile.

The alternative explanation for the administrators’ stance is that Pocock stepped on some powerful toes. We are accustomed to parliamentarians having to declare their pecuniary interests and possibly excluding themselves from decisions that might bring them financial profit. We do not have the same expectations of people who make decisions about sports, but perhaps we should. The censure of Pocock might have been based on administrators’ direct or indirect shareholdings. Interests in mining and energy corporations and their subsidiaries permeate society. Perhaps some board members excluded themselves at the time to avoid any perception of conflict of interest.

More recently, free speech advocates suggested that another rugby player, Israel Folau, was hard done by when he used social media to condemn gay lifestyles. Perhaps these commentators were just getting themselves organised in 2014 when Pocock was reprimanded because his treatment did not create the same storm.

Narrabri is located between the Pilliga and the Liverpool Plains. Presumably, the miner’s sponsorship of rugby there is meant to demonstrate that funds will flow back to and benefit the local community. It is, however, unlikely to make much impression on groups such as the ‘Knitting Nannas’, who have taken a stance on principle and who have heard and rejected all the arguments about economic benefits. Their concerns are about the great environmental destruction likely to occur in the Pilliga. Nor will a rugby carnival do much to assuage the objections of farmers in the Liverpool Basin, who fear contimination of the underground water.

The Battle of Narrabri may well decide our climate future

In short, a rugby carnival might be good public relations but is more likely to exacerbate than heal local divisions. ‘Shut the Gate’ campaigners are determined to be heard.

David Pocock is clearly a person of good conscience who thinks about the ethics of his decisions. While the Coalition government procrastinated over the issue of marriage equality, Pocock and his partner decided to delay their wedding until all their friends could enjoy the same privilege. He is also advocating regenerative farming.

Gas extraction, indeed mining in general, could never generate enough income to bridge the gap between mercenary gasbaggery and the respect that principled behaviour deserves. Gas is after all just another fossil fuel and, like coal and petroleum, is non-renewable. The Pilliga and the water in the Liverpool Plains should not be traded off for this temporary fuel. Rugby should associate itself with the likes of David Pocock rather than with wealthy corporations whose activities threaten the environment.

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