Fish Out of Water
| Belinda Baggs
Sipping a lukewarm raspberry tea, my gaze is firmly fixed on the empty paddocks and endless grassland, rain beating down on the windscreen as we drive north on the gunbarrel-straight Hume Highway. After leaving the coast we’ve been driving for six hours, my left butt cheek is slightly numb and I’m battling heavy eyelids but I can’t fail as a co-pilot. I fire a series of annoying questions to Sean, who’s driving. “What’s the difference between the House of Representatives and the Senate?” It’s a session of Politics 101. For the first time we’re headed to Canberra.
I’m joining a delegation of coastal campaigners led by the Surfrider Foundation and Patagonia grantee Save Our Coast, headed to the nation’s capital to send a strong message to the Australian parliament that we oppose the PEP 11 offshore gas field. Two hours from the coast we’re fish out of water in Canberra, but this battle has reached a critical point.
Head of brand engagement at Patagonia Australia and New Zealand, and Surfrider Foundation Australia Chair, Sean Doherty addresses the press conference from Parliament lawn, Canberra. All Photos: Ben Cook.
The PEP 11 title holder, Advent Energy is awaiting approvals to drill for gas off the coast of Lake Macquarie. This could happen as early as next year. If they found gas and went into production, it would be the first gas field on the Australian east coast. Before any of this can happen however, the PEP 11 permit has to be extended for another five years, and this is what we’re In Canberra to prevent. This is our chance to stop PEP 11 for good and save the coast between Sydney and my hometown of Newcastle.
To date, there have been thousands of emails and calls from surfers and beach lovers to their local Federal MPs, who we were in Canberra to meet with. Encouragingly, almost all the MPs who have electorates facing the 4500 square kilometres of PEP 11 have now come out publicly against it. They can see that fossil fuel projects like this threaten marine life, local economy, community lifestyle and our climate.
The crew (left to right) Jas Corstorphan, Belinda Baggs, Sean Doherty, Adrian Buchan, Damien Cole, Brendan Donohoe, Laura Wells, Lauren Bos, Scott McLelland, Rowena Hanley.
In Canberra, we were up at dawn for a paddle out in Lake Burley Griffin. Over 150km from the nearest wave, a dozen committed surfers including Adrian Buchan and Drew McPherson wax up their boards and dive into the brown waters of the lake. With Parliament House in the background, the group begin chanting “PEP off!” as the strong winds start blowing them toward the far end of the lake. As we got out of the water in wetsuits and carrying surfboards we get a few sideways glances from joggers and suits on their way to work. They don’t get many surfers in these parts.
We dashed back to the hotel to change out of our wetsuits and rinse off before racing to Parliament House for a 9am press conference on the lawn. The interesting aspect of the PEP 11 issue is that it’s gathering support from across the political divide, which in a country like Australia where fossil fuel development and climate action remain so polarising is a rare occurrence. Local MPs from electorates stood alongside our community reps to address the press and state their opposition to PEP 11. “There are simply no grounds for the Federal government to entertain a project that’s toxic for local communities and the environment,” said Independent MP for Warringah, Zali Steggall. Speaking on behalf of Save Our Coast, Newcastle local Drew McPherson asked, "Why would we risk one of our greatest assets, a place of gathering for people every single day, for short sighted industrialisation and financial profit?”
Patagonia surf ambassador and Surfers for Climate co-founder Belinda Baggs addresses the crowd.
After the press conference we walked up to Parliament House for a series of meetings with MPs and Senators to discuss the issue in more depth. But first was breakfast in the Parliament cafeteria. I imagined the country’s leaders would be provided with a sumptuous array of options but was soon chewing a stale airport-quality croissant washed down with a burnt cappuccino. Oh well.
From there we had a guided tour of the halls of Parliament courtesy of Senator Peter Whish-Wilson – Senator Surfer – and I was feeling a bit like a seventh-grader on a school excursion. The serious stuff came next though as we dashed from meeting to meeting with several MPs to discuss PEP 11 and explain to them with passion the deep connection our communities have to our beaches. We talked about how important the coastline between Newcastle and Sydney is not just for the local economy but for the legacy of beach culture, mental health and all marine life. The MPs pledged their support, agreeing this coastline is more important to the people who call it home than it is to a gas company. The decision on renewing the PEP 11 permit however lies with Resources Minister, Keith Pitt. As our group passed his office, we cheekily dropped off a book of 70,000 signatures against PEP 11 collected by Save Our Coast.
Senator Whish-Wilson (AKA @senatorsurfer) joined the delegation.
It was democracy in action. That afternoon, while we were there, Senator Whish-Wilson tabled a motion in the Senate to scrap the PEP 11 permit. While the feeling on the coast is firmly against PEP 11, the Senate voted down the motion. The battle to stop PEP 11 remains an uphill one, but if surfers are committed enough to leave the coast and travel to Canberra to fight for it, they’re not giving up anytime soon.
Banner image – the group paddled out on Lake Burley Griffin, with their replica fossil fuel rig, first thing.