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Adani's civil action drags it deeper into a battle where nobody wins

Business

Even if Adani wins its civil action against one of its most vocal critics, the controversial miner will lose in the court of public opinion, writes John McCarthy

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Adani has now set a benchmark for the interaction between activists and companies. It’s not a good one.

But at least their attempts to use the courts to search the home of Galilee Blockade leader and activist Ben Pennings answers one question. The win-at-all-costs strategy brought to the company by Lucas Dow – who famously took on the State Government in a public shaming campaign and won – is going to be continued by his successor David Boshoff.

Adani had made previous unsuccessful applications to the Supreme Court to search Pennings’ property for evidence to which a judge responded: “Surely, to permit a search of a defendant’s house, with the humiliation and family distress which that might involve, lies at the outer boundary of the discretion.”

Dead right. This is a brutal strategy in what has been a cascading series of controversies.

Adani is now using the civil courts seeking damages from Pennings for the alleged orchestration of protests that have cost the company money and reputation, but it is also a zero-sum game. No one will win.

If Adani has any victory in the courts it will prove little and it won’t stop Pennings. If anything it will be probably be worn as a badge of honour. It will make victims of the movement and fire up the support base and further add to Adani’s problem of always being portrayed as an outsider, an interloper.

Adani bankrupted another activist, Adrian Burragubba, after he pursued the company over native title. He lost and could never afford the court costs. Right now, Burragubba is up at the mine site trying to organise a blockade. It hasn’t stopped him one bit. In fact, it has probably made him angrier.

So what did Adani achieve through its action? It showed that it won’t back down and it will pursue its legal rights and if anyone wants to take it on then there will be repercussions. It also has to draw a line in the sand as it gets closer to “first coal” or it will turn into a shambles.

But its legal rights matter little to people who believe this is an existential crisis.

The activists aren’t innocent victims here. They have ruthlessly used the court system against Adani for years, so this is just their tactic being thrown back at them.

However, it’s a sad day for Queensland that it has come to this – that protesters are hit with damages action by a multinational mining company worth billions of dollars for pursuing their cause. It will be depicted as Adani trying to silence free speech, even if that isn’t its intention.

Neither side are blameless in this dispute. At times the activists have probably gone too far but so too has Adani, a company that sometimes acts with a siege mentality.

There is also seething anger in Adani’s executive ranks about the tactics used by activists and by the media reporting of it.

There may be a cause for complaint in some circumstances but it, too, has used the media for its own advantage.

Ultimately, this is the fault of a mining approval system that hasn’t been able to adapt to a new era of environmental campaigning.

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