The appointment of former deputy prime minister and current coal firm chief Mark Vaile as Newcastle University’s next chancellor has been met with a predictable controversy.
Some high-profile philanthropists said they would no longer donate to the institution, placing a full-page ad in The Newcastle Herald today saying they “would not support a university who would choose as their leader someone who is determined to build new coalmines when most of the world is determined to reduce fossil fuel use”.
Perhaps anticipating this, Vaile has pointed to another group he chairs: Palisade Investment Partners, an organisation that he said has “$1 billion of assets under management in wind and solar energy technologies”. Palisade is also one of 457 investors who put their names to a statement to governments on the climate crisis only last week.
That statement calls on governments to, among other things, “Commit to a domestic mid-century, net-zero emissions target and outline a pathway with ambitious interim targets including clear decarbonisation roadmaps for each carbon-intensive sector”, to remove fossil fuel subsidies, to “phase out … thermal coal-based electricity generation by set deadlines in line with credible 1.5-degrees Celsius temperature pathways”, and commit to “the avoidance of new carbon-intensive infrastructure (e.g. no new coal power plants)”.
Vaile clearly tries to walk both sides of the street on this issue — but just how long does he spend on either side?
Back in 2007, as he approached what would turn out to be his last election, Vaile said there was still doubt as to whether climate change was occurring.
Vaile became chairman of Whitehaven Coal in 2012 — which in the early part of the last decade had something of a rocky time, as Indigenous groups, conservationists and Vaile’s former constituents — farmers — opposed various projects, and demand for coal winds down. It rebounded strongly between 2016 and 2018, posting the biggest profit in its history in August 2018, but this didn’t stop Vaile offloading a quarter of his stake in the company.
In 2020, with Japan announcing it would cut coal imports by a third by 2030, Vaile took the remarkable step of more or less asking that the government force banks to lend money to coalminers, telling The Australian Financial Review: “There is a taxpayer guarantee underpinning the activity of those banks and that was highlighted during the GFC. There ought to be an unwritten, but semi-moral obligation by the major banks in Australia to support those major Australian industries.”
Certainly Whitehaven has shown no great rush to phase out its coalmining — as Myriam Robin pointed out in Rear Window this morning, just last month, it successfully fought an injunction brought against the expansion of its Vickery coalmine by a group of teenagers during the Sharma v the Minister for Environment case.
While the youth group failed to obtain an injunction against the approval in advance, the government was forced to concede that climate change is real, will be catastrophic for Australia, and is caused by gas and coal, and the court ruled that the government owed them a duty of care.
Notwithstanding the Palisades rhetoric, a great deal of Vaile’s post-politics activity would appear to be in the opposite direction.