Inside Market Forces, the small climate group Scott Morrison wants to put out of business

From humble beginnings, Market Forces is now in the crosshairs of the Coalition’s war on environmental boycotts

When Market Forces, a small climate activist group, was singled out as the target of the government’s push to stop environmental campaigns that advocate boycotts of fossil-fuel companies, its leader was briefly taken aback but not disappointed.

“You know you’re doing something right when the Morrison government tries to bring you down,” Julien Vincent, the group’s executive director and founder, says from its base in Melbourne. “It’s unpleasant, but it’s only happening because we are getting results.”

From Vincent’s perspective, those results include the Commonwealth Bank and insurers QBE, Suncorp and IAG pledging they would soon no longer work with or underwrite developments that use thermal coal, and the group’s part in the campaign that frustrated attempts by Indian company Adani to find investors for its proposed Carmichael coalmine.

In terms of winning the government’s attention, it is likely the results also included a recent profile in the Australian Financial Review, the newspaper of the business community. Under the headline “How activists pushed CBA out of coal in five years”, it talked up Market Forces’s successes and methods, including a deal-making meeting with the bank’s chairwoman, Catherine Livingstone.

Coincidentally or not, the attorney general, Christian Porter, last week nominated Market Forces as a poster child “radical activist group” trying to impose its will on companies through coordinated harassment and threats of boycotts. Porter said it was “simply not OK” that mining and resources businesses were being targeted on ideological grounds by activists that wished them financial harm.

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It followed Scott Morrison telling the Queensland Resources Council that activists who campaigned for secondary boycotts against miners and small businesses that work with resources companies potentially posed a “more insidious threat” to jobs and the economy than street protests.

How the government plans to deal with this remains unclear. Porter suggested the response would be urgent and broad, possibly including regulatory action aimed at investors who fund class actions. But in an interview with the ABC on Sunday, Matthew Canavan, the resources minister, suggested any change would be narrow, restricted to adjusting an existing competition law that outlaws secondary boycotts but exempts activities related to environmental and consumer protection.

Canavan said there was a case for an environmental exemption, the question was whether it should be better defined. “All we are saying is ‘what are the appropriate exemptions to that law?’,” he said.

With the details in the wind, Morrison’s push has led to some confusion among Coalition MPs about what is proposed and how it will avoid impinging on freedom of expression, though none spoke publicly. The Business Council of Australia has backed the prime minister; legal academics have warned changes to reduce the influence of environmental campaigns could breach the constitution.

Environmental and civil liberty groups noted the apparent hypocrisy in the government floating a secondary boycott ban given Canavan had urged his constituents to stop doing business with Westpac after it ruled out financing the Adani mine. On Sunday, Canavan said there was no hypocrisy – that the government was focused on actions targeting businesses in regional centres such as Mackay that supplied goods and services to mines. He said it was not interested in stopping campaigns against banks, which has been where Market Forces has done much of its work.

As the Guardian revealed, global funds management giant Aberdeen Standard Investments, which controls assets worth more than £550bn, is among those that does not see a problem that needs addressing. It backed the role that groups such as Market Forces play. Bank bosses told a parliamentary inquiry they did not feel bullied by environment groups. In the case of the Commonwealth Bank, it believed engaging with activists had been to the institution’s benefit, helping to shape its thinking on environmental and social issues.

All are considering the risk the climate crisis poses to financial security. While the Morrison government says little about climate risk, the country’s major financial institutions, including the Reserve Bank, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, have identified it as a clear and present threat.

Scott Morrison speaks at the Queensland Resources Council annual lunch
Scott Morrison called environmental boycotts an ‘insidious threat’ at a recent Queensland Resources Council event. Photograph: Darren England/AAP

Market Forces sees itself in the same corner as those heavyweight bodies. Initially a one-man operation, it formed in 2013 as an offshoot of environment group Friends of the Earth.

Having worked on a campaign at Greenpeace that helped stop the financing of a small brown coal plant in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, Vincent saw potential in giving customers of banks, superannuation funds and other financial service providers information about how their money was being used. His message was not unique, but proved well-targeted: speak up about your concerns and, if you are not satisfied, take your money elsewhere.

Adopting a mantra usually associated with groups from the right as a name was half-joke, half-serious point. As Vincent sees it, the role his organisation plays is a clearer expression of the free market at work than a government considering intervening to keep coal plants open longer. “The whole point of using the term Market Forces is recasting it and to say to people ‘you be the market force’,” the 38-year-old says.

The group now employs 18 people, mostly at its Elizabeth Street headquarters in the Melbourne CBD but also in Sydney, Brisbane and, more recently, south-east Asia, where it sees a chance to build a foothold in markets still investing in coal-fired power.

Friends of the Earth sits at the anti-capitalist end of the organised environment movement, but Vincent says Market Forces does not aim “to bring down capitalism or anything like that”. He says it is trying to combat what he believes are destructive and corrosive elements of capitalism.

“I think taking some of the power and decision-making and influence away from companies, governments and institutions and putting it back in the hands of individuals whose capital is the reason banks can invest in the first place is tackling the inequity at the heart of the system,” he says.

He claims it is having an impact. Nearly 90,000 people have this year visited a Market Forces webpage that compares different banks’ exposure to fossil fuels and encourages people to make an informed decision about where their money goes. “We can confidently say that it’s in the tens of thousands of people who have moved their accounts, but we long ago lost the ability to track that,” he says.

Police horses in a crowd of protesters
Police and protesters clash outside the international mining and resources conference in Melbourne. Photograph: James Ross/EPA

The immediate backdrop to Morrison’s promised crackdown on environmental campaigns was the violent clash between police and protesters at an international mining and resources conference in Melbourne. Asked whether blockading a general interest mining conference risked damaging the movement’s anti-fossil fuel message and turning away potential supporters, Vincent is not critical of the protesters and says “we need Extinction Rebellion”. But he adds: “It’s essential that we are clear and focused on what the message is with any protest or campaign activity. The problem in this instance comes from coal, which needs to go.”

He says it is too soon to say how the group will respond to the government, but emphasises that it is sometimes lost in political discussion that environment campaigns work only if they have public support.

There is evidence that support for increased action to combat global heating may be strengthening, though the issue remains politically and culturally divisive. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in climate strikes in September and a recent Lowy Institute poll that found 64% of Australians rank climate change as the number one threat to the country’s national interest.

Some support for change comes from within companies targeted by campaigners. Vincent points to the case of engineering firm GHD, where the ABC has reported there has been dissent from staff over the company’s work with Adani. He believes part of Market Forces’ role is to “give licence for that internal conversation”.

“Ultimately, if we’re running campaigns that are not fair that will become obvious and they will fail,” Vincent says. “What we’ve often found is, when you give quiet Australians a voice, they tend to speak out against projects like the Adani mine.”


Adam Morton Environment editor

The GuardianTramp

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