The Minerals Council of Australia has just published a report it commissioned from Sinclair Davidson of the Institute of Public Affairs, responding to campaigns to encourage divestment from coal. What’s most interesting is the suggestion that Corporations Act and the anti-boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act could be employed to silence critics of the coal industry. The relevant section, from the conclusion
Finally, the campaign may contravene the letter or the spirit of the Corporations Act. While activists argue that wealth portfolios without fossil fuel stocks perform just as well as those with fossil fuel stocks, the reality is that failing to hold a well-diversified portfolio has substantial economic costs in the form of higher risk and lower returns. So if investors make valuation errors based on the divestment campaign and relinquish high-performing stocks, a breach of the Corporations Act may have occurred.
There is a potential role for the Australian Securities and Investment Commission to examine whether the stigmatisation of the fossil fuel sector via the divestment campaign is a breach of the [Corporations Act].
The divestment campaign would amount to an unlawful secondary boycott if environmental activists were covered by those [anti-boycott] laws. They are seeking to restrict coal mining in Australia by targeting a critical supplier to the sector.
There are quite a few points of interest here. The most obvious is the threat to freedom of speech, something that ought to be of interest to Freedom Commissioner Tim Wilson, formerly of the IPA. In this context, it’s worth noting that campaigners against wind farms (notably including the IPA) would be potentially subject to the same kinds of penalties.
More generally, there’s the question of the anti-boycott provisions and the Trade Practices ACT in general. These provisions involve fairly substantial infringements on freedom, primarily for the benefit of business. The law originally focused mainly on protecting small businesses against a variety of anti-competitive practices of big firms. That sounds good, but there’s an equally good case to be made that the market should be left to sort itself out in such matters, or replaced by public provision when it can’t. The extension of Trade Practices Law to cover unions (under the Fraser government’s Section 45D) and public services (under National Competition Policy) makes the Trade Practices Act one of the central legal instruments for the imposition of market liberalism.
Note: Again, no personal attacks, please. There’s more than enough to criticise in the substance of this piece.