350.org: How we got Australia’s biggest city to divest

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By Carrie Tsai from 350.org Sydney

Huge news has transpired as Sydney Council has voted at the historic last Council meeting for this term to introduce divestment! Lord Mayor Clover Moore has committed to enacting the changes that 350.org has been fighting for, and will do so at the first meeting in late October 2016 after the elections, which she handedly won in September 2016. This divestment win is the direct result of steady pressure at the internal level with meetings with key stakeholders, research to prepare informational documents and sample motion, along with repeated show of orange people power at Council meetings, to a petition signed by over 1000 people, to a convincing letter campaign that flooded Clover Moore’s inbox with support of divestment. It has been quite the adventure that has spanned for almost two years and recently ramped up in the last 3 months.

The 350 Sydney divestment team is keeping up the pressure and supplying the CEO and councillors all of the information that they will need to successfully pass a motion to change their investment policy to include our divestment asks.

As of October 2016, a total of 27 Australian councils have divested over 6 trillion dollars. We hope that with this iconic city finally taking the step, other councils will be encouraged to do the same.

Here is a brief summary of the roller coaster ride that the FFC team embarked on to get to this point:

Over 2 years ago, Blair Palese and Charlie Wood of 350.org had met with key people in Sydney Council regarding this issue, and even had Bill McKibben give his two cents’ on divestment to Lord Mayor and others. The response was always the same—that they don’t directly invest in the fossil fuel industry and that they are already doing better with their sustainable investments than other councils. Since then we had continued to meet with key people including Clover’s policy advisor, Labor councillor Linda Scott who has always been supportive of divestment, and others.

Things remained stagnant for a while as Sydney Council would not budge, until the FFC team embarked on productive conversations with the late Deputy Lord Mayor Robyn Kemmis. She took into consideration the information and arguments that we presented and agreed to bring it up for discussion with Clover and the team. Things were looking very positive at this point in December 2015, but unfortunately she passed away tragically over the Christmas holiday. We were all saddened as she was a dedicated member of the Clover team, contributing greatly to Sustainable Sydney 2030.

With renewed energy to push forward in the new year, our FFC team began meeting with Greens councillor, Irene Doutney, who has always been supportive of divestment, having once brought forth a motion that was not carried (in fact only one other councillor, Linda Scott, voted in favour). She was keen to put up a divestment motion as soon as possible during this term, stressing that the results of the upcoming elections may mean a more conservative Liberal dominated council might never pass such a motion. Remember, by some obvious power grab to undermine the Clover team, businesses will have 2 votes, residents 1 in the upcoming elections. In response to her request, we prepared a comprehensive information dossier including an analysis of the current constraints to divestment by the NSW Ministerial Investment Order and the Sydney investment policy; arguments debunking the excuses of CFO Bill Carter; a comparison of Sydney’s sustainable investment claims to other already divested councils to show them that they could go further; as well as heaps of background information and a sample motion. Unfortunately, during this time her long time battle with kidney cancer had spread to her brain. She has been undergoing treatment since and has been unable to participate fully in Council matters. Our appreciation and thoughts went out to her.

Disheartened, but not broken, with a strict deadline ahead we decided to still try to push for a motion before the last council meeting of this term. We have no idea how sympathetic or unsympathetic to divestment the new Council will be. We knew that this could be our last chance. We switched strategies to target 1) Lord Mayor herself, 2) to equip Labor Cr Linda Scott (running against Clover for Mayor) to put up a motion before the last Council meeting, and 3) all the while build steady community pressure and show of people power in support of divestment. This was the Final PUSH! Orange-shirt wearing, sign-holding volunteers supported the two FFC members (Jason Wu and Gillian Reffell) who addressed the Council at two separate occasions. In total we had an orange fossil free presence at four Council meetings. They listened and we were finally given the meeting that we had been asking for—with the senior policy advisor, CFO and others. It was clear that the more pressure we built, the more they conceded—from a partial commitment (using the exact wording outlined in our sample motion), to a full commitment with no time frame, to a final commitment WITH a time frame. It was quite impressive to experience!

The last Council meeting itself was an historic one. Even Irene Doutney, in between chemotherapy treatments, came to address the council and witness history being made. Within a few minutes of the meeting, Lord Mayor Clover Moore put up a mayoral minute that committed the Council to enact divestment at the first meeting after the elections (should she be re-elected). This was followed by an amendment that strengthened the commitment put up by Cr Linda Scott, who is incidentally running for mayor against Clover Moore. Other councillors spoke to the motion and it seemed as if all the mayoral candidates in the room were trying to win over the vote of the larger 350.org community—Angela Vithoulkas addressed us directly and commended our efforts as being the most organised and effective community campaign she has seen. The next day it would be declared that even Christine Forster (Tony Abbott’s sister and mayoral candidate) would support a divestment motion. (!!!)

We kept divestment as an election issue by organising a pledge to see where each candidate stood on the issue of council divestment from fossil fuels. The Guardian newspaper took this up and wrote a wonderful article: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/06/city-of-sydney-council-divest-fossil-fuels-regardless-election-result

Despite the blatant efforts of the Liberal party to oust Clover Moore by giving businesses 2 votes, she won the election by huge margins 58% to the next candidate’s (Forster-Liberal party) winning 19% in a 5 candidate race. The phrase “to be Clovered” was coined and defined as “when a gerrymander backfires.”

The 350 Sydney divestment team is keeping up the pressure and supplying the CEO and councillors all of the information that they will need to successfully pass a motion to change their investment policy to include our divestment asks during their first Council meeting of the term on 24th of October, 2016.

CLICK HERE to learn more.

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