Europe slides to the right: Poland’s conservative revival

“I don’t think the party really wants to leave Europe, they just want Poland to be more assertive when it comes to things like Europe’s response to the refugee crisis,” Pawel Swidlicki, research analyst, Open Europe

A Nation unto God:

In Europe, Poland has long been associated with the strong conservatism both politically and socially that seems to haunt former Soviet states. Indeed, this opinion would be no surprise to any traveller who has visited the state.

With the vast majority of Poles identifying as Catholic, almost every house has a crucifix prominently displayed and a picture of the late Polish Pope John Paul II.  Issues on gender(a word which in Poland has become synonymous with feminism and gay rights issues) are largely dismissed out of hand as harming the fabric of Polish society, and Europe’s current key debate on whether to accept refugees from the Middle East is treated much the same.  

Reuters: A protester from a far right organisation holds up a sign which reads ‘Islam Stop’ during a protest against refugees in Lodz, Poland, on Sept. 12, 2015.

With all of this in mind it is understandable for the outside observer to instantly assume that for the past ten years Polish politics would have already been dominated by far right parties. Instead, Poland has largely been governed by Centre-Right Liberals who have guided the country through the collapse of the Soviet Union and into the global market.

This largely moderate parliament had governed largely based on the ideals of their Christian faith and measured caution in regards to issues such as race, sexuality or even the latest migrant crisis or growing threat of radicalism. With the latest election however, politics in Poland are set to change.

As of the 25th of October, Poland’s far-right coalition has capitalized on the country’s disenfranchised youth and stagnating middle-class. This defined shift towards right-wing conservatism has finally brought to light the country’s “Euroscepticism” and deep resentment towards refugee resettlement, a move that has highlighted a growing loss of confidence in the EU regionally that has seen a string of similar conservative parties elected across the continent.

Supporters of the conservative Law and Justice party protested the results of last month’s municipal elections in Warsaw on Saturday. Credit Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press

A hunger for change:

For the past ten years Poland has had the centre right party Platforma Obywatelska (PO), led by then President Bronislaw Komorowski and Premier Donald Tusk (succeeded by Ewa Kopac) dominate Polish politics. PO’s platforms mixed a stated objective of defending Polish culture that was largely defined by the country’s catholic identity. Consequently, successive governments have opposed abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia and other similar social issues whilst pushing an agenda for increased privatization across the country whilst reforming monetary policy and minimizing bureaucracy.

Recently, the party has begun to show its age. It soon became apparent that PO would lose the latest election after the party experienced a spate of successive scandals. Accusations of corruption as well as documented cases of nepotism inflamed the public, causing widespread distrust, the most recent ‘corruption perception index’ rated Poland as 38th out of 175.

At the heart of the middle-class and youth’s discontent has also been the fact that Poland’s ‘economic miracle’  has not translated to widespread wealth, which has led to a wide-spread belief that the benefits have been limited to those with connections rather than qualifications.

The day of reckoning for PO arrived earlier this year when President Komorowski lost out to the candidate from the far right wing party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), Andzej Duda. The only hope that PO had was to retain power in the countries legislature, however these dreams were swept away only days ago when the candidate for PiS, Beata Szydlo, was  elected into the office of Premier.

(article continued below)



Flash point: Riot police stand side-by-side next to a water cannon as several hundred masked men who broke away from a far-right march threw stones and flares during violent clashes in Warsaw, Poland. Source: Reuters

Underestimated and Undervalued by the EU:

The West’s general view of Poland is that of a former communist state struggling to find its place amongst the leaders of the European Union.  Pandering to such stereotypes, it then comes as no surprise to outside observers that the country has responded to political instability by gravitating towards authoritarianism. Unfortunately this dismissal disguises what data shows to be one of Europe’s most vital players who have often been side-lined rather than engaged as a member with a stake in the EU’s future.

Some vital statistics illustrate the true importance of Poland: the population is just under 40 million people (not including the 20 million Poles living and voting in diaspora), making it the EUs sixth most populous nation. Polands total GDP for 2014 was US$548 billion (or $24,430 per capita) making it the EUs 9th largest economy.  Furthermore Poland is one of only five NATO nations that meet the 2% of GDP defence spending quota stipulated by the Alliance and in light of Russia’s increasingly aggressive expansionism, is strategically placed considering they share a border.  In short, the Polish economy is not one to be sneered at and written off by the historic leaders of the EU such as France and Germany.

As a key member of NATO, Poland is now seen as a key area for the forward deployment of troops in response to Russia’s recent expansionism.

Under pressure, Europe cracks down

Still the question can be asked how does the election result of one EU nation effect the make up of the EU?.  Well the simple answer is, it doesn’t necessarily, or perhaps not in the way you would think.  What should be raising concern is that this victory of a right wing political party or at least the adoption of more right wing policies is one that could be seen as a general trend sweeping across Europe in response to radicalization, migration and the slowdown of the bloc’s economies.  

Already the Conservative Hungarian government of Viktor Orban has been causing waves in the European community, with its hard stance on immigrants and its softening of relations with Russia.  Following the victory of PiS in Poland, even Switzerland saw its government turn to the far right wing.  While the problem of the massive influx of refugees from across Africa and the Middle East was more or less being dealt with through calm talks and negotiation between EU members, with the recent Paris attacks it would be no surprise if the far right capitalised on the tragic event highlighting this as an example of the EU being unable to protect its boarders.   Of course it can be very easy to discount a lot of the  nations swinging to the far right as small powers, which are simply able to be thorns in the side of the goliath EU.  Or furthermore relegate the linkage between terrorism and refugees as a philosophy only to be applied to xenophobic parties and “backwards” nations throughout Europe.  But such explanations become problematic when players such as the UK turn further and further to right wing nationalist policies.

Across Europe, the recent migrant crisis is stretching government resources to their max. The recent shift to hard-line conservative politics has seen countries like Poland close their borders to the refugees.


Britain considers an exit

Whilst Europe becomes increasingly divided, the alarm bells have been chiming more and more in the past months over a potential Brexit(Britain exiting the EU) from the EU. This has largely been brought about by the migrant crisis which has put pressure on all EU nations, especially France, Germany and Britain, which have attracted the most migrants due to the potential to secure higher paying jobs and better social security nets.

Although subsided for the moment, the constant financial strife that has plagued the EU has not won many friends in London either.  For the average Englishman these are problems they shouldn’t have to deal with and as such are becoming more and more open to the possibly of a Brexit.  This call has certainly not fallen on deaf ears.  David Cameron, the current British Prime minister and Conservative Party leader has increasingly directed his rhetoric towards this direction, signalling a referendum to be held on the matter in 2016.

Britain is looking to hold a referendum in 2016 on their continued membership of the EU.

What now?

Ultimately, if an event such as the exit of Britain from the EU were ever to occur, questions would definitely begin to be raised regarding the coherency, relevance and worth of the Union.  If such a powerful and influential player can simply up and leave, would it cause a domino effect of one nation after another following suit?

The temptation to categorise far right parties in Europe such as the French National Front, the German Pegidamovement  or the British UKIP as crack pots who will forever remain fringe groups who do not  represent the wider population is unremarkably easy although highly dangerous.  Poland’s recent experience illustrated this scenario perfectly.   

For close to ten years Poland was governed by a centre right party which seemed impervious to losing power.  However PiS’s victory and subsequent control over both the legislature and executive shook this reality.  This overwhelming victory was ultimately caused by a disenfranchised population perceiving their elected officials as corrupt, ineffective and weak. What PiS was able to offer was an alternative to this dismal view, a renewal of Poland, in effect returning Poland to the Poles.  

The European community should wake up and pay attention to the victory of PiS in Poland as a potential signal to a growing trend of far right politics which could jeopardise a fragile Union which stands on the threshold of turmoil.

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A War of Attrition: Coal Seam Gas and the Right to say No

“I have seen CSG produced water spills in the Pilliga Forest, spoken to landholders in Queensland who have lost their ground water, met with women from three different gas fields (Camden, Tara and Chinchilla) whose children have had bleeding ears, noses, dizzy spells, headaches etc. [sic], I’ve seen spill water that was black after fracking. I’ve met a husband and wife from Coonamble who have been arrested one after the other [for] being locked to a drilling rig and have had long conversations with a farmer who killed himself about the loss of his bore water and the fact [that] the gas company could not fix it and wanted to buy him out to ‘make good’. I could go on…”

In rural Australia a battle is being waged between communities and energy and mining conglomerates. The fight is over the right for miners to explore for resources such as natural gas, coal deposits and coal seam gas holds on someone’s land. In Australia, while a landowner has the rights to what is above the soil, the Commonwealth owns what’s underneath. 

As the government and rural communities butt heads over the extent to which the state may take these resources, one of the most public of these fights is that over coal seam gas mining. This has been a highly controversial issue that encompasses everything from exceptional profits and economic stimulus to irreversible environmental damage. Coal seam gas represents much of the fight around the world between making a quick buck and ensuring long-term sustainability.

What is coal seam gas?

Coal seam gas mining. Source: Australian Science Media Centre
Coal seam gas mining. Source: Australian Science Media Centre

Located primarily in Australia’s eastern states of New South Wales and Queensland, Coal Seam Gas (CSG) is methane that is held within a coal seam by water pressure within the system that was formed from the decay of organic matter over time. In order to extract the gas the system must be de-pressurised by removing the water. This is performed by drilling a vertical well down towards the seam and pumping out the water within.

When the flow of gas is insufficient the coal seam gas may be fractured, a process which increases the permeability of the coal and allows the gas to flow more freely – also known as ‘fracking’. Hydraulic fracking, involves pumping large volumes of a fluid such as water at a high pressure down the well which can cause the coal seam to fracture for distances of up to 400 metres. Much controversy has surrounded the chemicals that are added to the Fracking liquid in order to aid the drilling process and while those that have been proved most harmful have been banned in both Queensland and New South Wales other chemicals are used in their place.

The Environmental Impacts of Coal Seam Gas:

The most notable environmental impact of coal seam gas mining is not within the process itself, but the use of the gas afterwards. Studies have shown that the coal seam gas industry could produce as much greenhouse gas emissions as all the cars on the roads in Australia, including as much as 34.7 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (more than coal production).

Comparing the carbon dioxide emissions from CSG
Comparing the carbon dioxide emissions from CSG. Source: ABC

These emissions are one of the reasons many are citing as to why the coal seam gas should stay in the ground, it is one of the un-burnable fossil fuels that Australia and the world must wean themselves off in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions to curb runaway climate change.

However, others (including many state and federal Australian politicians) argue that coal seam gas is in fact a ‘greener’ energy choice. Origin Energy has claimed that substituting natural gas for coal in energy production could reduce Australia’s 2007 emissions levels by as much as 13.7%. However, there is strong opposition both in the industry and the scientific community to these arguments as many believe that these figures do not encompass the total emission from the entire life-cycle basis of coal seam gas compared to coal.

The environmental risks of coal seam gas do not stop at our atmosphere and future climate. Water, the most precious resource for sustaining life and an extremely valuable commodity for rural and urban Australia is also potentially under threat due to coal seam gas mining activities. The impacts to water from coal seam gas fall into two categories: contamination and supply. A report by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney has found that ground water supply can be contaminated by the water and chemicals from the fracking process and when toxins within the cracked coal seam. While waste water from coal seam gas mining is treated, some chemicals may still remain in the treated water including boron, silver, chlorine, copper, cadmium cyanide and zinc. These chemicals, at the concentrations present in the treated waste water, are toxic to many aquatic organisms and can be detrimental to human health if a build-up occurs.

During the first six months of 2011 there were 23 spills of waste water; four uncontrolled releases of waste water and three breaches of waste water storage during floods at coal seam gas wells. According to the National Water Commission these incidents can alter natural water flow patterns, impact water quality and river and wetland health – not to mention that of local residents. In 2010, two incidents of water contaminated from the banned BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene and xylene) chemicals were reported in Australia, although the companies involved said they did not utilise BTEX chemicals in their fracking fluids. There are issues in legislation in regards to monitoring the threats and impacts of water contamination as environmental water quality standards apply to the water in the overall environment post-release, rather than what is in the water that is being released.

An infographic of the predicted water usage by CSG mining. Source: ABC
An infographic of the predicted water usage by CSG mining. Source: ABC

The second issue related to water use in coal seam gas mining is where the water is sourced from. Conservative estimates suggest that coal seam wells may draw up to 300 gigalitres of water from the ground each year. One of the main areas where water is currently being drained for the purposes of coal seam gas mining is the Great Artesian Basin, an area where by the end of last year the Australian government had spent nearly $150 million enacting the Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiativewhich included practices such as capping bores and fixing pipelines to conserve water. While the Queensland Government has stated that if coal seam gas mining causes groundwater levels to drop below specific ‘trigger’ points then companies must ‘make good’ to other affected water users, though there is doubt as to how this would be enacted in practice.

Furthermore, salt may also rise with the water from the drilling process, creating masses of waste salt that, if not treated and removed effectively can have detrimental impacts to the land.

An infographic representing the excess salt produced by CSG mining. Source: ABC
An infographic representing the excess salt produced by CSG mining. Source: ABC

Others have pointed further to the impacts on land use – both agricultural and bush. Each coal seam gas well site takes up one hectare of land. This is particularly an issue when this is prime agricultural land or within a national park or reserve as is often the case with coal seam gas sites.

A before and after glimpse at the impact of CSG mining on a national park. Source: The Daily Bulletin
A before and after glimpse at the impact of CSG mining on a national park. Source: The Daily Bulletin

So why the push for Coal Seam Gas?

Coal seam gas comprises 27% of Australian gas reserves, which has the potential to supply at least 30% of Australia’s domestic market and 50% of that in eastern Australia. Assuming a continuing growth rate of 4% per year until 2025 the conventional gas market in eastern Australia will last for nine years, compared to coal seam gas which will last for 27. The coal seam gas market has the potential to pour billions of dollars into regional areas, creating new jobs, swelling both state and national funds and expanding foreign contracts. This potential is being tapped into rapidly in Australia, particularly in Queensland where by 2011 the total number of wells drilled in the state was 4,489 – compared to only 493 in New South Wales. The main driving factor than of coal seam gas? Simple – cold, hard, cash. Something which speaks to governments, corporations and communities alike.

In Australia; coal, petroleum and mineral resources are for the most part the property of the Commonwealth rather than the landholder. And in the case of onshore underground resources, the power to licence and regulate their development and extraction lies exclusively with the state governments. The state then effectively transfers these rights to the licence holder once a permit to explore or extract has been given.

The issue then arises as to whether the licence holder has the right to enter the land that overlies the resource which is often private property. Most commonly permission is attained through a land-access agreement whereby the landholder allows the licence holder to access and occupy their land and is compensated for any disruption caused. In Queensland a licensee may enter the land without the permission of the landholder in order to conduct preliminary, low-impact exploration activities after providing notice. The lack of the rights for a landholder to say no to a mining exploration is at the centre of the politics surrounding coal seam gas. For even if a landholder is able to refuse miners from entering their land, they will most likely face an upwards battle in a court system skewed in favour of the mining conglomerates. The results of the fight to protect land has had significant impacts on community and individuals, as was the case of George Bender.

The War of Attrition – a Stand off Between Communities and Big Buck Mining

George Bender was a well-known anti-coal seam gas farmer in Queensland. George took his own life after a decade long battle to prevent Origin Energy from entering his 2000-acre farm. Since his death George’s family has taken on his mantle and continued his fight, most notably a recent appearance by his daughter, Helen, on the ABC’s Q&A which garnered traction for her late father’s cause and support for Helen’s statement that Australia’s politicians “are not listening”.

Michael Roche, the chief executive of the Queensland Resources Council, has accused the family of ‘hijacking’ their father’s death as his cause has since been championed by both politicians and journalists. However, there is significant community support to demonstrate that George’s case was neither isolated nor uncommon.

The Lock the Gate Alliance was established in 2010 when farmers from south-east Queensland gathered in Brisbane to surround a farm gate and vowing to take a stand to protect their farms and communities from unwanted mining. The Alliance has since grown to boast over 40,000 supporters and manages 250 local groups who are concerned about unsafe coal and unsafe gas mining.

Phil Laird, national coordinator for the Lock the Gate Alliance, speaking to the media about the Whitehaven coal mine. Source: EchoNet Daily

Phil Laird is the national coordinator for Lock the Gate who became involved in community action against inappropriate mining with his family in 2010 when they discovered that the coal mines in their area had leases for 21 years. They realised that if they did not intervene in the early stages, the impacts of the mining on their lives and livelihood would soon be out of their control. Phil fights for the right of a landholder to say no to a mining company, to refuse access. As he states “How can landholder make an access agreement when they don’t have the right to disagree?”

Having personally seen the impacts of coal seam gas mining Phil’s accounts of the impacts of mining on communities and families are more compelling than any statistic could be:

“I have seen CSG produced water spills in the Pilliga Forest, spoken to landholders in Queensland who have lost their ground water, met with women from three different gas fields (Camden, Tara and Chinchilla) whose children have had bleeding ears, noses, dizzy spells, headaches etc. [sic], I’ve seen spill water that was black after fracking. I’ve met a husband and wife from Coonamble who have been arrested one after the other [for] being locked to a drilling rig and have had long conversations with a farmer who killed himself about the loss of his bore water and the fact [that] the gas company could not fix it and wanted to buy him out to ‘make good’. I could go on…”

But Phil argues that change is on the horizon, even if it is distant. He believes in the people power that saw off Metgasco in the Northern Rivers. He believes that the advances in cost competitive renewables will outweigh the expenses of coal seam gas projects. And he believes in the moral, if not legal, right of a land holder to deny access.

A Risky Investment

A wind farm on the coast of Western Australia marks the beginning of a new era in Australian energy. Source: Ausenco

It is thanks to those such as George and Phil that Australia’s water supply, farmland and natural landscapes are being preserved. It is easy to look through oil coated lenses and see only the profit to be made in drilling for gas and coal deposits – it has long since been the habit of Australian finance departments, to rely on the income of mining to sustain the nation’s economic prosperity. But long-term risks are at stake. In the coming century food, water and global temperatures will be the most pressing issues for Australia’s and humanity’s survival. Coal seam gas mining directly threatens each of these volatile commodities. And it is just one, of many industries that must hasten in their speed to adjust to 21st century ideas of sustainability before the damage is done.

Whilst the debate and battle in the courts continues, communities across rural Australia are rallying together. Whilst activism has been extraordinarily successful thus far, the far reaching effects of CSG are even shaping Australia’s music culture.

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