Bob Brown’s man versus bulldozer stunts may not yet be over now that construction of Australia’s largest coalmine has been approved. “I am going to get a busload of people from Hobart … and we’re coming up to Adani to sit in the way,” Brown told the Byron Bay Writers Festival in August.
The approval of the Adani Carmichael mine is a serious blow for the planet-savers who have invested tens of millions of dollars in “lawfare”, lobbying and falsehood in their campaign to turn Queensland into the Tassie of the north. The mine, like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, was something the intelligentsia convinced itself could not happen. In April, a senior Fairfax business columnist pronounced the project dead.
Yet the business case is strong; coal is the only feasible source of power for the 300 million Indians still awaiting modernity. Indeed, coal and gas remain the only feasible source of baseload power in Australia, as South Australia’s wind fetishists recently discovered.
Seldom has an Australian environmental campaign been conducted so cynically or with so little regard for the truth. If we are to believe its detractors, the mine — almost 400km inland — is in the “Great Barrier Reef hinterland”.
At the weekend the US activist organisation Avaaz pushed the lie even further. An email launching an online petition began: “They’re trying to put a toxic coal complex in the heart of the magical Great Barrier Reef … Let’s stop the reef-killing deal — add your voice now.”
The greenies were living in a post-truth world long before the phrase was invented. Brown indulged his Byron Bay audience this year with his fruity theory about powerful, mega-rich corporations that conspire with spineless politicians to wreck the planet. Together they have formed a “de facto global government” that governs the international distribution of resources.
In fact, it is the anti-coal movement that has the deepest pockets and most influential friends. They include Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, who was paid $US7000 a month by US-based Sandler Foundation to advise on opposition to the Adani project.
The multinational interests of Big Green with their covert financing and global allegiances present the most immediate threat to our future prosperity. A report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers commissioned by Adani estimated the cost of activists’ antics at $3.9 billion and the loss of 2665 jobs. The list of cashed-up protest groups that have fought the Adani project includes Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, GetUp!, the Sunrise Project and the Mackay Conservation Group. What unites them — and just about every other pressure group — is their distaste for free enterprise and appetite for state intervention.
Like the anti-dam movement of the 1970s and 80s, the model for the campaign is borrowed from the US. It is a campaign fought more in courtrooms and shareholders’ annual general meetings than on the ground.
In August, when the hubris of the anti-coal movement seemed unbounded, the Commonwealth Bank joined other nervous lenders in declaring it was not going to dirty its loan book with coal; an institution that has ridden the wave of the mining boom is no longer prepared to invest in Australia’s minerals future.
Four months later, with the final state and federal government approvals in place, sanity appears to have been restored. Last week, Adani announced that Townsville would serve as its corporate headquarters for the project, a strong hint that the company will make a final commitment next year.
An area in the Port of Townsville has been set aside to unload Adani’s construction material, close to the empty wharf where Clive Palmer’s Queensland Nickel ships once tied up.
Australia is desperately short of inward investment, as the release of the September quarter national accounts made clear. The Adani project may bring as many as 10,000 jobs to the region and could generate as much as $22bn in mining taxes and royalties.
It is an indication of the confusion of today’s Labor Party that it is opposing a proposed $1bn government loan under the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility program to support the construction of the 388km rail line linking the mine to the coal loading facility at Abbot Point.
With the withdrawal of the Commonwealth Bank, an anchor loan from the government will be crucial in securing private funding from overseas. It also will ensure the rail link becomes a shared facility and may encourage other mining companies to open up further parts of the massive Galilee Basin.
Bill Shorten, however, remains equivocal. ABC Brisbane’s Steve Austin asked Shorten four times if he backed the Adani project in an interview in June. The Opposition Leader squibbed it. He was willing to commit $100 million to help build a new stadium in Townsville but would not commit a cent to coal. “A commonwealth government I lead will not be investing any money in Adani coalmine,” he said. “The truth of the matter is we do need to be part of the renewable energy investment surge across the world.”
These days Labor’s heart seems closer to the moss-munching refugees from capitalism in Byron Bay than the battlers of Bowen. In the Byron Bay polling booth the Greens and Animal Justice Party shared 52 per cent of the primary vote in the July election. In Dawson, which includes part of the Galilee Basin, the LNP’s George Christensen won comfortably while the Greens polled fewer votes than the Katter’s Australian Party.
The politics of coal are not easy for Shorten, who contends with an increasingly muddle-headed caucus. People such as Justine Elliot, the member for Richmond in NSW, which includes Byron Bay, and Terri Butler in the green-tinged seat of Griffith are ardent opponents of coalmining, Australia’s second largest export earner after iron ore.
Oh, for the wisdom of former Labor politicians such as Martin Ferguson, who warned more than 15 years ago that the party would be making “a profound mistake” if it tried to repackage itself as “the party of the ‘progressive, activist’ middle class, or the ‘rainbow coalition’ of special interest groups”. Let’s hope it is not too late.
Originally published in The Australian