Once again our creative prime minister has devised a bold and imaginative solution. Now it just remains to discover a credible problem to go with it.
Tony Abbott’s latest wedge, to shut down the protection of the environment from its friends and restrict it to the immediate neighbours is spun as the desperate need to protect fragile mining developments from vigilante litigation, green saboteurs, economic treason — the hyperbole is without restraint or limit.
But unfortunately it simply defies reality. As has been extensively documented, there have been very few cases taken to the tribunals, and less than a handful of them have been successful. If things have gone wrong – and indeed they have – it has been more usually a stuff up by the relevant authorities, frequently the federal department overseen by Greg Hunt, the confusingly named Minister for the Environment.
This was certainly the case with the halt to the Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin of Queensland. It turned out that the department overlooked its own rules, and admitted that it had – hardly a plot by the devious conspirators of the conservation movement.
The Carmichael mine has since become a holy cause for the Abbott government – a crusade towards an economic and social Utopia for Australia and indeed the world, a future flowing with milk and honey – or at least with a great deal of coal. Once again the rhetoric is fanciful, absurd – the so-called benefits of the proposal have been carefully assessed and do not even compare with Abbott’s wild projections.
But the Carmichael proposal is still a significant one – it is to be a bloody big coal mine, with associated infrastructure stretching to Abbot Point on the shore of the Great Barrier Reef, and is thus controversial. So government ministers taunt the opposition leader, Bill Shorten: is he on the side of the miners – the workers – or the reptiles, by which they mean not those of the press, but the yakka skink and ornamental snake, thought to be vulnerable.
But once again, this not the issue. It does not matter whether Bill Shorten supports the mine, or even if Tony Abbott does; what matters is whether the promoters and backers will, and this has become increasingly problematical. The demand, and therefore the international price, of coal is not rising (as Abbott seems to believe) but falling, and there is no reason to believe that it will recover, at least in the long turn.
The Carmichael mine may well prove unprofitable, even unviable. There are signs that the promoter, the Indian giant Adani, is already shuffling away from the project; it is, after all, driven by profits, not politics. Such caution would not be the first time; last year Woodside, after a long and sometimes acrimonious negotiation, pulled out of its plans to build a natural gas hub at James Price Point in the Kimberley, not because it had been convinced by the arguments of the environments and the locals, but simply because the bottom line did not add up.
A cynical observer might well assume that Abbott was expecting the same outcome so that he could then blame the Greens, Labor, the unions – just about anybody – for the failure, and could use it to justify his policy. But this is to give him more credit for ingenuity than he deserves. It is far more likely that our bellicose prime minister just wanted to pick a fight – this, as he has said, is what he is best at, and all the signs last week were that he has now reverted to his most common mode in opposition: to attack any possible opponents within range in the hope that he might finally land a knockout blow.
Playing the race card in any form is neither edifying nor effective. But it is certainly noisy, and in the clamour of confected battle, this is apparently what is needed to drown out the doubts, leaks and any hint of dissension…
His shouting and yelling about Bill Shorten as racist for daring to question the perfection of the China Free Trade Agreement dominated a question time in parliament distinguished more by overkill than common sense; his ostensible target was, yet again, the unions, but he managed to link Shorten and the Labor Party to the White Australia policy, the mantra of conservatives and progressive alike until changes emerged in the 1950s.
Certainly there are anti-Chinese overtones in the union campaign against ChAFTA, but they are no more strident than the complaints coming from the government, and particularly the National Party, demanding that Chinese investment in rural properties and the Sydney housing market must be curtailed. If Shorten is to be portrayed as a latter day Billy Hughes (as Abbott implies) then surely Abbott himself must be channelling the first prime minister, Edmund Barton, who publicly denounced the idea of any kind of Asian immigration. For that matter Abbott’s spiritual father, John Howard, went through a period when he was not too keen on it either.
Playing the race card in any form is neither edifying nor effective. But it is certainly noisy, and in the clamour of confected battle, this is apparently what is needed to drown out the doubts, leaks and any hint of dissension within Abbott’s own ranks. According the latest Newspoll, it is not working – at least not yet. But the Labor-linked jihad against the unions and all their works is clearly going to be the main game, at least as far as Abbott and his close allies are concerned.
Right on cue, The Australian produced another breathless front-page exclusive about a sinister secret army the ACTU is recruiting to subvert and undermine the government. It turned out hat the army was so secret that the ACTU secretary, Ged Kearney, was happy to spell out her plans publicly and in considerable detail to the paper’s eager reporters. And the nub of her revelation? The ACTU and its members plan to campaign against the Abbott government during the next election campaign.
Well, golly gosh – who would have imagined that. We wait on tenterhooks for the national daily’s next scoop: Murdoch press to back coalition campaign. Or perhaps we don’t; maybe that too is a secret. We will just have to wait for the next cabinet leak.