Adani Won’t Die

Com­ment by Richard Den­niss

The Monthly (Australia) - - MAY 2018 -

In case spend­ing $1 bil­lion of tax­pay­ers’ money to sub­sidise the world’s largest ex­port coalmine didn’t seem crazy enough, a coali­tion of Coali­tion MPs is now push­ing for a $4 bil­lion sub­sidy for a new coal­fired power sta­tion. No doubt Barn­aby Joyce will also de­mand a fur­ther $10 bil­lion to build another in­land rail­way line through Na­tional Party seats to link the Adani mine in Cen­tral Queens­land to the new power sta­tion in Vic­to­ria’s La­trobe Val­ley. The era of small gov­ern­ment is dead, killed by con­ser­va­tive politi­cians who pre­fer to sub­sidise boon­dog­gles and white ele­phants than stick to their al­leged prin­ci­ples. In­deed, this time last year Tony Ab­bott was call­ing on his own party to scrap all new spend­ing ini­tia­tives in or­der to get the deficit un­der con­trol. This year he is the high­est pro­file mem­ber of the so-called Monash Fo­rum that is de­mand­ing the new gov­ern­ment-funded power sta­tion. And politi­cians blame Twit­ter for the pub­lic’s loss of faith in politi­cians. While some en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and bankers have been say­ing for years that the Adani coalmine will never be built, the project just won’t die. There is a sim­ple rea­son for this seem­ing re­silience, and it is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to the Monash Fo­rum’s re­cent calls for a new era of coal-fired power con­struc­tion: with enough pub­lic sub­si­dies, any project can be ren­dered prof­itable. The fact that world coal de­mand has fallen three years in a row won’t stop it be­ing built. The fact that the cost of re­new­ables has fallen by 80 per cent in the past 10 years won’t stop it. The out­rage over the fact that the mine would take an un­lim­ited amount of wa­ter from the Great Arte­sian Basin, for free, won’t stop it. And nor will the fact that it will never em­ploy any­thing like 10,000 work­ers. None of these things will stop the

mine for the sim­ple rea­son that, con­trary to most of what passes for com­men­tary on the is­sue, it’s not just about jobs or money. As al­ways in Aus­tralian pol­i­tics, it re­volves around sym­bols and in­ter­ests. Sym­bols mat­ter far more to politi­cians than many vot­ers and po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists seem to re­alise. Why else would al­legedly “lib­er­tar­ian” Lib­eral MPs have de­fended the rights of same-sex cou­ples to live in lov­ing re­la­tion­ships but fought to deny them the right to get mar­ried? The sym­bol of mar­riage mat­tered more than the prin­ci­ple of free­dom to choose. Sim­i­larly, the sym­bol­ism of the date of Aus­tralia Day and whether or not the Queen is our head of state mat­ters as well, as does the colour of the ties that male politi­cians wear at the Na­tional Press Club. Fights about sym­bols are sym­bolic, too. All suc­cess­ful politi­cians know that los­ing a fight, any fight, sends a very bad sig­nal. Any loss, no mat­ter how small, is a sym­bol of weak­ness. If a back­bench MP loses a fight to get into the min­istry, they have a greater chance of los­ing their pre­s­e­lec­tion next. Ab­bott and Eric Abetz know that if the date of Aus­tralia Day gets changed it will be harder to fend off calls for a re­pub­lic. If they can rally their troops to de­fend the sym­bol­ism of Jan­uary 26, it will send a sig­nal that they re­main a force to be reck­oned with. And if they lose the fight about Jan­uary 26 … Of course, sym­bols aren’t the only thing that mat­ter in pol­i­tics. Money mat­ters too. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment spent more than $460 bil­lion this year. It’s the par­lia­ment that de­cides who gets that money. But de­spite all the rhetoric from busi­ness groups about the need to cut spend­ing and re­duce the size of gov­ern­ment, each sit­ting week Par­lia­ment House is full of busi­ness lob­by­ists ask­ing for sub­si­dies or tax con­ces­sions. Pol­i­tics is big busi­ness. Which brings me back to Adani. This is not just a totemic fight for po­lit­i­cal con­ser­va­tives; it’s also a fight about money. Lots and lots of pub­lic money. While it’s widely known that Adani wants a bil­lion dol­lars from Aus­tralian tax­pay­ers, few peo­ple re­alise that Aus­tralian tax­pay­ers spend bil­lions of dol­lars each year sub­si­dis­ing re­source com­pa­nies. And the min­ing in­dus­try knows that if en­vi­ron­ment and com­mu­nity groups can win a fight about the Adani sub­si­dies, then it won’t stop there. Tak­ing money off a group is sym­bolic as well, which is why con­ser­va­tives are will­ing to spend so much money chas­ing the small debts of wel­fare re­cip­i­ents, and are also will­ing to forgo the debts of politi­cians who were wrongly elected to par­lia­ment. So here we are, watch­ing an enor­mous po­lit­i­cal fight over a mine that no bank thinks we need and few vot­ers could place on a map. At col­lec­tively 40 kilo­me­tres long and 10 kilo­me­tres wide, the Adani coal pits are enor­mous, but the size of the po­lit­i­cal fight about the mine has far more to do with power and money than it has to do with plan­ning laws or the need to cre­ate jobs. The word “jobs” is the most of­fen­sive fourlet­ter word in the po­lit­i­cal vo­cab­u­lary. It is an in­sult to the 730,000 un­em­ployed peo­ple in Aus­tralia forced to live on a mere $245 per week. If Aus­tralia needs to cause cli­mate change and pol­lute our wa­ter to “cre­ate jobs” be­cause there’s a short­age of them, how can job­less­ness be the fault of the un­em­ployed? If there is a short­age of jobs it would be cruel to pun­ish those who don’t have them, wouldn’t it? Con­ser­va­tive politi­cians revel in the sym­bol­ism of at­tack­ing the un­em­ployed for their al­leged lack of mo­ti­va­tion while si­mul­ta­ne­ously at­tack­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists for caus­ing a short­age of mines that, al­legedly, would solve the short­age of jobs. It’s a sim­ple trick but it’s worked for decades.

The In­dian gov­ern­ment has de­clared that it in­tends to cease all coal im­ports in the near fu­ture.

No­body be­lieves that the Adani mine will cre­ate the “10,000 jobs” so fre­quently claimed by Adani and their par­lia­men­tary boost­ers, let alone the “tens of thou­sands of jobs” our cur­rent prime min­is­ter said it would cre­ate. How can I say that with such con­fi­dence? I was in the wit­ness box at the Queens­land Land Court the same day that Adani’s own eco­nomic ex­pert ridiculed the 10,000 jobs claim. In­deed, in re­spond­ing to crit­i­cism from yours truly, Dr Jerome Fahrer said, un­der oath, “[i]t’s not many jobs. We can agree on that … Not many jobs … No ar­gu­ment. Not many jobs.” But while ly­ing to a judge is a crime, many in the min­ing in­dus­try think ly­ing to the pub­lic is funny. As soon as the court case was over, Adani and its boost­ers re­turned to the “10,000 jobs” claim. We have de­parted the age of rea­son and en­tered the age of truthi­ness. The claim that the Adani mine will pro­vide the rev­enue needed to fund schools and hos­pi­tals is even easier to de­bunk. Leav­ing aside the fact that the Queens­land gov­ern­ment gets more rev­enue from car reg­is­tra­tions and park­ing fines than it does from coal roy­al­ties, Adani has se­cured a “roy­alty hol­i­day” that means it wouldn’t even have to pay them for its first five years. And then there’s the bizarre as­ser­tion that Aus­tralia has an obli­ga­tion to the world not just to give oth­ers the gift of our “clean coal” but also to help peo­ple out of “en­ergy poverty” in In­dia. Coal from the Galilee Basin is far higher in ash and sul­phur than even coal from the Hunter Val­ley in New South Wales. Mean­while, the In­dian gov­ern­ment has de­clared that it in­tends to cease all coal im­ports in the near fu­ture. And of course it’s far cheaper to in­stall re­new­able en­ergy with bat­ter­ies in small remote vil­lages, be­cause do­ing so doesn’t re­quire bil­lions of dol­lars worth of trans­mis­sion lines to be built to com­mu­ni­ties with­out power. Oh, and if the Ab­bott and Turn­bull govern­ments cared about poverty in other coun­tries, why did they slash our foreign aid bud­get by bil­lions of dol­lars?

If power is de­fined as the abil­ity to speak crap and get away with it, then those push­ing Adani’s bar­row are pow­er­ful in­deed. But while the im­por­tance of jobs and tax rev­enues as­so­ci­ated with the Adani mine are of­ten ex­ag­ger­ated, it is hard to ex­ag­ger­ate the sym­bolic im­por­tance that the mine now has in Aus­tralian pol­i­tics. For­mer leader of the Aus­tralian Greens Bob Brown has said the fight over Adani is the big­gest and most im­por­tant en­vi­ron­men­tal bat­tle since the fight to save Tas­ma­nia’s wild rivers from the Franklin Dam. Brown’s claim might well be true, but the po­lit­i­cal fight over Adani is far big­ger than an en­vi­ron­men­tal fight, be­cause the sub­si­dies for the mine have come to sym­bol­ise the world­view of con­ser­va­tive politi­cians. West­ern democ­ra­cies are in the mid­dle of a once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion strug­gle over the role of gov­ern­ment in a mod­ern so­ci­ety. Brexit and Trumpo­nomics have both chal­lenged sim­plis­tic as­ser­tions that rightwing govern­ments like free trade and small gov­ern­ment. Here in Aus­tralia, the Lib­eral Party is strug­gling to ex­plain why it’s okay to spend $65 bil­lion on com­pany tax cuts when the bud­get is so deep in deficit. And in the mid­dle of all that there is the Coali­tion’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to shovel pub­lic money into Adani. It wasn’t meant to be like this. Re­sources Min­is­ter Matt Cana­van and the rest of his Coali­tion col­leagues went out of their way to pick a sym­bolic fight about coal. Throw­ing pub­lic money at Adani, throw­ing pub­lic money at coal-fired power sta­tions and lit­er­ally hand­ing lumps of coal around the par­lia­ment are all sym­bolic acts de­signed to make clear to the pub­lic whose side the gov­ern­ment is on and who its op­po­nents are. Sur­pris­ingly, and un­like most things the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment has tried, the Coali­tion has suc­ceeded in making its sup­port for coal and its hos­til­ity to re­new­able en­ergy crys­tal clear. Un­sur­pris­ingly, it has com­pletely mis­read the moods of the busi­ness com­mu­nity and the pub­lic. Apart from a few shock jocks and paid lob­by­ists, vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one in the com­mu­nity thinks sub­si­dis­ing the Adani mine is a ter­ri­ble idea. Dur­ing the Queens­land elec­tion cam­paign, even Pauline Han­son cam­paigned against giv­ing $1 bil­lion to an In­dian min­ing com­pany. Just think about that: the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment even man­aged to get the cli­mate scep­tics in One Na­tion to op­pose sub­si­dies for a coalmine. And while the ALP has been choos­ing its words care­fully, Bill Shorten can un­doubt­edly see that the Adani mine is po­lit­i­cally toxic. Sig­nif­i­cantly, Ged Kear­ney, the new mem­ber for the seat of Bat­man that was once held by Martin Fer­gu­son, ex­pressed even stronger views about Adani than her leader did. The Adani mine was sup­posed to be a sym­bol in the fight be­tween those who want to “de­velop” Aus­tralia and the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists who op­pose “de­vel­op­ment” … what­ever that means. In­stead it has be­come a sym­bol of the hubris and hypocrisy of the last gen­er­a­tion of cli­mate-scep­tic fis­cal con­ser­va­tives to fill our par­lia­ment. And no mat­ter what hap­pens to the world de­mand for coal, the Adani mine isn’t go­ing away un­til they do.

Barn­aby Joyce, a lump of coal, Scott Mor­ri­son and Christo­pher Pyne. © Mick Tsikas / AAP

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