Mixed en­vi­ron­men­tal mes­sages in Queens­land.

In the run-up to the Queens­land elec­tion, the ma­jor par­ties are at­tempt­ing to play both sides of the Adani mine–Great Bar­rier Reef de­bate. By An­drew Stafford.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents|The Week - An­thony Stafford

On Fri­day, Novem­ber 3, Queens­land Premier An­nasta­cia Palaszczuk dropped what sounded like a bomb­shell. Palaszczuk, at the tail of the first week of a des­per­ate re-elec­tion cam­paign, said she would veto a $1 bil­lion loan to Adani from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s North­ern Aus­tralia In­fra­struc­ture Fa­cil­ity (NAIF) af­ter it emerged that her part­ner,

Shaun Drab­sch, had as­sisted the In­dian con­glom­er­ate’s ap­pli­ca­tion for the loan in his role as a di­rec­tor for PwC.

Palaszczuk said she was act­ing to re­move any per­cep­tion of con­flict of in­ter­est over the loan, in­tended to fund the con­struc­tion of a rail line from Adani’s pro­posed Carmichael coalmine to its ter­mi­nal at Ab­bot Point, north of Bowen. The re­sponse was im­me­di­ate. The next day’s Courier-Mail went with a scream­ing head­line: “Mine shaft”. Queens­land’s only statewide news­pa­per claimed thou­sands of jobs were at risk.

It’s a well-worn trope. The news­pa­per has long fol­lowed the Adani line that as many as 10,000 jobs would be cre­ated by the mine, de­spite the group’s ex­pert wit­ness, Jerome Fahrer, ad­mit­ting in court in 2015 that the num­ber was fewer than 1500. Buried at the bot­tom of the copy was an ad­mis­sion: un­der the care­taker con­ven­tion, Palaszczuk needed the sup­port of op­po­si­tion leader Tim Ni­cholls to veto the loan. Need­less to say, she wasn’t about to get it.

In the in­terim, there’s noth­ing to pre­vent the NAIF from is­su­ing the loan, en­abling Palaszczuk to say her gov­ern­ment gave it no ac­tive as­sis­tance. When Lib­eral Na­tional Party leader Ni­cholls de­scribed the premier’s threat as a “stunt”, he wasn’t wrong. Since her gov­ern­ment’s un­ex­pected as­cen­sion to power, Palaszczuk’s mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment has been walk­ing a tightrope be­tween its ur­ban base and re­gional Queens­land over the mine.

On the same day as Palaszczuk’s un­ex­pected an­nounce­ment, news broke that should have sent a real chill through the muggy climes of north Queens­land. The United States Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion

(NOAA) fore­cast the pos­si­bil­ity of a third con­sec­u­tive bleach­ing event on the Great Bar­rier Reef this sum­mer. Its mod­el­ling pre­dicted the south­ern sec­tion of the reef, which had hith­erto es­caped rel­a­tively un­scathed, was at great­est risk.

The NOAA was care­ful to note that its fore­cast was early, and there­fore at the limit of its tech­ni­cal ca­pac­ity. Nonethe­less, the po­ten­tial grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion can’t be un­der­es­ti­mated. Last sum­mer, the worst-hit sec­tion of the marine park was in the tourist-clogged area be­tween Cairns and Townsville. It re­sulted in the Great Bar­rier Reef Marine Park Au­thor­ity en­gag­ing in talks with the tourism in­dus­try to help it re­di­rect vis­i­tors to rel­a­tively un­af­fected ar­eas.

The Bar­rier Reef is the ele­phant in the room of the state elec­tion. It was cer­tainly a big­ger is­sue in 2015, when the then La­bor op­po­si­tion pledged that no tax­payer funds would be used to fund Adani’s mine. “The reef was much more prom­i­nent in dis­cus­sions at the last Queens­land elec­tion, but it’s in a much more dire sit­u­a­tion now, so the need for ac­tion’s even greater,” says the World Wild Fund for Na­ture’s Sean Hoobin.

The La­bor gov­ern­ment has re­leased two sub­stan­tial poli­cies to shore up its cre­den­tials on the man­age­ment of the Bar­rier Reef. The first was the rein­tro­duc­tion of land clear­ing leg­is­la­tion, which failed to re­ceive the sup­port of cross­benchers in 2016 af­ter an es­ti­mated 400,000 hectares had been felled in the pre­ced­ing 12 months. Forty-five per cent of the in­crease in clear­ing had been in Bar­rier Reef catch­ment ar­eas.

The sec­ond, re­leased on the eve of the elec­tion be­ing called, had the gov­ern­ment be­lat­edly fol­low­ing through on its 2015 com­mit­ment to ban the load­ing of coal ships at sea in the Great Bar­rier Reef Marine Park. The gov­ern­ment also has a tar­get of 50 per cent re­new­able power gen­er­a­tion by 2030. Ear­lier this year, it held a car­bon farm­ing sum­mit, with the in­ten­tion of pro­vid­ing a road map for the growth of the nascent car­bon off­set in­dus­try.

But the gov­ern­ment has strug­gled to gain any clear air to spruik its en­vi­ron­men­tal cre­den­tials in the shadow of the Carmichael project, with the premier’s cam­paign it­self be­ing shad­owed by anti-Adani pro­test­ers. Sup­port for the mine within the gov­ern­ment’s ranks is soft, and Adani’s brand is pos­i­tively toxic in ur­ban elec­torates of Bris­bane, but with La­bor rul­ing out any pos­si­ble deal with One Na­tion, it is des­per­ate not to alien­ate re­gional sup­port.

The LNP, for its part, has given its un­qual­i­fied back­ing for not only the Carmichael mine but the con­struc­tion of an­other coalmine in far north Queens­land. At the same time, shadow en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter Dr Chris­tian Rowan said an LNP gov­ern­ment would main­tain all cur­rently al­lo­cated state fund­ing for reef pro­tec­tion, and that when last in gov­ern­ment it had in­vested $35 mil­lion a year to help farm­ers re­duce sed­i­ment runoff into reef catch­ments.

But the fo­cus on wa­ter qual­ity ignores the other ele­phant in the room. The north­ern sec­tion of the park, which was so rav­aged by bleach­ing in the sum­mer of 2015-16 that up to 67 per cent of the coral died, was pre­vi­ously re­garded as the most pris­tine and undis­turbed sec­tion of the reef – that is, the least af­fected by soil runoff, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of crown-ofthorns starfish and other fac­tors af­fect­ing the reef’s over­all health.

The cause of the catas­tro­phe was sim­ple: the coral was cooked by aboveav­er­age wa­ter tem­per­a­tures due to a com­bi­na­tion of cli­mate change and an ac­com­pa­ny­ing El Niño. The bleach­ing was re­peated the fol­low­ing year, even af­ter El Niño’s abate­ment. The com­bined im­pact left a full 1500 kilo­me­tres of the reef badly af­fected.

“There’s a kind of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance that we have now where po­lit­i­cal lead­ers are sign­ing on to the [Adani] mine while at the same time talk­ing about want­ing to deal with cli­mate change and save the Bar­rier Reef,” says Ove Hoegh-Guld­berg, deputy di­rec­tor of the Aus­tralian Re­search Coun­cil Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence for Coral Reef Stud­ies. “You can’t have both.

“You think about the idea that this ecosys­tem that has been with us for thou­sands of years and is so much loved, and we’re con­tem­plat­ing its dis­ap­pear­ance … We are in ex­tremely wor­ry­ing times, be­cause these things are com­ing faster, much faster than we thought. My pre­dic­tions in 1998 were that we’d see this sort of thing hap­pen­ing in 2030, 2040. It’s hap­pen­ing now.”

For this elec­tion, the LNP has also pledged a fur­ther $300,000 to sup­port the “Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier Reef ” ini­tia­tive, which ac­cord­ing to a pol­icy state­ment aimed to “raise aware­ness and funds to pro­tect the Great Bar­rier Reef now and for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions”.

Pushed for de­tail, Rowan said: “Pro­tect­ing the reef is too im­por­tant to leave to one or­gan­i­sa­tion or lo­cal group. The LNP’s Great Bar­rier Reef Al­liance will work closely with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, [an] in­de­pen­dent ex­pert panel and Reef 2050 ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee and other key stake­hold­ers to de­liver real, in­de­pen­dently mea­sur­able out­comes.” He also said, “We need to get the balance right on clean en­ergy tar­gets, as high­lighted in the Finkel review.”

That’s de­spite the fed­eral gov­ern­ment de­clin­ing to adopt the clean en­ergy tar­get rec­om­mended by Finkel. And the op­po­si­tion, like the gov­ern­ment, is do­ing some mixed mes­sag­ing of its own: while Rowan says the LNP will


fol­low the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Great Bar­rier Reef Wa­ter Sci­ence Task­force, on Oc­to­ber 1 An­drew Cripps, the spokesman for nat­u­ral re­sources and mines and north­ern de­vel­op­ment, ranted against those rec­om­men­da­tions in a piece for Queens­land Coun­try Life.

In the mean­time, nei­ther party seems to re­gard in­vest­ing in new coal­fired power gen­er­a­tion as in any way in­com­pat­i­ble with the fu­ture of the Bar­rier Reef – or is will­ing to ad­mit it. As for One Na­tion, Pauline Han­son and then-se­na­tor Mal­colm Roberts fa­mously made a trip to the de­cid­edly un­bleached Great Kep­pel Is­land off Yep­poon in Novem­ber 2016, held aloft a piece of coral, and de­clared that ev­ery­thing was fine. Roberts is now run­ning for the state seat of Ip­swich.

Ear­lier this year, a Deloitte Ac­cess Eco­nom­ics review val­ued the reef at $56 bil­lion. An ear­lier Jacobs review – cowrit­ten by a part­ner­ship be­tween the Queens­land Farm­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion, the Queens­land Tourism In­dus­try Coun­cil, the World Wide Fund for Na­ture and the As­so­ci­a­tion of Marine Park Tourism Oper­a­tors – con­cluded that if the reef was treated as a piece of in­fra­struc­ture of sim­i­lar value, it would re­ceive up to $830 mil­lion a year in fund­ing.

All of this, to say noth­ing of the es­ti­mated 65,000 peo­ple whose liveli­hoods de­pend on the Great Bar­rier Reef, sug­gests its on­go­ing health is far from just an en­vi­ron­men­tal or moral chal­lenge. But in this elec­tion cam­paign, with ev­ery­thing fil­tered through the muddy wa­ters of Adani and a resur­gent One Na­tion, it’s a chal­lenge that nei­ther

• of the ma­jor par­ties is game to face.

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