Palaszczuk rolls the dice on Adani

Try as she might, the Premier can’t have it both ways


It took her long enough, but when An­nasta­cia Palaszczuk let fly this week she went to a ques­tion that has been raised again and again about her leadership.

The con­text was the Carmichael coalmine and the sur­prise veto she had flagged of a $1 bil­lion fed­eral loan to its In­dian developer, Adani. Heaven knows she has had her fill of be­ing asked about that.

“I am the Premier of this state,” she said, her frus­tra­tion with the re­porters spilling over. “I … have been sick and tired of peo­ple say­ing, ‘You don’t make de­ci­sions.’ I’ve made a de­ci­sion. I make de­ci­sions ev­ery day.”

Palaszczuk likes to present as the “lis­ten­ing” politi­cian, re­spon­sive to vot­ers’ con­cerns and con­sul­ta­tive with her La­bor col­leagues, in vivid con­trast to the man she knocked over in 2015, Campbell New­man of the Lib­eral Na­tional Party.

The sharper take is in the fre­quently ap­plied de­scrip­tors that she is cau­tious and in­her­ently “risk averse”. Read in­de­ci­sive.

And de­pend­ing on where you stand on Palaszczuk, her Adani gam­bit is the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion of this, which could cost La­bor the Novem­ber 25 state elec­tion, or a shrewd move to elim­i­nate a key ob­sta­cle to her govern­ment’s re­turn in a fort­night.

At the mid­point of the cam­paign, Palaszczuk is strug­gling to find the space she needs to build a plat­form on La­bor’s tra­di­tional strengths in health and ed­u­ca­tion and to tie her LNP op­po­nent, Tim Ni­cholls, to the New­man legacy of pub­lic ser­vice cuts and pri­vati­sa­tion. Adani to date has de­prived her of oxy­gen, feed­ing the in­sur­gency mounted by Pauline Han­son on the po­lit­i­cal right while driv­ing a wedge be­tween La­bor and the Greens, whose pref­er­ences will be cru­cial to bol­ster­ing the ALP’s low pri­mary vote.

At the same time, the Greens are chal­leng­ing for seats in in­ner Bris­bane, in­clud­ing that of Palaszczuk’s deputy, Jackie Trad.

The quandary for La­bor is that the Premier, by try­ing to have it both ways on Adani, back­ing the project but not the tax­payer loan that the In­dian com­pany seeks to fund a rail link to the mine, risks los­ing votes at each turn.

The is­sue en­cap­su­lates the sig­nal com­plex­ity of this elec­tion in Queens­land.

The once-pros­per­ous north­ern and cen­tral coastal re­gions have been hit hard by the slow­down in mine con­struc­tion and one-off blows, such as Cy­clone Deb­bie in March, which ripped through the Whit­sun­day area, and the col­lapse of Clive Palmer’s nickel re­fin­ery in Townsville. These com­mu­ni­ties cry out for jobs and in­vest­ment, and Adani prom­ises both.

Yet, em­blem­at­i­cally, the mine is a win­dow for the poi­sonous pol­i­tics of cli­mate change to en­ter the state arena.

From day one of the cam­paign, Palaszczuk has been dogged by pro­test­ers link­ing the mine to in­creased car­bon emis­sions and degra­da­tion of the reef. La­bor strate­gists say that, one way or the other, the is­sue had to cau­terised; bet­ter to take the pain in one sharp hit early than have it drag on to polling day, they rea­son.

Palaszczuk’s back­flip on Adani’s loan ap­pli­ca­tion to the North­ern Aus­tralia In­fra­struc­ture Fa­cil­ity — Treasurer Cur­tis Pitt is on record as back­ing it — will work only if vot­ers in the key regional seats who want the mine can be con­vinced the veto won’t stop the project. The prob­lem is that the Premier’s ex­pla­na­tion has been nei­ther con­sis­tent nor con­vinc­ing.

An­nounc­ing the NAIF ban last Fri­day, she said it was about ab­solv­ing her­self of a con­flict of in­ter­est aris­ing from the role of her part­ner, Shaun Drab­sch, in pre­par­ing the loan ap­pli­ca­tion for Adani through con­sul­tants Price­wa­ter­house­Coop­ers.

The back­story is that a fort­night or be­fore to her an­nounce­ment, Queens­land La­bor sen­a­tor Mur­ray Watt had picked up ru­mours that his LNP coun­ter­parts in Can­berra were pre­par­ing to tip a bucket on a state govern­ment min­is­ter for hav­ing a con­flict of in­ter­est con­cern­ing Adani.

Watt had no de­tails but con­veyed what he knew to La­bor state sec­re­tary Evan Moor­head, who passed on the in­for­ma­tion to Palaszczuk’s of­fice a few days be- fore she called the elec­tion. But it wasn’t un­til last Tues­day week, Oc­to­ber 31, that her ad­vis­ers re­alised she was the one in the frame. Her chief of staff, David Barba­gallo, im­me­di­ately flew from Bris­bane to Cairns to brief her.

Ev­i­dently a de­ci­sion was taken to seek ad­vice from the Queens­land In­tegrity Com­mis­sioner, Nikola Stepanov, who pro­vides non-bind­ing guid­ance to min­is­ters and se­nior pub­lic ser­vants on eth­i­cal is­sues. When this came back, Palaszczuk used it to jus­tify the loan veto; in fact, Stepanov had sug­gested no such thing.

What she had pro­posed, in re­sponse to an of­fer by Palaszczuk to sit out of cabi­net bud­get re­view com­mit­tee agenda items con­cern­ing Adani, was that the Premier ab­sent her­self from all de­lib­er­a­tions over the coalmine. This was quite a step back from the ac­tion she sub­se­quently took to pull the rug from un­der the NAIF ap­pli­ca­tion.

Palaszczuk then changed tack, say­ing that she was meet­ing a 2015 elec­tion prom­ise not to pro­vide Adani with pub­lic funds through “se­cret deals”, even though La­bor orig­i­nally had sought to ar­gue that the fed­eral loan did not breach this com­mit­ment. As revealed in the news sec­tion of today’s pa­per, that was a cha­rade: on May 27, in a cli­mac­tic week­end meet­ing over Adani, the state cabi­net had voted against sup­port­ing the com­pany’s bid for NAIF credit. The im­pli­ca­tions are stun­ning. For months, Palaszczuk per­pet­u­ated the fic­tion that her govern­ment sup­ported the loan to Adani, which un­der NAIF pro­cesses must be ad­min­is­tered by Queens­land. How dumb is that? On May 29, Pitt said: “We will not stand in the way of those ar­range­ments. In the case of the Carmichael mine, any funds will pass di­rectly from the fed­eral govern­ment to Adani. We will ful­fil our obli­ga­tions in line with the mas­ter fa­cil­ity agree­ment agreed with the fed­eral govern­ment.”

Pitt tried to ar­gue this week that La­bor was re­spond­ing to pub­lic opin­ion that had turned against tax­payer funds be­ing used to un­der­write the mega project, as borne out by the party’s polling, ac­cord­ing to La­bor sources. “A de­ci­sion has been made which is a change of po­si­tion and that’s im­por­tant to note,” he told the ABC’s 7.30 pro­gram. Palaszczuk was lis­ten­ing. Again.

But the Greens wasted no time in go­ing af­ter her. Can­di­date Amy McMa­hon, who is up against Trad in the seat of South Bris­bane, ac­cused the govern­ment of hav­ing an “each-way bet” that wouldn’t wash with vot­ers.

Ni­cholls also had a field day, say­ing Palaszczuk couldn’t have it both ways and spruik job cre­ation as her govern­ment’s pri­or­ity while go­ing cold on a project that would em­ploy thou­sands. There was no am­bi­gu­ity on his side about Adani.

Cam­paign­ing in Townsville, pro­posed as a ser­vice hub for the $16.5bn mine, the LNP leader said he would not stand in the way of the NAIF fund­ing if elected.

“The state’s role is sim­ply to pass that money through and we would pass that money through,” he said.

Three La­bor seats there are po­ten­tially in play, which ac­counts for Ni­cholls’s sec­ond visit of the cam­paign to the trou­bled north Queens­land city on Thurs­day, where un­em­ploy­ment is in dou­ble dig­its and peo­ple fume at wa­ter re­stric­tions and the price of elec­tric­ity.

In con­trast to Palaszczuk, his per­for­mance to date has been pos­i­tive, mea­sured and largely gaffe-free. When fed­eral Re­sources Min­is­ter Matt Cana­van launched a catty at­tack on the Premier, claim­ing the Adani de­ba­cle was the re­sult of a “do­mes­tic” with her “boyfriend”, Ni­cholls im­me­di­ately dis­tanced him­self say­ing: “I would never use that lan­guage.” The Week­end Aus­tralian’s track­ing of the lead­ers’ travel shows that Palaszczuk has spent 30 per cent of her time in Bris­bane, against 19 per cent for Ni­cholls, who has been heav­ily engaged west of the cap­i­tal shoring up LNP sup­port in seats that are vul­ner­a­ble to One Na­tion. Han­son, hav­ing joined the cam­paign late on Mon­day due to a par­lia­men­tary trip to India, has been mak­ing her way north from Bris­bane in the One Na­tion “bat­tler bus”.

The tight­ness of the elec­tion is re­flected in the de­fen­sive bias of the itin­er­ar­ies of both Palaszczuk and Ni­cholls: he has made 20 vis­its to LNP-held seats, against only 12 in­cur­sions into La­bor ter­ri­tory; the split for the Premier is 18-11 in favour of vis­its to ALP seats.

Half of the 14 at-risk La­bor seats with a mar­gin of 5 per cent or less are out­side its tra­di­tional strong­hold of met­ro­pol­i­tan Bris­bane, while Ni­cholls must de­fend 12 south­east cor­ner LNP seats that also sit un­der 5 per cent on the pen­du­lum, targeted by La­bor and/ or the Han­son party.

Adani has crowded out is­sues that could have been ex­pected to get a big­ger run, in­clud­ing state debt that’s on track to hit $81bn by 2021. None of the par­ties has a cred­i­ble plan to pay it down. La­bor says Ni­cholls has run up $21bn worth of cam­paign prom­ises — a claim re­jected by the LNP, which is adamant its pro­posed spend­ing on roads, dams and power bill re­lief is a third less than the pur­ported $3bn in com­mit­ments racked up by Palaszczuk.

At a doorstop in Bris­bane yes­ter­day, the Premier shut down ques­tion­ing from this pa­per on the roy­alty de­fer­ments to Adani that cabi­net also signed off on in May, an is­sue that com­pounded the fac­tional ten­sions in­side the govern­ment over the NAIF loan.

“We made com­ments about that at the time and that was that all roy­al­ties would be paid in full and with in­ter­est. In re­la­tion to that agree­ment, they are com­mer­cial-in-con­fi­dence mat­ters,” Palaszczuk says.

That’s right, noth­ing to see here. Move on. She might wish it were so.

‘I … have been sick and tired of peo­ple say­ing, “You don’t make de­ci­sions.” I’ve made a de­ci­sion. I make de­ci­sions ev­ery day’ AN­NASTA­CIA PALASZCZUK QUEENS­LAND PREMIER


Clock­wise from main pic­ture, Queens­land En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Steven Miles (left) and Premier An­nasta­cia Palaszczuk at Daisy Hill Koala cen­tre in Bris­bane last Satur­day; the LNP’s Tim Ni­cholls ar­rives in Townsville on Wed­nes­day; Pauline Han­son dur­ing a visit by the One Na­tion ‘bat­tler bus’ to Coober­rie Park Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary, north of Yep­poon, on Wed­nes­day

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