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