Bill Shorten’s leap to the left does party no favours in the Queens­land heart­land

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Jenny Hill knows the leafy elec­torate of Bat­man like the back of her hand: the daugh­ter of Mal­tese mi­grants, she was bap­tised in the Catholic church on Ross­moyne Street and laughs at how the nuns kicked her brother out of the lo­cal pri­mary school. The pub around the cor­ner was so rough the fam­ily packed up and moved. Their dad thought the area would never change.

The funny thing is, her adopted home of Townsville is much more like the gritty stomp­ing ground of her child­hood than what Thorn­bury, North­cote and the de­sir­able ad­dresses of Bat­man have be­come — a gen­tri­fied reach of in­ner Mel­bourne’s quinoa cor­ri­dor, lined with cafes and homes with sev­en­fig­ure price tags.

“It was a very dif­fer­ent neigh­bour­hood to what it is now,” Hill says. “When I was grow­ing up, that part of Mel­bourne was all work­ing-class, strongly La­bor. These days, those are the sort of peo­ple who live in places like Townsville.”

As mayor of the hard­scrab­ble north Queens­land city and a card­car­ry­ing mem­ber of the ALP, Hill is locked in what she sees as a strug­gle for the life and soul of her com­mu­nity, as well as the val­ues of the La­bor move­ment at large.

The flash­point is the Adani group’s Carmichael coalmine, 600km south­west of Townsville, which will be the big­gest in the south­ern hemi­sphere if it goes ahead.

But the slow-burn ten­sions are el­e­men­tal: the clash between jobs and the reef, coal and cli­mate change, city ver­sus re­gion, bluecol­lar work­ers’ mores against green-tinted ide­al­ism. They all un­der­pin the im­pas­sioned de­bate on whether the $16.5 bil­lion project should pro­ceed.

Adani de­railed An­nasta­cia’s Palaszczuk’s re-elec­tion cam­paign in Queens­land in Novem­ber, and it’s now caus­ing grief for Bill Shorten, com­pound­ing his fraught start to the po­lit­i­cal year. The by-elec­tion in Bat­man brought on by David Feeney’s dual-cit­i­zen­ship woes opens the way for the Greens to win a sec­ond lower house seat at La­bor’s ex­pense and, po­ten­tially, to desta­bilise Shorten’s lead­er­ship.

Sharp­en­ing his lan­guage in what’s seen as a bid to shore up La­bor’s vote, the Op­po­si­tion Leader in the space of a week went from be­ing “in­creas­ingly scep­ti­cal” of the mine to ac­cus­ing its In­dian de­vel­oper of pro­mot­ing “fake jobs” and brack­et­ing Adani with Clive Palmer’s failed nickel re­fin­ery in Townsville. It was too much for Hill. “The guys I know up here want those jobs,” she says, steam­ing over her cof­fee on the city’s Strand. “And they’re sick and tired of be­ing dic­tated to out of the seat of Bat­man … where they can and can’t work, what they can and can’t do.

“If you don’t want coalmin­ing jobs, good, don’t have them for Vic­to­ria. But don’t deny other places in Aus­tralia, like north Queens­land, the right to em­ploy­ment.”

Shorten’s repo­si­tion­ing on the mine has sparked a re­bel­lion among La­bor Party and union stal­warts in Queens­land’s coal belt, who warn that it could cost the ALP many more seats in that cru­cial bat­tle­ground than what’s im­me­di­ately at stake in Vic­to­ria.

Mike Brunker, the for­mer coalminer and CFMEU lodge leader who went within 400 votes of win- ning the state seat of Bur­dekin for La­bor at the Queens­land elec­tion, vents his frus­tra­tion, warn­ing: “To win one seat in frickin’ Mel­bourne they have wiped out their chances in two or three seats here.”

For­mer state La­bor MP Jim Pearce, un­seated by One Na­tion at the Novem­ber 25 state poll, tells In­quirer: “There is strong sup­port for the mine go­ing ahead in this re­gion and I think any­body re­ly­ing on sup­port from that area would be fool­ing them­selves if they go against the mine.”

And the pres­i­dent of the CFMEU’s min­ing divi­sion in Queens­land, Stephen Smyth, says peo­ple “are sick of the in­ter­fer­ence not only by the politi­cians but the so-called fly-in or drive-in pro­test­ers who are an em­bar­rass­ment to the hard­work­ing fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties”.

Re­sources Min­is­ter Matt Cana­van says the in­vest­ment com­mu­nity is watch­ing closely, and Shorten’s gy­ra­tions raise sov­er­eign risk ques­tions that could be dam­ag­ing to the na­tional in­ter­est.

“This (mine) has been ap­proved through the fed­eral and state gov­ern­ments, with­stood mul­ti­ple court chal­lenges and, at 10 min­utes to mid­night, to trade off our coun­try’s in­vest­ment rep­u­ta­tion for some cheap votes in a by-elec­tion is highly ir­re­spon­si­ble,” he said af­ter the fed­eral La­bor leader dra­mat­i­cally hard­ened his stand on Adani at the launch of for­mer ACTU pres­i­dent Ged Kear­ney’s cam­paign in Bat­man on Fe­bru­ary 2.

The row has erupted at what is al­most cer­tainly crunch time for the project com­mer­cially. While Adani has cleared nearly all of the reg­u­la­tory hur­dles, it is still fi­nal­is­ing the fi­nanc­ing in the face of con­sid­er­able doubt that lenders will come on board. Aus­tralian banks are not in­ter­ested given the poi­sonous pol­i­tics; the com­pany is said in­stead to be seek­ing a mas­sive line of credit from the Chi­nese.

Part of the prob­lem with Adani — at least from the Aus­tralian per­spec­tive — is that its fi­nances and de­ci­sion-mak­ing pro­cesses are not only opaque, but far re­moved. Those who have dealt with the com­pany say that noth­ing of con­se­quence is agreed without the sign-off of the board in In­dia, headed by the com­pany’s founder Gau­tam Adani.

A self-made man, he dropped out of univer­sity to bolt to­gether an en­ergy and in­fra­struc­ture colos­sus that in­cludes the sub­con­ti­nent’s largest pri­vate rail net­work, a ship­ping line, ports and both coal-fired and so­lar­power plants. With an es­ti­mated per­sonal worth of $11.3bn, Gau­tam Adani is close to In­dia’s mod­ernising Prime Min­is­ter, Naren­dra Modi, who is rolling out a pro­gram to bring elec­tric­ity to the 300 mil­lion peo­ple whose homes re­main off-grid. This is where the Carmichael mine out­side Cler­mont in cen­tral Queens­land comes in.

Prior to be­com­ing PM, the charis­matic Modi had been chief min­is­ter of the en­gine-room state of Gu­jarat, where Adani started

‘Don’t deny other places in Aus­tralia the right to em­ploy­ment’


out in busi­ness. And it is also where the multi-bil­lion­aire plans to send Queens­land-mined coal to fire a 4620 megawatt su­per­crit­i­cal power sta­tion, lo­cated in the Adani-owned port at Mun­dra, a trade gate­way. The In­ter­na­tional En­ergy Agency es­ti­mates that the de­mand for elec­tric­ity in In­dia out­strips gen­er­at­ing ca­pac­ity by 7.5 per cent.

The pro­posed “pit to plug’’ sup­ply line from the Carmichael mine would ul­ti­mately pro­duce 60 mil­lion tonnes of coal a year and, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany, 10,000 di­rect and in­di­rect jobs in north and cen­tral Queens­land, re­gions that have been ham­mered by the tai­loff in min­ing in­vest­ment and drought.

But it doesn’t stop there. The mine is set to be the linch­pin for open­ing the nascent Galilee coal basin. GVK, a joint ven­ture between Aus­tralia’s wealth­i­est wo­man Gina Rine­hart and In­dia’s rich-listed Reddy fam­ily, is de­vel­op­ing pits near Al­pha and at Kevin’s Cor­ner, but has been tar­geted by a tightly co-or­di­nated “dis­rupt and de­lay” cam­paign by green ac­tivist groups.

The war plan is de­tailed in a 2011 pa­per pre­pared in part by Green­peace cam­paigner John Hep­burn and the pres­sure group GetUp!, en­ti­tled Stop­ping the Aus­tralian Coal Ex­port Boom. “Our strat­egy is to ‘dis­rupt and de­lay’ key projects and in­fra­struc­ture while grad­u­ally erod­ing pub­lic and po­lit­i­cal sup­port for the in­dus­try and con­tin­u­ally build­ing the power of the move­ment to win more,’’ the doc­u­ment says. It goes on to out­line a staged pro­gram of le­gal chal­lenges to en­vi­ron­men­tal ap­provals in­tended, at the very least, to tie-up projects and sow un­cer­tainty among fi­nanciers.

The strat­egy has played out al­most ex­actly to script with Adani. Ev­ery one of its state and fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal ap­provals, its min­ing leases and indige­nous land use agree­ments has been chal­lenged in the courts. To date, the com­pany has se­cured five judg­ments in its favour from Fed­eral Court, Queens­land Land Court and Supreme Court judges con­cern­ing the Carmichael mine, and won two lengthy en­vi­ron­ment cases in­volv­ing the coal-load­ing ter­mi­nal at Ab­bot Point, near the town of Bowen.

Adani says its com­pli­ance and le­gal costs have topped $150 mil­lion, blow­ing out the time­line for se­cur­ing reg­u­la­tory ap­provals from three to six years. By the com­pany’s ac­count, this, and the com­plex­i­ties of the fi­nanc­ing and site plan­ning, ex­plain the pon­der­ous progress. But it plays into the hands of the scep­tics who ques­tion whether the com­pany has the ca­pac­ity to de­liver its lofty prom­ises.

Shorten said this week Adani had only it­self to blame. “The fact that the banks won’t back it in, the fact that there al­ways seem to be new en­vi­ron­ment is­sues … that’s the prob­lem,” he said, tak­ing another swing at the project. Asked when fed­eral La­bor would reach a fi­nal po­si­tion on the mine, Shorten threw the ques­tion back on Adani. “They, time af­ter time, keep say­ing that they’re go­ing to have this project up and run­ning and they miss a dead­line. I’m be­gin­ning to won­der if the peo­ple of north Queens­land are be­ing led on with this prom­ise of fake jobs and they’re never go­ing to ma­te­ri­alise.”

For La­bor the is­sue is di­a­bol­i­cal, draw­ing to­gether the pin­cer threats it faces on its left flank from the Greens and on the right from One Na­tion’s ap­peal to its tra­di­tional blue-col­lar base in re­gional Queens­land. The Bat­man-Townsville di­vide neatly cap­tures this. At the 2016 fed­eral elec­tion, the Greens’ vote in the Mel­bourne seat topped 36.4 per cent, push­ing Feeney to the wire. The av­er­age home price there is $1.32m and un­em­ploy­ment nudges 7 per cent.

In Townsville-based Her­bert, One Na­tion’s fed­eral elec­tion vote surged to 13.5 per cent, de­liv­er­ing the pref­er­ences that pro­pelled La­bor’s Cathy O’Toole to a knifeedge vic­tory. The Greens pulled a pri­mary vote of only 6.2 per cent.

No one can be in any doubt how tough the times are in Townsville. Youth un­em­ploy­ment tops 20 per cent, driv­ing a spike in bur- glary and car theft, Hill says. House prices have slumped. As she points out, a four-bed­room home is a bar­gain buy at $320,000.

More than 800 lo­cal jobs were lost when Palmer’s Queens­land Nickel op­er­a­tion went belly-up in 2016, and there’s un­cer­tainty about the long-term fu­ture of Glen­core’s cop­per re­fin­ery, which pro­cesses Mount Isa ore on Townsville’s south­ern out­skirts.

Hill ac­cepts there is op­po­si­tion to pub­lic money go­ing to Adani to de­velop the mine — both fed­eral La­bor and the Queens­land gov­ern­ment re­ject its bid for a loan of up to $1bn from the North­ern Aus­tralia In­fra­struc­ture Fa­cil­ity to build the rail link to Ab­bot Point, and she faced a lo­cal back­lash when it was re­vealed her coun­cil had pledged $15.5m to co-fund an airstrip for the mine in part­ner­ship with Rock­hamp­ton, which will co­host a fly-in, fly-out work­force of about 1800 with Townsville.

But the Green sen­si­bil­i­ties of Bat­man don’t cut it in the jobs-hun­gry north.

Hill says the es­ti­mated $90m a year that the mine would in­ject into the Townsville econ­omy would go a long way to­wards fill­ing the yawn­ing gap left by the col­lapse of Queens­land Nickel.

“Ev­ery­one wants to be part of the great Aus­tralian dream, why should it be re­stricted to Syd­ney or Mel­bourne, be­cause that’s what the peo­ple of Bat­man are do­ing. Why shouldn’t indige­nous peo­ple have the op­por­tu­nity to work in a mine if they want to? Why shouldn’t they have the op­por­tu­nity to get off wel­fare, have a job, buy a home?”

Brunker nearly kicked in the TV when he heard Kear­ney at­tack Adani’s em­ploy­ment record and pre­dict the mine would fall over. “I’m an old union­ist, too,” he fumes. “I grew up in the mines … for her to sit there in Mel­bourne and ba­si­cally wipe us, to for­get about the guys in the min­ing in­dus­try, it’s just dis­grace­ful.”

Bet­ter to fight on “La­bor val­ues and fail”, he says, than to pan­der to the Greens for the sake of a sin­gle seat that is prob­a­bly lost to La­bor any­way. For­mer fed­eral re­sources min­is­ter Ian Macfar­lane, who now heads the Queens­land Re­sources Coun­cil, says Adani’s treat­ment has been glar­ingly un­fair.

He points out that at least six other ma­jor coal projects — in­volv­ing the ex­pan­sion of ex­ist­ing mines or new ones, some with the po­ten­tial to pro­duce up to 25 mil­lion tonnes a year — have qui­etly gone into de­vel­op­ment while at­ten­tion was fo­cused on Adani’s plan. “But we haven’t heard boo about them’’ he com­plains. “The treat­ment of Adani in this coun­try is un­prece­dented in terms of the politi­ci­sa­tion of the project.”

Macfar­lane points to what hap­pened to the com­pany in the leadup to the Queens­land elec­tion.

Last May, as the heat came on, Palaszczuk faced a re­volt in­side her cab­i­net over a $300m-plus roy­al­ties in­cen­tives deal of­fered to Adani. Although the Premier had agreed the terms dur­ing a visit to In­dia where she met Gau­tam Adani, the deal to de­fer pay­ment of roy­al­ties for the first five years of the mine’s op­er­a­tion was leaked to the ABC and seized upon by the La­bor left.

Fac­ing a chal­lenge by the Greens in her seat of South Bris­bane, the fac­tion’s lead­ing light, Deputy Premier Jackie Trad, se­cured cab­i­net agree­ment to water down the deal just as the Adani board in In­dia was due to sign off on a fi­nal in­vest­ment de­ci­sion on the project. This was post­poned and is yet to be made.

Palaszczuk’s cab­i­net is be­lieved to have also voted last May to veto the NAIF loan, but that de­ci­sion was not made pub­lic un­til anti-Adani pro­test­ers put a wreck­ing ball through La­bor’s elec­tion cam­paign, forc­ing the Premier’s hand.

The ALP cam­paign team be­lieves that neu­tral­is­ing the is­sue of the coalmine was crit­i­cal to Palaszczuk’s vic­tory, and it may be that Shorten was em­bold­ened to go af­ter Adani on that ba­sis. But it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that Palaszczuk made a key dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion on the mine: while Queens­land La­bor was against pub­lic money go­ing to Adani, it re­mained in favour of the project pro­vided it mea­sured up fi­nan­cially and met en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards.

One in­sider says Shorten “went to the precipice” of with­draw­ing fed­eral La­bor’s equally qual­i­fied sup­port, but was urged to look be­yond the March 17 by-elec­tion in Bat­man. The Coali­tion, through the Lib­eral Na­tional Party, holds 21 of Queens­land’s 30 fed­eral seats and Shorten knows La­bor won’t come to power fed­er­ally without car­ry­ing more of them.

At the same time, he needs to sand­bag ALP marginals such as Her­bert and Long­man on Bris­bane’s north­ern fringe, which might be next cab off the rank for a by-elec­tion if em­bat­tled La­bor MP Su­san Lamb also comes a crop­per on her cit­i­zen­ship.

Tour­ing the cen­tral Queens- land in­dus­trial cen­tre of Glad­stone yes­ter­day, Shorten em­pha­sised that ques­tion­ing Adani did not make him “anti-min­ing”.

He said: “What we need to do is just make sure that we have a plan B, a plan be­yond Adani. I don’t think any­one now can guar­an­tee a whole lot of the com­mer­cial ar­range­ments. I’ve said all along it’s got to stack up en­vi­ron­men­tally and com­mer­cially. It’s not me, there’s a lot of peo­ple say­ing there’s a lot of prob­lems.”

Break­ing his si­lence, Adani Aus­tralia boss Jeyaku­mar Janakaraj said the com­pany had writ­ten to Shorten to reaf­firm its com­mit­ment to the Carmichael project and the job tar­gets. He warns, point­edly, that Aus­tralia is at a “cross­roads” with for­eign in­vest­ment, and com­pa­nies like Adani don’t work “on a three or a fouryear cy­cle in which elec­tions take place in Aus­tralia”.

Janakaraj in­sists the facts speak for them­selves. The com­pany has so far sunk $3.3bn into the project — $1.8bn on the Ab­bot Point port pur­chase, the rest on plan­ning and site works for the mine, as well as an­cil­lar­ies such as le­gal costs. There’s a work­force of 800, in­clud­ing 123 peo­ple head­quar­tered in the new river­front of­fice in Townsville, which In­quirer vis­ited this week. The monthly pay­roll amounts to $7.2m.

“We are spend­ing good money … that should give peo­ple con­fi­dence that we are be­ing se­ri­ous and not try­ing to test the ground. We would want peo­ple not to have any doubt on our com­mit­ment and in­ten­tion to de­liver the project,” the CEO said.

Still, he won’t be drawn on a date to lock in the fi­nanc­ing or the call by Hill this week for Adani to get crack­ing on the site work.

“The busi­ness is not re­ly­ing on to­day’s news and to­mor­row’s … spec­u­la­tion,” he said.

“The busi­ness is ab­so­lutely on eco­nom­ics, the fun­da­men­tals of the re­source and the qual­ity of the re­source.”

‘We are spend­ing good money … that should give peo­ple con­fi­dence’ JEYAKU­MAR JANAKARAJ CEO, ADANI AUS­TRALIA


Prepa­ra­tions at Carmichael, above; left, Jenny Hill with Bill Shorten; be­low: a protest against Adani at Par­lia­ment House

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