Shorten will sink or swim over wa­ver­ing on contentious Adani mine

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - OPINION - ANNIKA SMETHURST

BILL Shorten is hav­ing a dream run as op­po­si­tion leader.

De­spite the gov­ern­ment work­ing it­self into a lather try­ing to ques­tion his char­ac­ter, noth­ing has stuck.

As La­bor des­per­ately tries to out-Green the Greens in next week­end’s by-elec­tion, the Coali­tion has again pounced, this time on Shorten’s shift­ing stance on the pro­posed Adani coalmine.

In April last year Shorten was adamant he sup­ported the project declar­ing “I sup­port the Adani coalmine as long as it stacks up”.

He went on: “I hope it stacks up by the way, but it’s gotta stack up com­mer­cially, it’s gotta stack up en­vi­ron­men­tally.” Fast-for­ward to last week in Perth. “I don’t sup­port the Adani project,” he said.

“I’m a scep­tic. I’m not sup­port­ive of it.”

Re­move the qualifiers and it ap­pears Shorten has had a change of heart, after it passed all state and fed­eral ap­provals. La­bor won’t go as far as killing off the project, but Shorten clearly wants it to wither.

The gov­ern­ment has seized on this un­mis­take­able back­flip and will again try and frame it as a test of Shorten’s char­ac­ter. It wants Aus­tralians to see what it sees — that Shorten is at­tempt­ing to be an en­vi­ron­men­tal war­rior in Vic­to­ria while des­per­ately try­ing to hold on to Queens­land seats.

Mal­colm Turn­bull called him “two-faced”. Educ­tion Min­is­ter Si­mon Birm­ing­ham de­scribed it as “try­ing to walk two sides of the street”.

The gov­ern­ment has ap­plied this strat­egy be­fore, high­light­ing Shorten’s ties with the CFMEU or his friend­ship with bil­lion­aire Richard

Pratt to smear his char­ac­ter. But it rarely sticks.

This time though, Shorten will need to tread care­fully.

Some scep­tics think the La­bor leader is us­ing the Adani is­sue as a proxy pol­icy bat­tle for broader en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues.

It is even be­ing de­scribed as his “Franklin Dam mo­ment” as Shorten sides with vot­ers liv­ing thou­sands of kilo­me­tres away from the pro­posed site.

Thirty-five years ago La­bor went to the 1983 elec­tion vow­ing to end con­struc­tion of the pro­posed Franklin Dam by any means it could. In his elec­tion pol­icy speech, La­bor leader Bob Hawke said his gov­ern­ment would “use all the pow­ers at our dis­posal to en­sure that the dam is not pro­ceeded”.

On the main­land, stop­ping the dam was a pop­u­lar po­si­tion and ul­ti­mately con­trib­uted to a 24-seat swing to La­bor, win­ning Hawke the elec­tion.

But Tas­ma­nia bucked the trend and was the only state that recorded a swing to the Lib­eral Party.

It was a risk La­bor could take be­cause the five fed­eral seats in Tas­ma­nia were al­ready held by Lib­eral MPs and were un­likely to have a dra­matic im­pact on the fi­nal makeup of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

While that fight took place in the days be­fore the En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion and Bio­di­ver­sity Con­ser­va­tion Act, there are lessons to be learnt.

As with Tas­ma­nia’s Franklin Dam is­sue, the Adani mine project is un­pop­u­lar out­side of the sun­shine state, par­tic­u­larly in Shorten’s home state of Vic­to­ria where it is now an elec­tion is­sue in the Bat­man by­elec­tion.

A poll taken late last year found 77 per cent of Aus­tralians were against the Adani mine, but among Queens­land vot­ers it drops to a 50 per cent op­po­si­tion.

Shorten can­not af­ford to take as strong a stance against the coalmine as Hawke be­cause Queens­land can make or break gov­ern­ments.

Ac­cord­ing to the Aus­tralian Elec­toral Com­mis­sion, there are about 50 mar­ginal seats in Aus­tralia — one-third of them in Queens­land.

Heav­ily pro­mot­ing La­bor’s en­vi­ron­men­tal cre­den­tials will never be enough to sway Greens vot­ers to vote La­bor, but it risks alien­at­ing Queens­lan­ders the op­po­si­tion will need at next year’s fed­eral elec­tion.

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