Shorten will sink or swim over wavering on contentious Adani mine
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.