Wednesday, 21 August 2019

What Queenslanders think about Adani’s Carmichael mine

The other day in response to something put on Twitter by a person I know, who is a journalist, I made a comment about this mine. The man I was talking to is English and works in Europe. His main preoccupation seems to be the environment and he is one of that new breed of practitioner who would embrace the epithet “activist” if it was applied to him. So he feels very passionately about what he does. It’s not important how I got to know him, suffice it to say that he is considerably younger than me.

When we had finished our conversation on Twitter I thought a bit about what had been said and, more importantly, what had not been said. It occurred to me that there are a lot of people in different countries around the world who are invested heavily, in an emotional sense, in the Carmichael mine, but that there is also a lot of ignorance about it and the political context surrounding it. The conversation I had had with the journalist in question demonstrated this to me. So I decided to write a short primer on the issue so that people in other countries, countries that are not Australia, can understand why the Carmichael mine will surely go ahead and be built. Most locals will already know what is included in this article, which is really designed for people resident overseas.

It’s not important what I think about the Carmichael mine. I have my own ideas about the environment and what should be done to preserve our future. But what is more important is what the people of North Queensland think. They are the ones, ultimately, who will decide what gets done in their territory.

To start with let’s step back and contemplate Australia briefly. This is a country with about the same land mass as Europe but with a population of 25 million. Queensland itself is the same size as Alaska and has a population of five million, of whom most live in the southeast corner in or around the state capital of Brisbane. North Queensland is parochial and independent; it is the furthest extremity of a frontier state. People up there are very independent-minded and they hardly tolerate being told what to do by politicians in Brisbane, let alone by activists in the southern capitals of Melbourne and Sydney. In Queensland the state government is very aware of this dynamic and some governments there even hold their parliaments up north in an effort to bring the people who live in that region closer into the fold.

Queensland has always bred mavericks. Julian Assange grew up in North Queensland and his mother lives in Southeast Queensland now. You also have the likes of Clive Palmer, a rich businessman who has run for office and who has won it and lost it. Then there is Pauline Hanson, the xenophobic populist who initially won office in 1996, trumping Trump by a generation. And you also have Bob Katter, who is the federal member for a North Queensland seat and who has set up his own political party, a party which includes his own son. I lived in Queensland for over five years and it was while living there that I first met the journalist mentioned at the beginning of this piece.

In outback Queensland you don’t see many cars. The ones you do see drive very fast on sometimes poorly-maintained sealed roads, or else on unsealed roads that are covered with gravel or dirt. Working on a mine means a lot of driving, often, to get from a major population centre to the work site. So it is dangerous work for the simple reason that you are going very fast for a good deal of the time on bad roads. Roads cost money to fix and Queensland is very big and very sparsely populated.

Jobs are especially important in this kind of country because workers spend their money in town buying food, staying in hotels, buying beers at the pub, and buying petrol to fill up their utilities. A town might have a population of a few hundred or a few thousand so every single job is considered to be a kind of gift to the whole community. In this context, the potential mine employment figures that are bandied about by a left-wing think-tank like the Australia institute or by the Adani company or even by the state government, are not the most important thing. What is most important is how locals think about the level of employment will be produced. You can publish any figure you like but you can’t argue with a $50 note put down on the counter to pay for a steak dinner. That $50 note is good for the whole community because it goes toward paying wages and paying for supplies. The money gets circulated through the community as retail employees and business owners pay their bills and do their shopping.

About five years ago, to do a story, I drove north on the Bruce Highway from the town near Brisbane I lived in to a place near Home Hill in North Queensland. I had a contact and he had promised to meet me at a certain time in a roadside café and he was there soon after I parked my car in the parking lot out the front, next to the highway. I shook his hand and the first thing he said to me after “Hello” was, “So you’re a Mexican.” I had to think for a moment because I have a surname that might sound Mexican if you don’t know your history (and a lot of people don’t, I have found). But I understood him in the end: I was from south of the border. I was an outsider because of where I lived in the southeast of the state. So he used this casual pejorative from the get-go just to test me. I agreed that I was a Mexican and we had a busy and productive day together.

The joke was hardly surprising to me once I had talked with this man, a retired marine engineer aged then in his fifties. People in North Queensland want to draw a new border at Rockhampton and govern themselves. Even though they rely on money provided by the state government in the southeast, they feel a good deal of resentment about the current political settlement. Queensland is the only state to have only one chamber in its parliament. They abolished the upper house in 1922. That’s how much they respect politicians up north.

In May there was a federal election in Australia and the result was unexpected. Everyone had thought Labor would win but the Liberal Party with its coalition partner, the National Party, won a slim majority in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, the Coalition increased its share of the available seats and although the Coalition does not have a majority there, the minor parties that control the balance of power in the upper house are mostly of a conservative bent. So the Coalition did something remarkable and are now in power until the next poll, in three years’ time. Before he was appointed party leader, the current prime minister, Scott Morrison, once scandalised the Speaker of the Reps by bringing a lump of coal into the chamber to make a point.

Before the election, the former leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, travelled with a convoy of cars north into Queensland to protest against Adani. Some of the cars were Teslas. They were jeered in the streets by some and welcomed by others. But the stunt did more than make headlines: it galvanised voters in the state to reject parties that might – even potentially – be against Adani. Hence the Coalition’s windfall in the Senate. The people of Queensland spoke and they spoke decisively in favour of coal. A Labor government in Brisbane that ignored that voice would be committing political suicide (the next state election is in 2020). There’s no question but that the Carmichael mine will go ahead.

It should be added that many people in places like Sydney and Melbourne, and even in Brisbane, think that the Carmichael mine should be stopped. There are a lot of Australians who agree with the global consensus that we should avoid wherever possible using fossil fuels for energy. But the dynamic in play in this country is what you find in many places: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. North Queenslanders are pushing back and it is what they think that will decide the outcome in this case.

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