ROGER SCOTT: Insularity and Environmentalism – The Queensland election campaign

Nov 13, 2017

The Queensland election could be occurring on another planet, as far as the locals are concerned. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation may exercise a morbid fascination but the bigger current issue is the link between the infrastructure proposed for the Adani Carmichael mine and the railway which would link it from the middle of nowhere to the edge of the Great Barrier Reef.

 The end of the first week of campaigning in Queensland produced a widespread expectation that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation would benefit from the sort of alienation from the major parties now regarded as universal. Even without the presence of Hanson herself, or possibly because of it, polling and subsequent posturing by the leaders of the two major parties suggested that Queensland may face a minority government.

This has in turn caused the ALP to seek to differentiate itself from the LNP by emphasising its better-but-not-spotless record on environmental protection, particularly its expanded and specific legislative ambitions regarding tree-clearing and general protection for the Great Barrier Reef.

Campaign workers in Brisbane reported that this had not mollified voters swinging between the ALP and the Greens. These voters prioritised the environmental policies in response to the overwhelming publicity being given to the Carmichael coal mine and the related port development to which Adani’s name was attached. (Aussie mining magnates also stand to benefit from the infrastructure spending opening up the region).

The second week was dominated by the Premier seeking to lighten this millstone around her neck without abandoning altogether the voters in coastal seats from Rockhampton to Cairns. Three separate but not inconsistent explanations were offered for this dramatic change of mind, which give an insight into the internal tensions within the state ALP.

The first explanation – offered by the Premier – was that she had been informed of a Canberra-based smear campaign, later disowned by the state LNP, linked to her partner’s employment with the PricewaterhouseCoopers consultancy firm which was advising the federal government on infrastructure projects, including the Adani rail link. She had sought the advice of the Queensland Integrity Commissioner and chosen what the press called the ‘nuclear option’ of exercising a veto on the whole Commonwealth loan proposal.

The second explanation – offered by the Deputy Premier, Jackie Trad – was that this decision was implementing (albeit belatedly) a party policy that gave qualified support for Adani with the requirement that no taxpayer money would be spent supporting it. A Commonwealth loan of $1 billion, on favourable conditions, was identified as this sort of support.

The third explanation – offered by Treasurer Curtis Pitt – was that the change was a response to the strength of public opinion manifest during the campaign. As Treasurer, Pitt had earlier maintained that the state’s engagement with the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund gave Queensland access to loan support for a range of projects, including Adani, provided they met the still-incomplete procedural requirements.

The difference in emphasis reflects the campaign dynamics and political geography. The Premier was being dogged by handfuls of protesters linking Adani to the threats of climate change and reef degradation. The Deputy Premier was fighting in an inner-Brisbane where the Greens already had shown sufficient support to win a local government contest and the LNP, lagging behind the other two parties, was discussing allocating preferences to the Greens. Pitt represents a seat in Cairns where employment issues and northern development were prominent and One Nation was offering a protest-vote alternative.

In between these electorates lie the coastal cities and agricultural hinterland, with the current ALP-dominated cities of Townsville and Rockhampton closely identified with the presumed (and often much exaggerated) employment benefits of the Adani proposal. They were also in competition to win these benefits. The ALP decision risks support in these areas for appearing parsimonious in comparison with the ALP mayors of Townsville and Rockhampton who were reported to have, between them, promised Adani $30 million of ratepayer funds to provide a company airstrip to facilitate ‘fly-in-fly-out’ workers.

Recent polling and Adrian Beaumont’s analysis in The Conversation suggest that this shift in ALP position, although justified in part on arcane reasoning about conflicts of interest, may be based on sound political judgment.  The LNP (and One Nation) are wholly unequivocal in their support for Adani and for the other local mining magnates ready to benefit from the Commonwealth-funded Adani infrastructure. The Greens will inevitably reject any compromise position, but the new ALP stance ought to provide an irresistible rationale for not supporting the LNP in Brisbane seats. And any mildly environmentally-minded LNP voters would welcome a further justification for rejecting their own party’s poorly-concealed affection for a partnership in government with One Nation.

Hanson’s return from India this week has presaged wider public recognition, with the double-edged effect of bringing her candidates into the spotlight as potential legislators.  Steve Dickson, the current state leader, who has a plausible record as a former Minister in the deeply unpopular Newman government, is an adept media performer.  But he is regarded by pollsters as likely to lose a seat on the Sunshine Coast which has traditionally voted strongly for the non-redneck end of the LNP.

The only visible alternative is Hanson’s former Senate colleague, Malcolm Roberts, now standing for the seat of Ipswich, whose idiosyncratic views have tended to embarrass rather than reassure many in his party who hold more conventional views. But, like Dickson, Roberts faces a major challenge in a seat which would otherwise be regarded as safe for Labor if it were not for the Hanson glitz.

Further down the totem pole is a handful of candidates with limited experience in state and local government. After them is a long tail of people prepared to bear the cost of standing for One Nation in pursuit of diverse objectives unlikely to flourish in a legislature. The past record of One Nation’s eleven members in 1998 continues to haunt the party.

Based on the Western Australian experience, James Ashby will pursue a strongly centralist attitude towards recalcitrants and seek to encourage voters to ignore local personality issues. One Nation may have a policy of citizen-initiated referenda but its managerial style is clearly modelled on the leadership of the revolution whose centenary is being celebrated this week.

So, at the half-way point, the campaign has been energised by the stumbling clarification of the Premier.  This places Adani and environmentalism as a centre-piece rather than the wider struggle for parliamentary stability linked to the challenge posed for both major parties by One Nation.

Given the closing of nominations, preference dealing is also attracting attention with the opening of pre-polling, an option which has nationally grown to epic proportions. It is possible that over half of the votes will be cast before election day (which coincides with the day-long competing entertainment of the first Ashes test).

One Nation has formed common cause with Katter’s Australia Party, with the former strongest in the east and the latter in the north. The LNP remains coy by offering local members and candidates an element of choice, allowing one half to vigorously reject One Nation and the other to embrace Hanson or compete against her. The Greens are firmly at the bottom of One Nation’s list but in seats like that of Jackie Trad, the Greens might receive LNP preferences. The leader of the LNP notwithstanding, the local press reported that this strategy was being actively considered.

Dennis Adkins, in ‘Party Games’, his regular column in the Brisbane Courier-Mail, sought to capture the general mood – ‘There’s never been a more exciting time to be a drain-the-swamp outsider. This is the key thing to remember when you watch the Queensland election unfold. Queenslander swing between being cynically bitter about the state of politics to outright anger and despair.’

Two other points need to be made. First, Queenslanders have so far shown no interest whatever in the national political scene, although ALP national stalwarts have been prominent in offering help. Events in Canberra seem unconnected with local reality and it is obviously beneficial to the LNP that Prime Minister Turnbull has been absent overseas for significant periods. Back in 2015, a Courier-Mail cartoon showed the then PM Tony Abbott being invited up to campaign in the Queensland election, not by Campbell Newman but by Annastacia Palaszczuk.

And Newman also offers a reminder, heavily publicised by the union movement, of the threats and failures of a leader initially operating outside parliament and pursuing a simplistic populist agenda. Pauline Hanson clearly aspires to playing a role similar to Newman before he entered parliament, directing her team by remote control and adding to the general instability and unpredictability. Polling suggests that her voters are unaware that she is not herself seeking a Queensland seat when they respond to her pontificating about future intentions should One Nation exercise the balance of power.

Roger Scott is an Emeritus Professor of Public Administration in the University of Queensland and former Director-General of Education in Queensland. He was the Foundation Director of the TJ Ryan Foundation in Brisbane.

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