Canavan’s symbolic war that went wrong
February 10 2018 – 12:15AM
By Richard Denniss
Politicians love symbols, whether it’s standing in front of a wall of flags, wearing a ribbon on their lapel or being photographed with workers in hard hats.
Voters love symbols, too.
Political travel expenses are, for many voters, a symbol of all that’s wrong with politics.
Traffic jams are a symbol of all that’s wrong with immigration policy and the number of women in cabinet is a symbol of a party’s concern about gender equity.
Of course, different issues have different importance for different voters.
Labor’s Adani stance
But some symbols unite unlikely allies. And just as Bronwyn Bishop’s preference for helicopter travel created an unlikely coalition of disgust, the Turnbull government’s problem is that the Adani coal mine has become a symbol that unites all voters worried about climate change, corporate welfare, multinational tax avoidance and the need to create jobs in regional Australia.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Matt Canavan, has always been a fan of the Adani mine. and When he secured the $5 billion of taxpayers’ money for his Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, the mine’s prospects were looking rosy.
Of course, he knew that environmental groups would complain about using public money to help build the world’s largest export coal mine, but such complaints were part of the strategy.
Protestors gather at Federal Parliament this week to oppose the Adani coal mine. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer
Symbols are only powerful when people notice them, so for Canavan it was essential to have a big fight with the environment movement over whether Queensland needed to create jobs or protect the climate.
Without the fight, no one would notice the minister or his project.
The mine, which is 160 kilometres from the nearest small town of Clermont, is designed to be “automated from pit to port”.
Without a big national fight about its symbolism, the would be pretty easy to miss.
As Adani’s own economic expert, Jerome Fahrer, pointed out in court, the mine would not noticeably affect the Queensland or Australia’s unemployment rate.
Fahrer said under oath “the benefits of this project are not about jobs, they’re about incomes”.
The only way for Canavan to make the project look like a big deal for the economy, as opposed to a profitable deal for Adani, was to pick a fight with environmentalists and use that fight to appear in the media every day talking about the “tens of thousands” of jobs he would create and that his opponents would stop.
But while political debates about coal mines may be largely symbolic, there is nothing symbolic about being unemployed.
There are more than 700,000 jobless Australians.
With the unemployment benefit, Newstart, just $245 a week, it’s easy to understand why voters worry about jobs.
In turn, when you ask voters if they prefer governments to create more jobs, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll say yes.
That’s what the Coalition hoped people would focus on.
But if you ask people whether we should build new coal mines, most voters say no.
Similarly, if you ask people whether taxpayers should subsidise new coal mines, an overwhelming majority say no. And that’s where things started to go wrong for Canavan’s strategy.
While he wanted a big national debate to make his pet project, and himself, look nationally significant, he didn’t get the debate he hoped for.
Rather than become a symbol of the Coalition’s commitment to ignoring environmentalists and creating jobs, the Adani mine is a symbol of the government’s determination to give public money to a foreign company that’s is registered in the Cayman Islands.
At a time the Tax Office is publishing data on the number of big mining companies that pay no tax, and at a time when the mining industry is demanding a $65 billion cut in company tax, the Coalition wants to give $1 billion to a foreign company registered in a tax haven.
One Nation campaigned against the Adani subsidies at the recent Queensland state election. Indeed, Pauline Hanson was photographed in front of her party’s posters, which declared “no free rail for Adani”.
While Canavan has worked tirelessly to suggest it is only environmentalists who oppose the Adani mine, multiple polls show that most One Nation and Coalition voters have similar concerns.
The Adani mine is a symbol of the blinkered vision that the Coalition has about our economic future and the best way to create jobs in regional Australia.
Far more Australians work in tourism than in coal mining.
If the Coalition took the budget, or regional job creation, seriously, it would look at all the ways to create jobs in north Queensland, compare the costs of a range of projects and programs, and choose the policies that create the most jobs per taxpayer dollar spent. But despite years of telling Australians that a highly automated coal mine far from population centres is a great way to create jobs, the Coalition is yet to produce any comparative research to suggest that $1 billion for a coal rail line would create more jobs than $1 billion invested in tourism, manufacturing, education or anything else.
The Adani mine has also become a symbol of the Coalition’s ideological confusion.
Having spent decades saying we needed to cut subsidies to manufacturing and other exporters, the so-called “free-traders” have now embraced the idea that subsidies are a great way to create jobs.
Only three years ago, they were proudly scrapping aid for the car industry in Victoria on the basis that industries should stand or fall on their own two feet.
So thanks to Canavan, Australia is finally having the debates about climate change, the role of government and corporate tax evasion that we avoided for decades.
The Coalition succeeded in making Adani a symbol, but a symbol of our nation’s determination to mine more coal as at a time the world is buying less of it, to give industry aid to powerful groups like miners but deny it to emerging industries like renewables, and to give taxpayers’ money to foreign companies rather than collect a fair share of tax for Australians.
It’s easy to see why every party other than the Coalition opposed elements of the Adani mine in the recent Queensland election. What’s impossible to see is the case for the Turnbull government sticking with its support for the mine. Bill Shorten mustn’t be able to believe his luck.
Richard Denniss is The Australia Institute’s chief economist. Twitter: @RDNS_TAI
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