Mining both sides

On the billboard in Rockhampton, the quote from Bill Shorten is unequivocal: “I don’t support the Adani project.” Next to it is a photo of Shorten holding a “Stop Adani” banner.

The picture has been retouched to disguise the fact he is pulling the banner out of the hands of a protester who had climbed on stage with it at Labor’s national conference in November. The billboard is a neat allegory of the disingenuousness of the Adani debate, on both sides of politics.

The resources minister, Matt Canavan, says the billboard is there “to remind everyone – including Bill – what he actually said”. He says, “Labor just can’t be trusted.”

The Shorten quote is from a press conference in March 2018, a few weeks before the Batman byelection. Shorten said: “I don’t support the Adani project. I’m not supportive of it. I make no secret that I don’t like it very much.” He also said, at the same press conference: “When contracts are entered into by previous governments, we can’t just simply rip them up because that would then create investment uncertainty.”

A month earlier, the Australian Conservation Foundation had paid for Shorten to tour the Great Barrier Reef. The group’s president, Geoff Cousins, said Shorten told him privately he would cancel the mine’s licence. Cousins claims he said: “When we are in government, if the evidence is as compelling as we presently believe it to be regarding the approval of the Adani mine, we will revoke the licence, as allowed in the act. That’s a clear policy.”

Publicly, Shorten said he doubted the mine would go ahead but that he wouldn’t change the law to prohibit it. “I don’t think the project is going to materialise. The Adani mining company seems to have missed plenty of deadlines. It doesn’t seem to stack up financially, commercially or indeed environmentally.”

This has been his line since, a way of avoiding the question on something he doesn’t think will happen. He won’t criticise the mine directly, but he says it needs to satisfy science and the environment. It also needs to be financially viable. In reality, it is none of these things.

In Townsville on Wednesday, in the marginal seat of Herbert, his language hardened. “We are not going to review Adani, full stop. We have no plans.”

Equally, he would not sign a union pledge guaranteeing its go-ahead: “I have no plans to review the approvals but if we want to be fair dinkum, let’s be fair dinkum and let’s tell the voters the truth. If I’m prime minister I will adhere to the law of the land. I’m not going to be intimidated or bullied by environmental activists or big mining companies. For me, it is all about the best science, the law of the land and not creating sovereign risk.”

The Adani project is a joke. It’s an economic farce. The approvals rushed through for it are specious at best. The jobs it will create are negligible.

It sustains because it is a symbol of a backwards Australia, where the environment is bent to the will of man. Opening this mine is about telling the world it won’t set our targets on climate change. It is about laughing at science and reassuring anyone who is scared to face its predictions.

The mine is a portal to the past, which is why the Coalition is so keen to keep it open and why Labor is so afraid of forcing it closed. Shorten hopes reality will shut it for him. It’s not exactly leadership. In fact, it’s not at all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 27, 2019 as "Mining both sides".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription