Overwhelming public opposition to the Adani coalmine in northern Queensland tipped the scales in state election campaigning. But now that’s over, what influence does it have at a federal level and on the mine’s future?

The future of the Adani mine

Protesters against the Adani coalmine rally outside the company’s Brisbane headquarters in October.
Protesters against the Adani coalmine rally outside the company’s Brisbane headquarters in October.

Monday morning after the Queensland election, hundreds of protesters gathered outside state parliament on Brisbane’s George Street. They came to remind freshly re-elected Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk of her sensational late-campaign promise: to veto the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility’s proposed $900 million loan to help mining giant Adani build a 310-kilometre rail line between the planned Carmichael coalmine in the Galilee Basin and the Abbot Point coal port north of Bowen.

While One Nation’s prospects captivated the national media, the Carmichael mine loomed large in the state’s south-east, largely thanks to the creative enterprises of those protesters. In the opening stages of the campaign, neither Palaszczuk nor opposition leader Tim Nicholls could pop their heads up without confronting a cohort of anti-Adani diehards waving signs for the cameras.

One group hid beneath a stage in Townsville for hours, to ambush a debate between Nicholls, state One Nation leader Steve Dickson and Katter’s Australian Party (KAP) leader, Robbie Katter. Another blocked access to Adani’s Townsville headquarters in the morning, were forced to move on by police, and were disrupting a Liberal National Party media conference down the street by the afternoon.

Palaszczuk’s explanation for abandoning her long-time support of the loan was to avoid a potential conflict of interest, arising from her partner’s work on Adani’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) loan application as a consultant for PwC. But state treasurer Curtis Pitt admitted during the campaign that the real reason for Palaszczuk’s about-face was the overwhelming public opposition to taxpayers’ money being used to fund a private mine.

Queensland’s Labor government supports the Adani mine going ahead, to provide jobs in struggling regional areas. But GetUp! environmental justice co-director and Stop Adani campaigner Sam Regester points to the huge swings to the Greens in a swath of inner-Brisbane electorates as proof Labor recognised anti-Adani sentiment was hurting them enough to force a response. Counting still under way in Maiwar could lead to the Greens winning their first seat at a general election, and candidate Amy MacMahon came close to knocking over Labor deputy premier Jackie Trad in South Brisbane.

“The Greens’ strong position on Adani was directly responsible for their strong showing in the inner city,” Regester says. “Labor tried to have it both ways for three years, and they offset some of the damage by deciding to veto the NAIF loan, but voters rewarded the party that had a consistent stance.”

Given Labor will most likely form a majority government, that balancing act appears to have worked for now. What comes next – for the mine, those opposing it, and the government that could make or break it – is less clear. As counting continues and the Palaszczuk government prepares to go back to work with whatever parliament the voters have given it, anti-Adani campaigners are planning their next moves.

The Stop Adani Alliance, the umbrella organisation of environmentalists, climate scientists, traditional owners and civil society groups that formed to campaign against the mine in March, largely regards the election result as a win. Nicholls’ Liberal National Party, which has backed the mine to the hilt, remains in opposition. One Nation’s promised windfall of seats failed to materialise.

Regester says the movement’s largest lesson was a palpable shift in north Queensland, where Adani has historically enjoyed its greatest support. “Things are really different in north Queensland now. There are still some strongly pro-Adani pockets, but the mine wasn’t the vote-killer for Labor a lot of people assumed it would be.”

Despite that sanguine assessment, central and north Queensland was a mixed bag for the government. Contrary to expectations, Labor held two of  its three marginal seats based around metropolitan Townsville, and is in the running to retain the third. Its vote held up in traditional Labor seats such as Mackay, Keppel and Gladstone, despite One Nation polling strongly. Pro-Adani independent and Rockhampton mayor Margaret Strelow, who was expelled from the Labor Party after losing preselection for the Rockhampton state seat and announcing her own tilt, narrowly lost to Labor’s Barry O’Rourke, who supports Palaszczuk’s promise to veto the NAIF loan.

However, Labor’s about-face proved unpopular in Burdekin, where the mine is to be built, and the party is set to lose neighbouring Mirani, which elected One Nation’s sole representative in the new parliament. It failed to poach the marginal coastal seat of Whitsunday from the LNP, and slumped to third place in Gregory, home of the fabled “Tree of Knowledge” under which the Queensland Labor Party was supposedly founded in 1891. Rob Pyne, the former Labor member for Cairns who went independent in 2016 and campaigned hard against Adani, lost convincingly to Labor’s Michael Healy, who hastily reversed his opposition to the mine once the media drew attention to it.

Palaszczuk’s Labor government will likely hold 47 or 48 seats in Queensland’s 93-member, single-house parliament. Once it nominates a speaker, the government will have the barest of majorities, provided every Labor MP stays in line. Given the record of Palaszczuk’s previous government, which lost Pyne and former Cook MP Billy Gordon to the crossbench, that may be too much to hope for. If Labor is forced to negotiate with the KAP’s three parliamentarians, One Nation’s Stephen Andrew, or Noosa independent Sandy Bolton, it may find the competing interests over the Adani mine can’t be finessed away.

On the issue of the NAIF loan, at least, public opinion is emphatic enough to pressure Palaszczuk into keeping her word. ReachTel polling conducted for the Stop Adani Alliance during the campaign found 70 per cent of Queenslanders oppose directing public funding towards the Carmichael project, with voters across political lines expressing strong support for the government using its veto power.

Queenslanders are more evenly split on the larger question of the mine itself, but losing the NAIF loan will compound Adani’s difficulties in securing the $3.3 billion it needs to fund the first stage of the project, and could sink the mine altogether. While Adani has made noises about seeking financing from Chinese banks, such a move would likely require construction materials and infrastructure contracts to be sourced from Chinese firms, further souring the project in the public eye and undermining the argument that the mine will bring local jobs.

So much attention has been devoted to Palaszczuk’s manoeuvring, it’s easy to forget how much of Adani’s ultimate fate lies in Canberra. The federal opposition leader, Bill Shorten, stayed far away from Queensland during the campaign, not least to avoid awkward questions about where he stands. Shorten tied himself in knots trying to articulate his various positions on the mine earlier this year, sometimes changing his mind mid-sentence.

“There’s no point having a giant coalmine if you wreck the reef but, on the other hand, if the deal does stack up, if the science safeguards are there, if the experts are satisfied, then all well and good and there’ll be jobs created,” he said at a press conference in May.

With the state election over, Shorten and federal Labor no longer have the luxury of dithering. Regester says the anti-Adani movement’s top post-election priority, “besides ensuring the veto goes through” and “working to ensure Adani can’t secure funding from anywhere else”, will be recentring the campaign on the national stage.

“Unless a major party moves on Adani, we’ll be making it an issue at the next federal election,” Regester says, highlighting “marginal seats in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane” where support for Adani could prove costly. Labor’s Terri Butler and the Liberals’ Trevor Evans will be looking nervously at the huge upswing in the Greens’ vote across territory their inner-Brisbane seats cover, while the Stop Adani movement’s large Melbourne presence could see the thumping Greens victory in the Victorian Northcote byelection repeated in Batman, Wills, Higgins and Melbourne Ports.

Whether those potential losses can be offset by winning back regional Queensland seats such as Capricornia, Flynn and Leichhardt, as well as retaining the Townsville-centric Herbert, which Labor holds by 37 votes, is a choice Shorten and Labor will be forced to make sometime between now and the next election. A lot rides on whether opposing the Carmichael mine is the “vote-killer” in regional Queensland it used to be.

If they choose wrong, Shorten and Labor risk being swamped by protesters of one stripe or another every time they set foot in Queensland. And, unlike Palaszczuk, they don’t have a magic conflict of interest up their sleeve.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2017 as "Mining the sentiment".

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