Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Barnaby Joyce’s undermining over coal

Barnaby Joyce is increasingly looking like the mad uncle the family, or at least the Liberal cousins, would like to see locked in the attic. The Nationals deputy leader has so irritated his Coalition colleagues with his outspoken opposition to a giant open-cut coalmine in his electorate that they have begun leaking against him. The undermining, if you’ll pardon the pun, is symptomatic of tensions over policy and direction affecting the Abbott government.

As a piece of political drama it is looking more and more like the theatre of the absurd. No sooner had Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved the giant Shenhua Watermark project than his cabinet colleague, Agriculture Minister Joyce, attacked it on his official Facebook page.

“I’ve done everything in my power to try and stop the mine ... I think the world has gone mad when apparently you cannot build a house at Moore Creek because of White Box grassy woodlands but you can build a super mine in the middle of the Breeza plains,” he posted. These plains, he explained, are Australia’s best farming land and “it’s ridiculous you would have a major mine in the midst” of them.

It’s hard to think of a starker example of breaking ranks or, worse, breaking cabinet solidarity. However, the open defiance was met not with a slap down from the prime minister but with a leave pass. Barnaby’s job is “absolutely” safe. “He is doing an outstanding job, he is passionate, he is committed, he is knowledgeable,” was Tony Abbott’s glowing endorsement. But his knowledge of the billion-dollar project pushed by a Chinese state-owned company is apparently defective. Hunt is adamant there is only a minuscule threat to the water table from the giant open-cut mine. Ten blasts a week will dislodge the booty as 10 million tonnes of coal are extracted a year in a 24/7 operation.

The environment minister must be somewhat nervous about it, though. He has imposed the most extensive list of safeguards and conditions on the project. Besides, he says, he had no discretion in the decision. Once the mine passed rigorous scientific benchmarks, he had a statutory obligation to sign off on it. It didn’t even go to cabinet. If there was a political discussion on the sidelines of that forum, Joyce was certainly not included.

Despite the fact Joyce had publicly expressed a vote of no confidence in Hunt and his process, there was only praise for the dissenter. “He’s a really good man,” Hunt said, deriding the suggestion there is conflict. “He’s an honest and decent man and I want to stick up for him.” This ability to deny reality or redefine it to suit your convenience is, for some, the art of politics. For most sane people, it is simply incredible.

There are a few in the Liberal party who think so. By midweek, reports began emerging that for all his “loveableness” Joyce is not foreman material. His inability or, more likely, refusal to take the cue offered him by Abbott that he was speaking out as a local member rather than as a minister was bad enough. He contradicted the PM. Imagine if he were the Nationals leader and deputy prime minister. A refreshing candour? Or as the Liberal machine apparently believes, an unattractive ticket to take to the next election? It would mean two loose cannons leading the government.

The ABC quoted two unnamed Liberals claiming the Chinese had raised concerns at the highest levels about the possibility that Joyce one day would succeed Warren Truss as party leader. The Shenhua project manager, Peter Jackson, is quoted calling Joyce xenophobic. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop dismissed the report as “mischief”. She denied any such concerns had come to the government from Beijing. If the Liberal sources of the story thought it would sway the Nationals, they are wrong. “Since when have the Chinese had a say in who we elect to lead us?” was the reaction of one MP.

Julie Bishop herself was locked in conflict with her Liberal cabinet colleague Malcolm Turnbull. His subtle criticism of the government for overstating the threat that Daesh poses spilled into a second week. Still banned from appearing on the ABC’s Q&A program, Turnbull went on 7.30 the same night and repeated his views. The foreign minister two days later slapped him down. Daesh is “an existential threat”, she insisted.

The spectacle of a government at war with itself flashed across our consciousness when Treasurer Joe Hockey appeared to restart the tax-reform debate. He obliged a leading accounting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, by turning up to a forum it sponsored and lamenting, “Surely it is not beyond the capacity of us as a country to have a sensible, mature debate about long-term tax reform more generally.” That was for the states ahead of their meeting with the prime minister next week, as much as for anyone else. Unfortunately, issues that business and economists see in need of urgent reform, such as superannuation tax concessions and the goods and services tax, are ruled out. Ruled out, that is, unless all the states and the Labor opposition can be bludgeoned into GST changes. Labor has already proposed super reforms at the top end, only to be accused of “piggy bank raiding”. So much for mature debate.

 Ruled in is shoving onto the states more responsibility to raise their own revenue. Hockey puts it in terms of making the federation more efficient. There are ways they could do it besides raising the GST. The Grattan Institute has helpfully suggested imposing a broad-based property levy. That would be on top of council rates and charges but an impost of $2 for every $1000 of unimproved land value could raise $7 billion. When this was put to Hockey and Abbott they had the same answer: “It’s up to the states.”

Of course, it’s very hard to embark on tax reform if it only means “lower, simpler, fairer” taxes. This Abbott slogan demands definition. Lower for who? If we can believe the treasurer, come the election it should be lower for all taxpayers because he would like to hand back bracket creep. That’s the revenue he gets when inflation pushes wage and salary earners into higher tax brackets. In the present budget context he will only be able to do this if he has unloaded federal funding for health and education – something the states are fiercely resisting.

When governing gets this hard it’s easier to revert to opposition mode. Abbott couldn’t believe his luck when the Murdoch tabloids went into carbon tax overdrive. There on the front page, thanks to a leaked shadow cabinet briefing paper, was Bill Shorten as a carbon tax zombie. The shock-horror treatment was breathless in claiming Labor would raise the carbon tax from the dead. “Complete rubbish,” was Shorten’s terse reply. Whether the leak was journalistic good luck or someone’s deliberate move to “get Bill”, as the government claimed, it showed policy guts from Labor.

The opposition is determined not to allow Tony Abbott to define a floating market mechanism to price carbon as a “tax”. It has no plans to set a high fixed price. That hasn’t stopped Abbott, of course. He says it doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s still a tax. But fighting a new war on old battlegrounds is a recipe for failure. Times are changing. No longer does he have Julia Gillard’s broken promise. He can no longer claim it will cost each household $550 – in fact, when he abolished the “tax”, households were short-changed, most lucky to get $220 back from their utilities. And power bills have continued to rise anyhow.

But more to the point, as Climate Institute analysis points out, financial markets are already factoring in climate change. The international conference in Paris to set emission reductions is bearing down. Australia is the only developed country that hasn’t signalled a meaningful target beyond 2020. As the institute’s John Connor says, nobody seriously believes the $2.5 billion pay-the-polluters Direct Action policy is anywhere near adequate. It’s an expensive fraud, as Malcolm Turnbull warned when it was introduced.

Already the government, thanks to its assault on funding for wind turbines and rooftop solar, has merely reinforced its image as a climate-change sceptic out of touch with the electorate. It’s certainly out of touch with scientific reality. A newly feisty Shorten hit back at Abbott: “I will tell you what we will do. We won’t stick our heads in the sand, bury ourselves in the past and ignore climate change.” That puts the debate where it should be. The purpose is to cut dangerous emissions. Abbott even attacked proposed tougher vehicle fuel-efficiency measures for making cars more expensive. He conveniently ignored the fact they would save motorists money at the bowser.

Oh well. When there’s an election to be won, why waste time embarking on a mature debate about the nation’s future? We can all share Hockey’s lament.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2015 as "Re: Joyce in the minefield". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.