Features Australia

Dig coal, not dung

Liberal policies save Labor from the slag heap

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

Hell hath no fury like an environmentalist scorned. Like lead in its saddle bag, Labor dumped its Green policies before the Queensland state election, and two days before the poll, Extinction Rebellion dumped a load of horse manure between the state parliament and its high-rise offices, known as the ‘tower of power.’ The dung delivered an unambiguous message; but to avoid any doubt a banner emblazoned with a picture of erstwhile treasurer, Jackie Trad, accused the government of ‘Destroying our future.’ The smaller type tried to spread the blame around explaining, ‘ALP/LNP: BLUE OR RED, WE END UP DEAD,’ but it was clear that the vitriol was intended for Labor.

Only three days after Labor’s federal rout in Queensland in 2019, Premier Palaszczuk declared the result a wake-up call. Federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese was still snoring through a listening tour, but after nine years of stalling, Queensland’s environment minister finally approved the Adani mine. It wasn’t until mid-December that Albanese expressed lukewarm support for coal exports confirming that Labor’s path back to government remains fraught as long as he is leader.

Like sirens to sailors, there is no shortage of academics luring Labor to wreck itself on Green fantasies. Two days before the Queensland vote, the Australia Institute released a report claiming that only 12 per cent of Australians want Australia’s economic recovery to be led by investment in gas, 83 per cent want coal-fired power stations phased out and 65 per cent want the federal government to stop new coal mines being developed. The day before the election, two academics wrote on the the Conversation that ‘at both a state and federal level, Labor should not hasten to back fossil fuels, nor should it abandon an ambitious climate policy agenda,’ because ‘the issue of new coal mines may not be a huge election decider in Queensland after all.’ As hard-headed as the hat she donned in repeated photo opportunities, Palaszczuk was not fooled. It was hardly a Damascene conversion to fossil fuels. Queensland started fracking coal-seam gas under Labor premier Peter Beattie in 1999.

Having made her luck, committing to coal, Palaszczuk got lucky with the NSW bushfires. China, the largest and most valuable source of international visitors in Queensland posed an enormous threat of infection, but long before President Trump and then Prime Morrison closed down flights from China at the end of January and the beginning of February, the bushfires that choked Sydney — Australia’s number one tourist destination — for most of December and January, deterred hundreds of thousands of tourists.

In January, visitors from China, Australia’s top source of tourists since 2018 and predicted to grow further, were down by 34 per cent, largely due to the fires; the Wuhan lockdown didn’t affect the whole country and wasn’t declared until 23 January. By February, usually the peak month for Chinese visitors, tourism was down by 83 per cent compared with 2019. The early isolation and the summer weather ensured that Australia was not to be silently seeded with Sars-Cov-2, as were Lombardy and New York.

Queensland’s first cases of Covid came hardly more than a week after Australia’s first infection on 19 January; Chinese tourists from Wuhan arrived on the Gold Coast on 27 January and several tested positive over the following days. By 17 March, there were still only 78 cases in Queensland, but treasurer Jackie Trad said the virus could cost the state economy more than $10 billion over two years. The state government announced $500 million in interest-free loans to local businesses, which it expanded to a $4 billion package, yet it was dwarfed by the 22 March announcement from the PM of a $66 billion stimulus package which became the backbone of JobKeeper.

In 2019, tourism was one of the largest private-sector sources of work, employing more than 236,000 people, worth more than $28 billion to gross state product, one of the state’s largest export industries. Tourism in regional areas employed 105,700 people; in Cairns, it creates one in five jobs, in the Whitsundays, one in three. By 22 April, there were only around a thousand cases of Covid but 130,000 Queenslanders had lost their jobs due to Covid restrictions. Electorates in south-east Queensland were some of the biggest beneficiaries and also had the largest total increase in Youth Allowance recipients.

Whereas House Speaker and Democrat Nancy Pelosi played politics with assistance, Morrison saved state premiers from the financial pain of keeping their economies on life-support. Yet all it has done has spurred them in economically ruinous policies. With federal taxpayers footing the bill for saving the private sector, Palasczcuk effectively announced that she would decide who came to Queensland and the manner in which they would come. She was ruthless, not just with refugees from the southern winter but grieving relatives hoping to farewell family members. Not a single person who was denied access to a dying relative or a funeral actually had Covid, and the mercenary exemptions for footballers and celebrities were exemplars of selfishness. Her policies were savaged by Qantas boss Alan Joyce. An LNP volunteer implored her to consider the travel industry and the 209,000 people out of work and former Labor premier Peter Beattie said Australia would go broke if Queensland and other states didn’t soon reopen their borders. Yet Palaszczuk smirked all the way to the ballot box.

Lessons for all abound. A big spending Liberal government tarnished its reputation for fiscal rectitude and for decades taxpayers will be paying for turbo-charging spendthrift parochial premiers. Shamefully, the LNP preferenced the Greens ahead of Labor, a mistake they should never repeat. The Greens will continue to make inroads in Labor’s inner- city electorates as well as wealthy Liberal electorates like Warringah but that is not where elections are won or lost.

Even the ABC recognises that federal Labor can’t win elections by pandering to the Greens or with a leader from the latte belt. Last month, one of its political reporters anointed Queensland shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers as the leader ‘next in line.’ Sooner or later, Chalmers will announce that he is from Queensland and he is here to help. Like Rudd, he might charm the voters, claiming to be Liberal-lite, but he was understudy to former treasurer Wayne Swan, so an Australia run by Chalmers is bound to be girt by even more red ink.

When the major parties move to the centre, the vote for minor parties dries up. One Nation will hold just one seat in Queensland’s parliament and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party did not pick up any. Yet, as with climate change, few in the political class, other than Palmer and the Liberals Craig Kelly, have had the courage to challenge the groupthink of the medical establishment. As long as that remains the case, whoever wins, Australia will lose.

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