As with so many other issues, Tony Abbott simultaneously holds all positions on the mining versus farming issue.  “We support the mining industry but we don’t want to see prime agricultural land destroyed and we think that the rights of farmers should always be respected,” he said this morning, in a decidedly futile effort to clarify his position.

The only clarity to be found was in the comments he made before he got to those remarks, which was to declare “we don’t support the Greens. We’re not going to support the Greens”. That is, Abbott was crystal-clear on the politics, but entirely confusing on the policy.

His problem, however, rests with the clarity he provided for his friend Alan Jones last week. Jones thinks an invasion is under way — presumably to complement the maritime invasion by asylum seekers — consisting of foreign governments buying up farmland to guarantee their own food supplies and foreign mining companies trampling all over the properties of Australian farmers looking for opportunities to start mining. Abbott occasionally finds the wherewithal to decline to agree with Jones’s incessant whingeing, but last week he couldn’t help himself and endorsed Jones’s “invasion” comments with the remark “It’s certainly becoming a matter of enormous public concern and people are right to be concerned.” That was after he said “if you don’t want something to happen on your land, you ought to have a right to say no”. Forget any distinctions between freehold and leasehold land or comparisons with native title.

Martin Ferguson, self-appointed friend at court of the extractive industries, has been making hay … well, making coal seam gas, ever since. Doubtless he’s enjoyed accusing the Coalition of creating “sovereign risk” for mining companies.

But as Jones’s froth-mouthed ranting shows, there’s a great many issues wrapped up in all this — the fictitious issue of food security, foreign acquisition of property, farmers’ rights in relation to extractive industries on their land, the impact of fracking, our addiction to coal.

Some of these issues have made life difficult for Abbott before. In April last year he for once resisted the populist temptation and, contradicting Joe Hockey, defended foreign buyers of residential property. ”If you are effectively saying to some people ‘look, you’re not allowed in the market’, you are inevitably going to reduce the maximum price that people might get for their property.” A similar argument might be made about farmers selling their properties.

Unlike climate change, where Abbott’s simultaneous holding of all possible positions on the issue has worked, declaring you support farmers and miners on these issues is merely going to make everyone unhappy. It pits a core Coalition constituency against its biggest funders, the mostly foreign owned mining companies that helped destroy Kevin Rudd and bankrolled much of the Coalition’s 2010 election campaign, particularly in the west. Strategic ambiguity won’t remain a viable option for very long.

That’s partly because the Greens have been busy in this space for years. Mining versus farming has been their entrée into regional communities where they’re keen to expand their support. In 2009 Lee Rhiannon’s bill to protect farmland came within one vote of being passed in the NSW Upper House with strong support from farming groups. In comparison, the likes of Campbell Newman, Barnaby Joyce and now Abbott are comparative latecomers who’ve missed how this issue is upsetting and dividing regional communities.

The issue isn’t going anywhere. While coal and energy prices remain high, the tension between farming and mining will simply get worse, especially while coal is unencumbered by a price for its carbon emissions.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey