“I’ve bagged these inner-city types over the years, but at least they have a sense of common good.”
These were the words of Mark Latham in his diaries after he was beaten by John Howard at the 2004 federal election. After many years of disparaging progressives and trying to build a support base out of “battlers” and “aspirationals”, he was outdone by Howard. Only then, could he sympathise with the seemingly one section of the population that cared.
Heading into the Queensland election, there appears to be two groups who care about the issues. And although they have formed an alliance at the grassroots level, they aren’t being given a united voice at the ballot box.
Two years ago, environmentalist and former Greens candidate Drew Hutton was fed up with the burgeoning and relatively unchecked expansion of Queensland’s coal seam gas (CSG) industry. Fearing the devastating effects fracking could have on the underground aquifers of the Great Artesian Basin, he came to the conclusion that the only way to fight the industry was to unite two groups that had for so long fought each other: farmers and environmentalists.
He would spend much of the next six months visiting farmers to forge a coalition.
One day, a farmer opened his door and said to the long-time activist, “I know you. You’re Drew Hutton, you’re that guy who’s responsible for all those bloody tree clearing laws.” Hutton replied: “Can I talk to you about coal seam gas?” “Sure, come on in …”
Two years later, and Hutton’s Lock The Gate Alliance has made plenty of ground. Nowadays, Hutton finds himself in agreement with a diverse range of people. He is invited by his old tennis coach Alan Jones to discuss CSG on the notorious shock jock’s radio show. It can be a surreal experience listening to Hutton and Jones have a yarn about all these fracking, as if there’s not an issue in the world that separates the two.
But for Hutton, there’s nothing surreal about it: “It’s not surreal for me … because I’ve spent the last two years talking with farmers who are socially conservative.”
It’s not just Jones who is backing the long-time Greenie. Last year, coming out of his court case in Dalby after he was arrested for joining a blockade against the construction of a CSG pipeline, Hutton was welcomed by two Bobs — Katter and Brown that is.
The Senate committee chaired by Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan investigating the CSG industry released its findings and recommendations late last year, recommending a moratorium on further exploration until further research is undertaken.
And CSG is shaping up to be a significant issue at the upcoming state election. The LNP member for Dalrymple Shane Knuth recently defected to Katter’s Australian Party, citing CSG as a huge factor in his decision. LNP leader Campbell Newman has since given some ground, ruling out Arrow Energy’s plans to mine CSG in the Scenic Rim, south of Brisbane.
Although last month’s 10-day blockade of Arrow Energy’s drill site in the Kerry Valley ended with the company drilling on, the protesters garnered national recognition. One cannot help but be moved by a YouTube video filmed on the last day of the blockade: landholder Rod Anderson gives an impassioned plea for public recognition of their plight before trucks leave the site driving over farmers’ Akubra hats.
Early on, Hutton saw that a strategic alliance between the two groups wasn’t just possible, but necessary.
“Because neither side could win it on their own,” he says. ” I think it’s been a massive success because each side was prepared to work with the other and acknowledge that there have been differences in the past and will be in the future, but on this issue we’re in complete agreement.”
According to Hutton, just as farmers need to understand how important it is to look after the environment, environmentalists needed to accept that sustainability is at the core of good farming enterprise: “I don’t see why there has to be any fundamental clash between environmentalists and farmers, in fact the best farmers are good environmentalists — the better the farmer the better the environmentalist.”
But the question that has yet to be really explored is this: can these groups be united at an election? Hutton says uniting the two constituencies at a political level wasn’t his goal, but thinks it could be possible.
He recently called for the Greens and Katter’s Australian Party to swap preferences at the election, which both parties didn’t quite warm to. So could it really be done?
Heading into the election, they appear to be the two constituencies that will be more swayed by the issues, rather than funding announcements. For example, landholders in North Queensland and Western Australia with little threat of CSG are concerned about their fellow farmers’ plight down south and to the east, because they care about the land.
These two groups united would pose a considerable block of the population that politicians from all sides wouldn’t be able to ignore. The Greens and National Party voters from the 2010 federal election total 15.5% of the vote. That’s not even taking into account the progressive vote for Labor and the vast amount of people in rural areas who feel let down by the National Party and opt for independents or other parties.
But we can’t discount the gulf that divides the two groups. Farmers are, generally, socially conservative. They are opposed to social changes such as gay marriage and increased migration. And just as social issues heavily affect the way rural constituents vote, so too for progressives.
But with India and China’s rapidly expanding middle class increasing the demand for gas (and with the ability to liquify the gas for export), it is predicted that there will be 40,000 gas wells in Queensland by 2030. So the issues around land rights and the contamination of the water supply will only get greater, increasing the chance that the economic and environmental issues will eventually trump the social issues when the two groups walk into the ballot box.
The Greens and Katter could take the first step by heeding Hutton’s advice to preference each other at the next election. With the two major parties hardly giving the issue a look-in, it would make a tonne of sense to give environmentalists and farmers a united voice this election.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated a prediction that there will be 4000 gas wells in Queensland by 2030. It should have said 40,000.