In formally initiating the Queensland election campaign by asking Governor Penelope Wensley to dissolve parliament yesterday, Premier Anna Bligh remarked that Queensland campaigns are usually characterised by wild cards. They’re also a wild ride.

This election campaign will be no different, and coal seam gas will be one of the most interesting of many intriguing and important issues.

If the major political parties are both framing the state election as about managing the fruits of prosperity, then the boom in coal seam gas and liquefied natural gas production is at its heart. In a state economy always characterised by its export orientation, whether from agricultural or extractive industries, coal seam gas has been seized on by the Bligh government as the vehicle to “transfer our wealth from mines to minds“.

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Implicit in this slogan, referring to the pledge to place half of gas royalties in an education fund, is a recognition that Queensland cannot rely on mining alone. It’s Peter Beattie’s “Smart State” updated for a new decade.

Most would agree that it’s important that the state diversify its skill base, and think about smarts rather than just digging stuff up. But this is to make the issue deceptively simple.

The Labor Party also argues that the environmental and social impacts of coal seam gas are mitigated by its “adaptive management” regulatory framework. Others would say that the state government has been playing catch up, responding reactively rather than proactively to a multi-billion dollar industry. Indeed, that view has been canvassed by the Senate inquiry into coal seam gas.

So what is the CSG issue all about? Is it an environmental issue, or is it, as Labor would have us believe, about balancing the social and ecological impacts of growth with “jobs, jobs, jobs”?

Traditionally, environmental issues have had something of a diffuse impact. That is to say — we all think the Barrier Reef should be preserved, but few of us have our social and economic lives directly impacted by threats to its future. This is where coal seam gas is different. Mining has usually not overlapped with agriculture, and while mining communities have their own real issues (think “fly in fly out” and its impact on communities, and the distortion of prices in mining centres), the conjunction of gas extraction with agriculture is quite new.

The speed of the industry’s development heightens and deepens the emotion of the debate.

So we see surprising alliances — between Green activists and some farmers, between the Greens and Bob Katter and Alan Jones. These political and social confluences are, of course, not without their tensions. There are tensions too between town businesses who are doing well from the inflationary effects and economic rents of CSG and farmers who stand to lose. But farmers are not united either, with some of those on larger properties facing much less direct impact from Coal Seam Gas wells on their land.

On a politically pragmatic level, few seats where CSG hits home are within cooee of being held by Labor. But the ALP also has to take account of city voters whose concern for the environmental and communal impacts of gas exploration and extraction is real.

Among those seats are the politically crucial Ashgrove and Mount Coot-tha. If Kate Jones is to defeat Campbell Newman, and if Deputy Premier (and likely Bligh successor) Andrew Fraser is to retain his seat, Greens preferences will be crucial. They can’t be guaranteed under an optional preferential voting system.

But it’s probably within the Liberal National Party that the tensions are highest. Katter’s Australian Party, with its unequivocal pro-landolder stance and moratorium policy, represents the view of much of the LNP’s rural base. Seats like Condamine encompass electors who benefit from CSG but also many who vehemently oppose CSG. Similarly, Campbell Newman’s early claim to have chased “Arrow Energy out of town” gestures to the LNP’s desire to regain Beaudesert from KAP state leader Aidan McLindon, who represents large parts of the Scenic Rim where activism reached its heights earlier this year.

So the LNP’s Resources and Energy policy tries to straddle a number of fences, promising both a better degree of community consultation and a faster approval process for mining companies.

Campbell Newman’s promise to abolish and split the Department of Environment and Resource Management has raised red flags not just for the Labor Party but also for Lock The Gate. Memories of the Nationals’ “let it rip” approach to mining are fresh, and there is legitimate concern that breaking up DERM runs counter to a rigorous environmental and community-centred regulatory framework.

With both Labor and the LNP running on economic growth and employment, the Greens have put forward a mining policy which flatly states:

“Coal mining, underground coal gasification and coal seam gas extraction are land uses which are incompatible with farming, tourism and residential communities …”

The Greens also call for a moratorium on CSG, and for greater rights for landholders. A concern for landholder rights and for better research into the social impacts of CSG development is evident in the legislative and parliamentary agenda of Senator Larissa Waters.

Thus, CSG is an issue where both major parties have a somewhat ambiguous message, but the two key minor parties, the Greens and KAP, are able to speak unambiguously. Conflicting pressures on the LNP and ALP bases, respectively concerned with environmental safeguards and landholders’ rights, and Newman’s need to address environmental values in Brisbane, have the real potential to make CSG a fascinating tussle in an already fascinating campaign.

CSG is also an issue with the potential to change votes, though until now, there’s been no polling to quantify that potential impact.

Crikey and FAQ Research can now reveal the results of polling on CSG conducted by Essential Media Communications for an alliance of graziers, farmers and environment groups (such as the Australian Floodplain Association, Cooper Creek Protection Group and the Wilderness Society) in December 2011. Essential polled both statewide, and a sample comprising six electorates — BeaudesertClevelandDalrympleNanangoCondamine and Mulgrave. The state wide poll was a weighted sample of 802 voters.

Among respondents, 28% considered that coal seam gas would have a strong influence on their vote, with 35% stating it would have some influence. Just over 30% supported CSG, with 38% opposed and 31% had no opinion.

Main reasons for supporting coal seam gas mining were that it would be good for the economy, create more jobs and generally be good for the country. Strongest opposition came from Greens voters (57%), Katter Party voters (48%), ages 45-64 (48%) and retired people (49%).

Three-quarters (74%) of opponents felt that CSG potentially had negative impacts on land use, the environment and water, and many framed their concerns in terms of risk, lack of evidence of safety, and doubts about the impacts. Interestingly, Essential notes that these negative comments were “often phased in terms of doubts and lack of knowledge about the impacts and risks”.

Again, three-quarters (75%) of all respondents supported farmers gaining the right to stop CSG exploration or extraction on their properties, with only 7% opposed. While support for this proposition was highest among Greens voters (87%) and Katter voters (94%), LNP (77%) and ALP (71%) voters also overwhelmingly favoured this option.

The electorate level poll deserves analysis in its own right, which we will be providing. But suffice it to say that in these key seats, support for farmers’ right of veto was even higher than the statewide finding, at 94% of all respondents.

Meanwhile, a Newspoll out today has support for CSG at 33% and against at 40%, with that sentiment broadly split evenly along party lines.

There is no doubt that coal seam gas will be a major issue in this campaign, and that it is an issue that has the potential to swing votes. How the parties respond remains to be seen. We’ll be tracking that carefully through Coal Seam Gas: Behind the Seams.

*Dr Mark Bahnisch is a Brisbane-based social scientist and a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. Read more about FAQ Research writers here.

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