It is assumed philosophically by governments that preserving the environment always comes at an economic cost and the carbon tax provides no better example. The argument recently has been about how much of “environmental” loss can be borne electorally as a consequence of the mining boom.

Over the past two decades, governments have been good at targeting the commercial fishing industry to pick up “green votes” — preserving the marine environment and spreading the economic losses among scattered coastal communities. The loss of an entire commercial fishery at Gladstone from a development to process coal seam gas is different. The threat it now also poses to recreational fishing is likely to generate an electoral backlash — from the catchment to the sea.

The Queensland and federal governments support for rapid industrialisation of Queensland’s World Heritage coastline will test the regional economic and electoral limits of a poorly regulated mining boom.

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It was in May last year that Julia Gillard stood beside Anna Bligh to launch an LNG plant on Curtis Island, a World Heritage area opposite the town of Gladstone. This generated immediate objections from the World Heritage body, which is here now to inspect the Great Barrier Reef — but what will be the electoral consequences of this project?

Gillard and Bligh are strong women prepared to take on the excessive “green preservation” for what they see as vital mining project — even in a World Heritage area. They likely see it as generating thousands of jobs and a founding project for the industrialisation of southern Queensland — overwhelming any “environmental objections” for essential development during a global economic crisis.

With such powerful national support, the Queensland and Commonwealth environment bureaucracies “fell into line”, ticking all the boxes for approval and skillfully avoiding identifying any major environmental pitfalls. Months later, the environmental consequences have become dramatic, generating international publicity. Sick commercial and recreational fishermen, diseased fish, dead turtles, dugongs and dolphins as the consequences of decades of industrial mining and agricultural waste are “dredged up”.

Though not yet seen as significant nationally, locally the loss of commercial fisheries, fresh fish sales, recreational fisheries and the spending they generate has provided Bob Katter’s Australia Party (KAK) an opportunity to pick up seats.  This threatens to be very much like One Nation in 1998 when that party won 11 seats and 23% of the vote.

KAP has positioned itself well to capture a strong rural vote with clear opposition to very unpopular coal seam gas development. Along the coast, Luke Hargreaves is a fish, fruit and vegetable mobile retailer, impacted by the loss of the Gladstone fishery, and is now the endorsed KAP candidate for Keppel.

In his media release on being nominated in November last year, he clearly states the economic consequences of poorly planned development: “The Gladstone Harbour has been severely impacted and the small local businesses which relied on it have been cast aside for the interests of foreign-owned mining companies. I am now very concerned that similar damage will be done to the Fitzroy Delta and Keppel Bay.”

The Greens, too, are working hard on the Great Barrier Reef for the Queensland election, with Senator Larissa Waters hammering the Queensland and federal governments on its proposed industrial port development. The Greens, however, support for marine parks and no-take zones for fishing. They cannot take advantage of the recreational fishing and farmers’ vote like KAP but will take other hard-won urban and green won votes from the Queensland Labor Party.

Clearly, the Great Barrier Reef has a great economic value to the Queensland and Australian economies. However, the lack of understanding of just how and where that value is generated is threatening not only the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage listing but the the ALP’s electoral fortunes.

When the natural environment is well managed, it attracts tourists and fish-folk, who spend freely. It also provides employment, recreation and a holiday destination for many Queenslanders, who will be voting at the coming election.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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