Politicians in power alter physically as an election draws nearer: you start to see the whites of their eyes.
That physical phenomenon is on display in NSW among Parliament’s 19 National MPs as they prepare to face their electorates on March 28 next year.
They are being spooked by three initials: CSG, or coal seam gas, and its associated terror of “fracking”.
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Troy Grant, the Nationals’ new leader and a former police inspector from Dubbo, described CSG as the “most polarising” issue facing the government.
He’s right. In city, regional and rural electorates you can find roadside signs declaring “This is a CSG free zone”, “No fracking” or “Shut the Gate”, the slogan of the organisation opposed to exploring and mining underground gas.
In a pre-election strike, the Coalition’s joint party met this week to approve a new set of rules governing the NSW gas industry. If it was designed to settle the nerves of National MPs and the anxieties of voters, it has failed dismally.
For anti-CSG activists there is a ban on all coal seam activity in the Sydney water catchment basin and all national parks. Cheers.
In the next breath, gas companies are given the opportunity to pay compensation to landholders for entering their properties. Boos.
The new policy — the third this year — cancelled 16 pending licence applications and continued the freeze on applications for new licences. But after the March election, what’s to say the moratorium won’t be lifted and new licences granted across the state?
Premier Mike Baird gave the game away a few days ago when he said with typical boyish enthusiasm: “Do we want coal seam gas? Absolutely we do.”
Upper House Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham told Crikey: “The latest NSW gas plan is a document to get panicked National MPs through the election, but ultimately is a blueprint to roll out coal seam gas.”
John Robertson’s Labor opposition is maintaining a policy of permanent criticism of the Coalition’s fumbling, but offers no clear policy alternative.
This is understandable. The last Labor Government (1995-2011) sold exploration and mining licences to everyone who arrived with a chequebook and the Coalition has been attempting to unravel the mess since it took office.
While Barry O’Farrell was premier, Nationals leader Andrew Stoner was deputy premier and Chris Hartcher was minister for resources and energy, the controversial industry was being stage-managed.
But all three have quit their jobs and the politically toxic sale of CSG has been handed over to the new boys on the block: Premier Baird, Deputy Premier Grant and Resources and Energy Minister Anthony Roberts . Their focus is exclusively on winning the state election and not on creating a long-term, environmentally safe gas industry.
A deeply wounding parting shot on CSG was delivered by retiring Ballina MP Don Page in his farewell speech: “I can confidently say the great majority of people in my electorate, including me, do not see coal seam gas exploration and mining as compatible with the character of the electorate of Ballina.
“I have also taken the view that CSG mining and exploration should not proceed if there is any environmental damage to land or water as a result, and I will always hold that view.”
Page, the grandson of Sir Earle Page, a founder of the Country Party and Australia’s 11th Prime Minister, was local government minister in the O’Farrell government and bound by Cabinet solidarity.
By giving voice to his deep-rooted objections to the CSG industry, Page has exposed the deep divisions in his party’s ranks.
Parliament’s sitting Nationals MPs, who underpin Coalition stability, were supposed to be calmed by the latest version of the NSW gas plan. Their eyes should have narrowed, but they haven’t.