If you are going to tell a lie, tell a big one. And if that fails, like it has for the Adani coal mine, tell an even bigger one.

The fanciful “10,000 jobs!” claim, which has been under sustained attack but is still being repeatedly made by the Adani spruikers, has collapsed. As Crikey has previously reported, the figure from Adani’s own economist — who swore an oath to it in court — is only 1464 direct and indirect jobs, on average, over the life of the mine. The jobs claim is symptomatic of the broader unravelling of the economic arguments for the giant coal mine.

But like a bad Demtel TV ad from the ’70s: Wait there’s more! It seems “10,000” was not a big enough lie to be believed, so Resources Minister Matt Canavan did some new calculations which ran on the front page of The Australian yesterday declaring “Adani rail ‘to deliver 15,000 jobs’”.  Sensibly the paper had the claim in quotes and more sensibly still, their online story headline read “… ‘could deliver 15000 jobs…’”.  Canavan then awkwardly told Patricia Karvelas on RN yesterday evening that he was as confident of the jobs figures as he was of his marriage.

No Australian mine employs 10,000 people, directly or indirectly, and nor could the Carmichael project. Anyway, Adani has said it wants to automate its operations from “mine to port”. However, it’s not just the jobs lies that are leading the economics of this project to collapse. Corporate structures involving the Cayman Islands  suggest company tax will not be pouring through Australia’s Treasury doors. 

And then there is the issue of how much Adani will pay in royalties for the Queensland coal it seeks to sell. For years now, there has been a mysterious silence about how much per tonne the mine owners will actually pay for the coal, when they will start paying it, and even whether any payment to the state government will be made at all. Former Queensland premier Campbell Newman had offered Adani a so called “royalty holiday” (free coal) and the current Queensland government has consistently refused to reveal what price Queenslanders will get for shipping 60 million tons of low-quality coal through the barrier reef every year. 

But nature abhors a vacuum. Political commenter Ross Cameron has filled the breach, claiming that in five years of operation the mine will bring in a staggering $20 billion in total royalties and taxes. Others have declared the entire Queensland economy would be saved. As the economics of the project get weaker, and the appeals for a government loan get more bellicose, the economic lies just get bigger.

Once upon a time, the right took economics seriously. They argued their position firmly — even if, for example, it meant some in the community would get left behind. Now they just barrack for their mates, no matter the lack of evidence. It’s unedifying, really. 

It is left to the odd newspaper editorial to bell the cat:

The Australian Financial Review agrees with federal Labor leader Bill Shorten, as selectively opportunistic as he is, that ‘the deal should stand up under its own merit’. We expect most Liberal MPs would agree. If the financials stack up, the project should proceed. If they don’t, then Australian taxpayers should not subsidise a project run by a company that is 75 per cent owned by an ultra-wealthy Indian family.”

In the short term, with the budget just weeks away, the Coalition frontbench is wasting huge amounts of scarce political capital explaining why subsidising a new coal mine via a loan from the scandal ridden Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) is a high priority for a government that claims to be short on funds.

And now some Liberals are breaking ranks. First Queensland federal MP Bert Van Manen came out to say he was against the billion-dollar NAIF loan going to Adani and then just before the Easter weekend Victorian Liberal MP Sarah Henderson also publicly questioned the project. Now, former Liberal leader, John Hewson, has weighed in.

As the economics of Adani begin to crumble, more Liberals will be under pressure from constituents missing out from the budget who will ask “why do I lose out while an Indian miner gets $1 billion?”. No guarantee of how much company tax paid will be paid, no guarantee of royalties, and jobs claims crumbling risk the whole economic mirage being spotted by an electorate increasingly sceptical of multi-national tax avoidance.

And then there is Alan Jones. Sydney’s radio host is back on air both for the true believers on Sky in the evening and the mums and dads of the western Sydney marginals each morning on 2GB. And he is letting fly to both audiences, assaulting the economic claims of the mine as well letting listeners know what he thinks of the unlimited free water the Adani mine will churn through.

While Alan Jones, government backbenchers, the Financial Review, a former liberal leader all add to the case against a $1 billion tax payer hand-out for a giant coal mine, the right and economic rationalists have gone missing.

For the government, there is the potential humiliation that will arrive if and when the independent board of the NAIF confronts the public, and the Turnbull government, with the conclusion that the numbers for the Adani mine simply do not stack up. Of course, any attempt by the government to suggest that such an outcome is impossible is an admission that the government does not think the NAIF is an independent body.

And, in the long term, after Barnaby Joyce and Matt Canavan are gone, the Coalition’s determination to subsidise the Adani coal mine at a time when global coal demand was already declining will cruel any hopes that the Coalition will be able to claw back notions that they are “good economic managers” or “fiscally conservative”.

The Prime Minister’s trip to India should have been a chance to look statesmen-like and above politics. But the trip was wrecked when it was overshadowed by the controversy of an increasingly dubious-looking NAIF board apparently on the verge of lending a fifth of its equity to a rich Indian coal baron pursuing a marginal project. From the foreign policy front through to environmental and economic concerns, Malcolm Turnbull is letting a National Party boondoggle churn through a lot of prime ministerial credibility.

Peter Fray

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