Carmichael coal mine

Adani’s wildly controversial $16.5 billion Carmichael coal mine project in central Queensland is the latest in a long line of issues that places Labor on the horns of a dilemma between its metropolitan progressive and working-class support bases.

Both sides of politics were represented at yesterday’s “official start” announcement in Townsville, but whereas federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan was clearly in his element talking up the project’s importance to the state’s economic future, the similar homilies expressed by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk rang hollow.

Palaszczuk’s readiness to defy Green-left sentiment by giving the project her government’s full-blooded support arises from two distinct electoral calculations.

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The first relates to Queensland’s political geography, which stands to give the regions a much louder voice at the looming election than was evident in Western Australia in March, where little that happened beyond the Perth city limits amounted to more than a sideshow.

Following the latest redistribution, there are 15 state electorates where the mining industry accounted for more than 3% of the workforce based on 2011 census figures, six of which have margins of less than 5%.

The Carmichael project is focused around particularly sensitive terrain 100 kilometres south-east of Townsville, specifically the town of Bowen (whose chief electoral distinction historically is that it elected Australia’s only ever Communist Party parliamentarian in 1944 and 1947).

The corresponding state electorate of Burdekin was the most mining-intensive in the state on the 2011 numbers, with 20% of the workforce employed in mining — and based on the new boundaries, it’s also the state’s most marginal seat.

Only slightly further afield, the unemployment rate in the Townsville region now stands at double figures, having been at just 3.5% a decade ago — a fact that helped Labor win the federal seat of Herbert last year for the first time since 1993.

The end of mining construction boom in Western Australia, which sent the state’s unemployment rate from the lowest in the country to one of the highest, had a devastating effect on the incumbent government, and Palaszczuk has every reason to fear a dose of the same medicine unless she treads carefully.

The other side of the Adani coin is that Palaszczuk may be setting her government up for a backlash among environmentally minded voters, particularly in Brisbane — which brings us to the second electoral explanation for her decision to disregard them.

In April last year, the government outraged the opposition when it abolished optional preferential voting via a late-night legislative swifty that won the support of the independent crossbenchers, who calculated that the change would be to their electoral benefit as well.

As a result, voters wishing to cast a formal vote at the next state election will be required to number every box for the first time since 1989.

Labor’s motivation was to deprive Greens voters of the pox-on-both-houses option of numbering a single box, which was one contributing factor among many to the scale of the disaster suffered under Anna Bligh at the 2012 election.

This particular worm turned decisively in 2015, when three years of Campbell Newman inspired Greens voters to direct preferences to Labor at twice the rate of 2012.

Now that compulsory preferential voting leaves these voters with no choice but to jump one way or the other, Palaszczuk clearly feels secure in the knowledge that voters defecting from Labor to the Greens can only do her so much harm, as those voting Greens can be relied upon to favour Labor over the conservatives by a factor of at least three-to-one, almost regardless of the circumstances.

With respect to the Adani project, it’s fascinating to think how different the government’s calculations might be if the independent crossbenchers had taken a more principled stand in the face of Labor’s cynical efforts to manipulate the electoral rules.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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