Labor's Ged Kearney at last night's climate debate.

Ged Kearney, Labor candidate for the Batman byelection, has refused to say that a Labor government would stop the Adani Carmichael coal mine — even if a future Labor government had a “trigger” that would make it possible.

Kearney was speaking at a “climate-off” amid the splendid, golden Edwardian décor of the Northcote Town Hall, in the heart of Batman, with speeches and Q and A from Kearney, Greens candidate Alex Bhathal, and three minor-party candidates.

Kearney was repeatedly challenged on Labor’s shifting position on the Adani mine, with Bill Shorten having taken three distinct positions over past weeks. She took a strong line on the “sovereign risk” that could be created if the Carmichael mine were to be blocked unilaterally.

However, the mine’s approval could be revoked through the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (the EPBC) if new evidence of environmental damage is found. A questioner noted that section 145 of the EPBC gives room for revocation if “substantial new information” comes to light.

The questioner quoted the advice obtained by the Queensland Environmental Defenders Office, which said that back-to-back coral bleachings constituted unprecedented events related to underwater ocean heating, and sufficient to trigger section 145.

Kearney waffled a little about lawyers having 20 different opinions. As protesting voices arose from the crowd, she said: “I’m not saying we wouldn’t use it [section 145].”

That’s a pallid statement that fell well short of the mood of the meeting, from Green and Labor supporters alike: looking for someone who would fight the pro-mining factions in the party, who will die in a ditch to keep Adani smoking on. The Greens have made an unequivocal commitment to opposing the Adani Carmichael mine.

After more waffling, and more dissent from the audience, Kearney said: “I’m saying … we would use it …” But it appeared to this observer to be pure course correction, based on the negative audience reaction — and expressions of dismay on the faces of a group of LEAN (Labor Environmental Action Network) members who had turned out in force for the event.

Labor’s multi-function positions fit in with Bill Shorten’s behaviour over past months: giving wildly different versions to anyone who asks. He has previously told crowds in Batman that the case for Adani had not been made, and “doesn’t stack up”.

He told crowds in Dawson on Queensland’s coal coast that it was “just another mine”, echoing the words of pro-Adani CFMEU mining division head Tony Maher; and he allegedly told businessman and environmental campaigner Geoff Cousins that the mine would not go ahead.

But he has also trumpeted his credentials as a union rep for miners, and for three years he employed as his chief-of-staff Cameron Milner, a former Queensland ALP state secretary, and a lobbyist for Adani. Milner is once again a lobbyist for Adani, through his Next Level group.

During his tenure as campaign manager for Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, Next Level remained contracted by Adani. Though not employed by the ALP, Milner remains a close confidante of Shorten’s.

The pair have known each other for 30 years, having been introduced in student politics by Andrew Landeryou, the former bankrupt whom Shorten relies on for political gopher duties. Milner’s access to Shorten’s inner circle means that Adani will always have an advocate at the centre of the current Labor leadership.

Furthermore, Shorten has become increasingly dependent on the new CFMEU/Industrial Left-Centre Unity factional grouping, for his survival as leader of the opposition, against the national “Left” of the party, and an Anthony Albanese challenge.

Kearney’s refusal to state that Labor would take an immediate opportunity to kill the mine, in a byelection, which has become about Adani, is surely an indication that there is no guarantee that Labor would stop the mine, once elected.

Kearney was generally the more confident and forceful speaker on the night, with a big line in past experience, telling the audience of around 200 that she had been “in the room” when key deals on transitioning out of coal and brown energy were created. However, several attendees, including Labor supporters, told Crikey they found her manner a little false. “Tub-thumping” was how one described it.

Bhathal’s speech, which had a very Greeny rave about Batman becoming an “electric transport hub” — part of a “positive”-oriented campaign, being criticised by some within the state Greens, as failing to take the fight to Labor — was described as “spacey” by one Greens supporter. However, many seemed to find her conversational direct style more appealing.

But given Bill Shorten’s entanglements with the mining union, with Adani itself, his own six different opinions on the matter, and Kearney’s refusal to unequivocally commit to fighting Adani in the party, and in cabinet, the question has to be asked: if Adani were a factor in your vote in Batman, why would anyone trust Labor to make a real effort to stop it?

The Batman byelection is on March 17. Subject to the result, Anthony Albanese’s leadership campaign makes its public debut on March 18.

Disclaimer: Your correspondent had a rather forthright confrontation with Ged Kearney at a public dinner in 2017. The Darebin Climate Action Network has a full video of the evening on its Facebook page — of last night’s climate debate, not the confrontation — for readers who want to judge Kearney’s effort for themselves.

Peter Fray

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