Adani Matt Canavan
Minister for Northern Australia Matt Canavan is disrupted by protesters (Image: AAP/Kelly Barnes)

When the Coalition was elected in 2013, unemployment in Townsville was just over 5%. Last December, it was three percentage points higher. In Burdekin Shire to the south, it’s gone from 4.7% to 7%. Inland, in the Charters Towers local government area, it’s gone from 7% to 11%. In Hinchinbrook Shire to the north, from 6.3% to 8.5%.

Other areas to the north and the south have benefited from the jobs boom of the Turnbull years and seen unemployment fall or stay the same. But for Townsville and the region most affected by Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine and its rail line, the last five years have been ones of failure for the government, years that have left the region and its communities behind. Youth unemployment in Townsville is over 17%, up from 11% in early 2014.

The Coalition had promised much for the region. There was to be a parliamentary secretary for northern Australia — although the occupant of the role, Queensland buffoon Ian Macdonald, was dumped by Abbott after the 2013 election. In 2015, a “Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund” was established to spend $5 billion, and Josh Frydenberg was named minister for northern Australia by Malcolm Turnbull. He was later replaced by coal zealot Matt Canavan. Meantime, unemployment around Townsville got worse and worse. In late 2016 it reached over 10%. And years went by without the NAIF ever spending any of its money. 

The only thing the LNP has to show for five wasted years for the region is Adani’s scaled-back Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin to the south, and its rail line to Abbot Point 150 kilometres down the coast from Townsville. That’s why, literally on the eve of the election being called, LNP MPs and senators are pulling out all stops to get the project’s environmental approvals signed off before the caretaker period commences.

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LNP Senator James McGrath — who despite being in the senate for nearly five years is still best known for having to resign from Boris Johnson’s staff a decade ago — even threatened the government’s bumbling Environment Minister Melissa Price if she didn’t approve it immediately (Price duly announced that she had signed off on all approvals this morning). It’s hard to recall a government so bitterly divided that MPs issued written threats against one another, but this government has written a whole new chapter on political chaos that’s impressive even by the terrible standards of the last decade.

Bear in mind that the LNP are doing this for a project that in the scaled-down form will deliver just 1500 jobs — at least according to Adani. Remember Adani claimed the much larger original project would create 10,000 jobs but was forced to admit the actual number was 1464.

LNP MPs and senators believe that Price is slow-walking the approval of the project because hostility to Adani is so intense in southern metropolitan areas that Liberal MPs want the issue to be ditched until after the election. There’s a culture war aspect to that as well: the image of well-heeled residents of the leafy suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne –in seats like Wentworth in Sydney, or Frydenberg’s own seat of Kooyong in Melbourne — who can afford to demand climate action without worrying about a job or the cost of living, in contrast to the residents of Townsville, who are doing it tough.

In fact, that framing is perverse. It is the wealthy residents of urban Australia who don’t need to worry about climate change. They and their children will have the financial resources, the skills, the education and the social capital to deal with the economic impacts of climate change. They will prosper no matter how much damage climate change does to the Australian economy. The struggling residents of regional Queensland, however, have fewer skills, poorer education, less wealth and fewer economic opportunities to rely on. They are more marginal, and therefore more vulnerable to the economic impacts of climate change — especially given a major source of employment in the regional tourism industry, the Great Barrier Reef, is being destroyed.

The Coalition’s failure to accept and address climate change will ultimately hurt the residents of regional Queensland far more than it will hurt the good burghers of Wentworth or Kooyong.

The Carmichael project itself also represents the characteristics of modern economic policy that so alienate voters. Adani is mired in multiple corruption scandals around the world and is a prominent tax dodger. It has had privileged access to Australia’s Prime Minister. It has repeatedly breached licence conditions for its existing Abbot Point facility. The Commonwealth’s superannuation corporation has dumped its stake in the company out of governance concerns. And both major political parties have been paralysed on the project, trying to avoid the issue of support for the project out of concern for alienating key constituencies. 

The Carmichael project is a failure in literally every sense possible. LNP politicians have failed the region over the last five years. They are failing the same community on climate change. Now they are trying to hijack approval processes within the government in the interests of a company that displays every flaw of the neoliberal model of economic policy making, for a project that will offer few jobs.