20 March 2015
The notion of coal seam gas as an election issue seems like nothing more than hot air. Nobody should tell you otherwise. Recent history, albeit brief, doesn’t show any elections changing course because of coal seam gas, often referred to simply as CSG.
I’m not downplaying CSG as a public issue. I don’t like the idea of this gas being extracted from underground, chemically or otherwise, in a manner which potentially releases hazardous chemicals onto surrounding land or into underground soils. It poses major hazards to rivers and underground water catchments. And it should be a firm no-no on lands considered perfect for farming, especially for growing crops and fresh produce.
My point is that, as an issue, CSG is yet to swing an election. For several years, I’ve heard stories about the hazards of CSG extraction on prime farmland in particular, with parts of New South Wales and Queensland being mentioned a lot. But in that time, there have been elections in those states, along with a Federal election in 2013, and while all have resulted in changes of government, little looks different in relation to whether or not CSG extraction in these areas has begun. It hasn’t mattered whether the Labor Party or the Coalition parties were in power. And it isn’t like there haven’t been chances for CSG opponents to make their concerns swing elections.
Realistically, CSG opponents shouldn’t believe a single bit of rhetoric from either Labor or the Coalition parties. It’s true that when I first heard about CSG becoming an issue of public concern, Labor was in government in most states and nationally. Certainly it would’ve been Labor giving extraction projects the go-ahead. But even after governments have changed from Labor to the Coalition parties, the noises still prevalent to this day suggest no change on the issue. Therefore CSG opponents should seem more inclined to vote for minor political players.
However, this is where problems regarding elections begin. The Greens have naturally been critics of CSG extraction everywhere. But they have little traction among voters outside the inner suburbs of state capitals like Sydney and Melbourne and Brisbane – if anything, they’ve often seen rural voters as environmental vandals killing trees and rivers, and rural voters largely hate them. On the other hand, Federal MP Bob Katter has also been a CSG critic, but even though he set up his own political party a few years and has fielded candidates at several elections, they’ve seldom made any difference in areas where CSG has been an issue.
The recent state election in Queensland showed Katter’s party as almost meaningless. With much anger surrounding CSG extraction on prime farmland in the Darling Downs region around Toowoomba, to the west of Brisbane, Katter’s party really should’ve won several seats there if voters were so angry about the issue. But Katter’s party got nowhere in that area.
If unhappy with the major parties’ positions on CSG, voters in the regions would be more likely to vote for Independent candidates, should there be any of substance running around. And some Independents either against or concerned about CSG are contesting the coming state election in NSW. But they face the usual challenges faced by Independents at election time – needing to get themselves well known among many thousands of voters across relatively small areas, having personal beliefs that those voters will tolerate, or being able to cherry-pick what voters like and dislike about the major parties’ other policies. Voters don’t always support candidates simply with the letters I-N-D in brackets after their names, unless they know them well beforehand, and generally they’re unlikely to support single-issue candidates.
Ironically, perhaps also hindering anti-CSG candidates is a vocal CSG industry critic, namely broadcaster Alan Jones.
Thought strongly supportive of the Coalition parties generally and of Prime Minister Tony Abbott in particular, Jones has been part of a long-running war against Independents. This dates back to late 2010, when Abbott narrowly lost a Federal election to Labor leader Julia Gillard, who managed to govern in a hung parliament with the support of two Independents from Coalition-leaning electorates in the bush, despite the unpopularity of Labor at that time. Filthy at this result, Abbott and the Coalition have repeatedly used the Independent-Gillard deal to scare voters into voting against Independents, painting votes for Independents as votes for Labor. These tactics have been dishonest, but they’ve worked, costing many respected Independent MPs their seats. And Jones has been among the Coalition’s media cheerleaders in that respect.
Coalition bias aside, Jones has been savagely critical of both mining and CSG extraction on prime farmland. Indeed he’s from rural Queensland himself, and he’s spoken of how mining has desecrated the area where he comes from. He was very vocal during the Queensland election. But his words seemingly had no impact in areas where people had concerns about CSG. In any case, given his leaning to the Coalition, how could he also support anti-CSG Independents?
There might be a first time for everything, of course. As such, will anti-CSG candidates actually have enough support to win seats in the coming NSW election, or will they be merely letting off hot air? The day draws closer when CSG will get hot or stay cold.