28 November 2016
The best part of a decade has passed since I first heard about the issue of mining on prime farmland. I’m not from a rural region, but I’ve come to regard this issue as really serious, as far as food security goes.
Initially I heard about how some of Australia’s best farmland was under threat from mining, and from coal seam gas. In those days there was a boom happening as far as minerals and energy were concerned, and mines and gas sites were appearing in lots of places all over the country. At first I didn’t think too much of them, until I heard about what mines and gas could do to the surrounding land. It was worrying to think that extraction of various minerals could do major, if not permanent, damage to land where farms have flourished for generations. Nowadays it’s an issue that generates discussion even in big cities well away from the regions.
However, the issue of mining on prime farmland doesn’t seem to have made a big impact on elections or politics. Admittedly, some politicians have taken stands on protecting our best farmland from the threat of mines and gas, but there doesn’t seem to have been much of a difference made.
Nowhere would this seem truer than in the Darling Downs, a rich agricultural region in southern Queensland, taking in the city of Toowoomba and surrounding areas to the west of Brisbane. The threat to quality farmland from mines and gas has generated much attention over the years. But in political terms, it hasn’t resulted in much, as least as far as general elections go.
Over the last five years or so, voters in the Darling Downs have been given plenty of chances to express their true feelings on what’s been happening to their farmland. But when you look at the results of elections, both at national and state levels, you’d probably be forgiven for wondering what the fuss was about. The Liberal National Party, long accused of being closer to mining and gas companies than to farmers, has held every parliamentary seat in this region since 2012. If voters were as worried about losing their farmland to mines and gas as some believed, the LNP wouldn’t hold a single seat.
It’s almost like voters have, reluctantly, stuck with the LNP because of an absence of credible alternatives. Some alternatives have popped up, but they’ve never appealed to enough voters to make a big difference.
There might well be credible alternatives in other parts of rural Australia, standing up for farmers whose land is in the sights of mining and gas companies. There might well be out there somewhere a Darling Downs champion, for want of a better term. But from what I can gather, such a person is yet to be seen.
Five years of elections seem to confirm this. Back in 2012, when Queenslanders cast their votes at a state election which the LNP won comprehensively, many unhappy voters in the Darling Downs threw their support behind a political party set up by Federal politician Bob Katter. But despite strong showings, Katter’s party didn’t come close to winning seats in the Darling Downs, all of which went to the LNP. A year later, at a Federal election, the LNP comfortably held the seat of Groom, which takes in much of the Darling Downs, even though sitting MP Ian Macfarlane was thought to be much closer to mining companies than to the region’s farmers. Queenslanders next went to the polls in early 2015, and even though the LNP lost office, it again won all Darling Downs seats, while the support for Katter’s party collapsed.
And in July this year, Darling Downs voters had two chances to show what they thought of what was happening to their farmland.
First came a Federal election, at which Macfarlane was retiring after nearly two decades of holding Groom. If ever there’d been a chance for an alternative voice to be heard, and perhaps really shake the LNP, this was it. But the LNP comfortably held Groom, with the successful candidate having left State Parliament to run. This in turn triggered a by-election for a Toowoomba seat in State Parliament, just weeks later. But despite the fact that voters have often used by-elections to “send a message” to governments and their rivals, the LNP won this by-election fairly comfortably.
The threat to quality farmland from mines and gas really should be costing the LNP seats in the Darling Downs region, both at national and state level. But it happens to be holding every seat, probably because of a lack of credible alternatives. The defence of quality farmland will continue, but the lack of alternative voices makes this battle harder.