Darling Downs champion yet to be seen

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.



Significance of some issues overstated at election time

16 August 2015

This month marks five years since Australians woke up in limbo, after a Federal election which had failed to produce a clear winner.  With the Labor Government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Liberal-National Coalition Opposition led by Tony Abbott both falling a few seats short of winning the election of August 2010 outright, people had to contend with a hung parliament for the first time since the 1940s.  And some people would argue that the Australian political scene has never been the same since then.

After Gillard somehow secured a majority with the support of crossbench Independents and the Greens, who’d won a seat in the House of Representatives and enough seats to hold the balance of power in the Senate, Abbott engaged relentlessly in a campaign of negativity and attacks, to try to convince the crossbenchers to withdraw their support for Gillard and put Labor out of office.  Despite Abbott’s ferocious negativity, Labor managed to govern with crossbench support for three years, until the next election came around its expected time, but Abbott expectedly won the election easily.  Aggrieved at how Abbott became Prime Minister after years of attacks and negativity, Labor has repeated Abbott’s tactics from the Opposition benches, without really inspiring anyone.

What ultimately irked me personally about the 2010 election was Gillard’s promise to fund the missing link of a railway project in northern Sydney.  This shouldn’t really have been for Gillard to get involved in, because responsibility for public transport projects such as railways is normally for state governments.  At that time, Labor was governing in New South Wales, but despite promising a new railway link for northern Sydney and building half of it, paranoia about the cost of building the link had spooked Labor into putting the other half, from Epping to Parramatta, off indefinitely.  So when Gillard suddenly offered funds to build the Epping-Parramatta rail link, it was seen as an attempt to bribe, or “pork-barrel” in political terms, voters in a marginal Labor seat in northern Sydney.  I was annoyed because I’ve long believed this railway to be essential for luring commuters out of their cars – now it’s seen as a joke.

In a sense, this questionable promise by Gillard showed how insignificant public transport would seem in voters’ minds at election time.  Having followed elections for years, I’ve seen few opinion polls suggesting that concerns about public transport would sway voters’ minds.  Strangely, however, the perceived need for more roads and motorways to reduce traffic congestion hasn’t always seemed significant to voters either.  I suspect that transport generally doesn’t register as a high priority for voters at election time, but it’s not the only issue to appear big at election time and end up with its importance looking to be overstated.

More recently, I’ve come to conclude that, despite much media hype, mining and coal seam gas extraction on prime farmland aren’t as significant at election time as they seem.  This year there have been elections in both Queensland and NSW, where there’s been much noise about those issues, but the noise has changed little.  Apart from the loss by the Nationals of one seat to the Greens in northern NSW, neither state has seen other seats change hands because of mining or coal seam gas.

In the Darling Downs region around Toowoomba in Queensland, you’d have thought that the desecration of prime farmland was going to cost the Liberal National Party seats over recent years.  Yet the LNP has won every seat in that region over the last two elections.  Not even the vocal presence of radio broadcaster and mining critic Alan Jones has prevented the LNP from winning seats there.

And there have been other instances when the significance of some issues was overstated at election time.  The forced amalgamation of two local councils in inner Sydney, about fifteen years ago, was thought likely to see seats in that area change hands at the next state election – in the end, nothing happened.  And after questions were raised about the handling of bushfires by ACT authorities in the 2003 Canberra bushfires, I’d thought that ACT voters would revolt against the Labor Government there – yet at the next election in the ACT Labor actually gained a seat and a parliamentary majority, having governed with crossbench support before the election.

These instances show how the media can overstate the importance of some issues.  Maybe voters don’t always think as they might be expected to.  Media hype can sometimes end up meaningless.

Hot air from anti-CSG candidates

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.