Another mining disaster waiting to happen
Coming soon… to your neck of the woods?
It's come to something if Barnaby Joyce – is that the Chattanooga choo-choo?* – declares 'the world has gone mad'. He was reacting to his Coalition government's approval of a big coal mine amidst some of Australia's finest agricultural land – in Joyce's constituency of New England in New South Wales (which is a crazy bit of naming, if you ask me). Some of us reached the same conclusion a while back.
If you read The Australian Institute's submission (see here) to the Planning Assessment Commission on Shenhua's Watermark coal project in 2014, you'll see the same points as those made by the plaintiff in Brisbane's Land Court in April and May this year during the case against Adani's Carmichael mine in Queensland's Galilee Basin. That the input-output modelling used gives a biased impression of the economic benefits of the mine by underestimating operating costs and overestimating coal prices, job opportunities and state royalties. That the risks to agriculture and biodiversity extend beyond the mine site. Old data was used for agricultural impact assessment in Watermark's EIS, particularly in relation to groundwater and irrigation, and thermal coal market prices have shifted considerably since, the wrong way for Shenhua.
Not to mention the contribution of more coal burning to global carbon emissions and hence climate change. Politicians from both major political parties are disingenuous about this: the coal will not be burned on these shores so it's not adding to Australia's emissions total. If the Chinese didn't buy their coal from Australia, they'd get it from somewhere else. If it's Indian mining companies exploiting Aussie coal, then it's all in the cause of supplying the subcontinent's poorest communities with electricity. Noble, right?
Barnaby Joyce belongs to the National Party, who are in coalition with the Liberals. He is also Minister for Agriculture in Tony Abbott's Cabinet. He must be feeling the heat of farmers' outrage right now. Traditionally, the Nationals look after country folk; conservatively tending battlers on land that's been in their family for generations, stoically dealing with drought and flood and locust and invasive exotic weed and feral goat and worse, without complaint. It is not their way to expect, or ask for, help from governments in state capitals or Canberra. You only know when they've given their all and beyond when, one morning, they put starving cattle out of their misery before turning the gun on themselves. The mortgage company takes possession and sells the land to a Chinese buyer who's adding to hundreds of thousands of hectares already acquired across the country.
Some time in the next few decades, when climate extremes threaten key grain harvests in other parts of the world, Australia might have supplied nations in need of food for large populations, as well as catering for its own. Yet current politicians claim they lack funds, and are certainly without foresight or motivation, to prevent this sell-out or resist the lure of royalties promised by Asian mining giants.
Disaster capitalism may seem a long way off – in Greece in particular at the moment – but in fact it's alive and well among those who peddle the politics of fear – of credit-rating agencies or religious extremists.
If the National Party deserts the famers of the Liverpool plains then the party should be done for. But who do these poor people vote for instead? There's little to choose between the LNP and Labor when it comes to foreign investment in mining, and many Aussies appear to have an inbuilt aversion to Greens.
The proposed mine is, inevitably, dividing local communities. There may be just as many who are fighting the mine as there are who do not want them to. Solutions are few on the ground where everyone wants to protect their children's children's future in the best way they see fit.
For the Agriculture Minister to claim he did all he could to prevent a decision made by the so-called Minister for the Environment in his own government is the cruelest deception. If ministers cannot about-turn current decision-making, and overturn that of previous governments – as Queensland's Environment Minister claimed a couple of weeks ago – then who can? Papa Francisco?
All parties, preferably together, must address, in detail rather than airy-fairy precursors to policy documents, how to create alternative, clean green jobs in small rural communities that hoped a big mine might keep their children at home even if it destroyed the landscape and everything in it. And air and water quality; peace and tranquility; tourism. (Watermark will be open cut.)
I suspect Barnaby Joyce doesn't really think the world's gone crazy, and I don't believe he fought against the approval of the Watermark mine. As more and more citizens find their voices against the sacrifice of land and biodiversity to increasingly unviable and undesirable fossil fuel exploitation, more politicians will feel obliged to exclaim largely empty words of dismay at the loss of cropping land, ecosystems and animal species, as they have about the plight of the Great Barrier Reef. Next we'll hear about plans for strategic regional land use policy aimed at restoring a balance between mining and agriculture – yet more fiddling while bushland burns.
I doubt that as we get closer to the climate conference in Paris in November, Tony Abbott's government will suddenly start making encouraging noises about emissions targets, having recently slashed the RET. The conveniently dropped budget deficit drama – the nation's debt has increased under Abbott – has been replaced by different smoke-and-mirror policies. Not even the international embarrassment of sticking Australia back out on a far-side planetary limb will dampen his ardour for coal, it seems.
Even the return to politics of New England's former MP, Independent Tony Windsor, is unlikely to halt the Shenhua abomination, although constituents would be better served, as they once were, by this honourable man. Perhaps if there were an early Federal election… or a further dramatic fall in coal prices… In any case, get ready to raise your voices, citizens, and drown out the ditherers and denialists, the pretenders and prevaricators.
The background to the Watermark project can be found here.
* I will forever associate Barnaby Joyce with The Andrews Sisters' version of the Glen Miller classic thanks to Shaun Micallef (see here).
This post was last edited on 11 July 2015