Veteran journalist, Dennis Atkins, wrote in the Courier Mail recently that Bill Shorten's equivocation on Adani could cost his party the next election. He says that there's no doubt that Adani is unpopular with voters and that "even some people in northern Queensland don’t like it."
A few months ago a dedicated group of volunteers surveyed people at local supermarkets to find out what Mackay residents thought about Adani. More than a few of us were surprised when the results came in. It wasn't a few people who don't like Adani. We found, after interviewing a statistically valid sample of around 250 residents, that:
- 77.2% opposed the NAIF loan for Adani
- 86.2% opposed unlimited water licences for Adani
- 85.4% opposed a royalties holiday for Adani
Another number that came out of the survey was in response to the question “Do you support or oppose new coal mines in Qld?” You would think that in a 'coal town' the number who support new coal mines would be high but we found that only 41.2% support new mines opening. Public opinion up here is not as clear cut as people in Canberra think.
It may be that Mackay people had a taste of the coal boom and gloom over the last decade and decided that it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. The boom brought lots of money for some but for others it meant high house prices and a shortage of labour (as anyone who tried to find a tradesman in this town to fix their car or install a light switch could attest). The bust saw businesses scramble to stay afloat as money dried up but rents stayed high and the cost of redundancies ate into the cash flow.
So Bill Shorten may be in danger of appearing two-faced when it comes to Adani and voters may think he’s signalling that the ALP is opposed to coal generally. Whether that means he’s going to lose a huge number of votes in the north and have no chance of gaining crucial electorates is another issue.
The biggest problem the ALP faces up here is the lack of people with a strong connection with the communities in central and north Queensland who have a direct say in national strategy. At the last election we could see that there had been a huge demographic change in Dawson. Many upwardly mobile fitters and boilermakers had been made redundant, bankrupted and left town. We had thousands of empty houses in Mackay in July 2016. It wasn't a surprise that the LNP margin was halved in Dawson at the last election but before the election the ALP had written off Dawson, considering it safe LNP.
Since then those same houses have become cheap rentals for poor families. For example, one of the primary schools in Mackay had to urgently truck two demountable classrooms from Brisbane at the beginning of the school year in 2017 because there was such an unexpected influx of new low-income families to the city. Those people are prime ALP voters, or they could go to One Nation if the ALP deserts them. It's unlikely they are here because they’re looking for jobs in the coal mines. It is more likely they simply want a bright future for their children. They want food on the table, a safe place to live, good health care and educational and job opportunities.
Bill Shorten's assessment is that the ALP needs to win Bowen to have any chance of winning Dawson. Like Mackay, strategists down south also see it as a place that is 'pro coal' but what Bowen people want is economic stimulus that provides money for local businesses and work for local people. Adani has for years provided them with the false hope that it will bring that stimulus. Bowen needs investment of funds in projects that provide a long term cash flow but coal can't provide that. Not many people believe that we can continue mining coal until it's all gone. Most are now coming to the view that we have to transition to renewable energy as quickly as possible and opening new coal mines will only entrench us in a dying industry. Renewable energy is where the future business opportunities and jobs will be found.
The ALP can oppose Adani publicly and strongly both in capital cities and in Central and North Queensland as long as they provide a clear alternative.