Coal, a prime ministerial love story

14 Jul, 2015 05:50 AM
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Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.
Barnaby is just collateral damage in Abbott's battle to define himself via his fights
Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.

OPINION: Abbott picks his fights, and loves, on the basis of the enemies he will enrage. This time his decision to love coal mining has enraged key sections of the National Party.

As the coal price continues to fall, the financial case for building the enormous Shenhua coal mine seems, to put it politely, unclear. And as policymakers struggle with what we might export post-mining boom, the economic case for building an enormous new coal mine on prime agricultural land seems even more, shall we say, unclear.

When governments make strange decisions there is usually a political motive; think Tony Abbott offering $16 million of taxpayers' money to Cadbury to "encourage tourism" in a marginal seat.

But when it comes to the Shenhua coal mine in NSW's Upper Hunter not even the local member, Barnaby Joyce, thinks it's a vote winner.

It gets worse. Not only is the disgruntled local MP the Minister for Agriculture, he's also the Deputy Leader of the Nationals. And not since John Howard took machine guns off farmers has an issue upset the Nationals' voter base as much as building coal mines and coal seam gas wells on farmland.

So what on earth is the government doing? Has the world gone mad? Surprising as it may seem, Abbott is simply fighting for something he is passionate about.

Contrary to popular belief, many politicians think that there are more important things in life than winning votes. Keating believed that privatisation was worth fighting his base for. Howard lost a federal election fighting for Work Choices. And Tony Abbott will fight to his last backbencher for the coal industry.

In the same year his government cut funding for medical research and foreign aid, Abbott declared that coal is "good for humanity".

Once a visible sceptic of climate science, our Prime Minister now soft-pedals on his criticism of the scientists, but pedals hard when it comes to shifting taxpayers' dollars towards the coal miners.

Having been elected on a promise to scrap the carbon tax and the mining tax, he recently created a $5 billion "northern development bank" to fund uneconomic infrastructure in Northern Australia.

When asked why his allegedly "small government" party was setting up a bank, Joe Hockey assured us that loans would only be made to unviable projects. Phew.

This week the government launched a new attack on popular renewable energy. Not content to simply cut the renewable energy target, Abbott is now demanding that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation stop financing wind and solar, which just happen to be the cheapest forms of clean energy. That should help the budget.

Tony Abbott picks issues on the basis of the enemies he will enrage rather than on the problems he will solve. He knew the reintroduction of knights and dames would outrage the voters who prefer Turnbull to himself. He knew attacking Q&A would fire up inner-city voters. And he knows there is no better way to bait greenies than to declare that coal is good for humanity. The PM is reminding his base that he is still their conservative hero even if he won't touch industrial relations or tax reform.

Barnaby is just collateral damage in Abbott's battle to define himself via his fights. Like the 26 Coalition MPs who lost their seats in 2007 fighting for Work Choices, Joyce now has the thankless task of explaining to his voters why coal is not just good for humanity, but for their health and their agricultural wealth. It seems Tony Windsor might even run against Barnaby for his old seat again. Ouch.

You can't become prime minister if you're not interested in politics. And you can't achieve anything as prime minister if you are only interested in politics. Abbott's world view of goodies and baddies has helped him define himself and his party. But the lines in the sand he is so fond of drawing have now cut him off not just from his own coalition partner, but from economics, science and the leaders of the world's largest economies.

The G7 recently stated their intention to phase out their reliance on fossil fuels. Presumably Abbott thinks they are opposed to humanity.

There is no doubt Abbott will go down fighting. The only question is whether that fight will be with his party, the electorate, or the tide of world opinion. Abbott is willing to fight on a point of principle, no matter how much it hurts his coalition partner.

Anyone who says politics is all about opinion polls isn't watching closely enough.

Richard Denniss is chief economist at The Australia Institute.

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READER COMMENTS

torobrook
14/07/2015 8:17:34 AM

Richard Denniss has just revealed his hatred of coal. The cheapest form of electricity generation available to man.
Darwin
14/07/2015 8:54:46 AM

Abbott is entirely correct of course, coal is good for humanity. There is no argument about it, coal has dragged us out of the stone age and given us all cheap clean and reliable electricity with a huge rise in living standards for the human race.
lookout
14/07/2015 9:31:24 AM

Coal only looks cheap because its collateral damage is not charged for. Having raised our living standard over 100 years it is now reducing it and will bring us to disastrous climate change. Coal use must stop. Abbott is only pushing the interest of the fossil fuel industry.
Darwin
14/07/2015 10:50:15 AM

Lookout please explain to us all how coal will bring disastrous climate change ? Show us the collateral damage to the climate that you speak of ?
Freshy
14/07/2015 12:54:30 PM

Coal might have been good in times gone by, but the world has changed and continues to change and we all should as well...... everytime I read comments from a bunch of farmers it leaves me shaking my head, are you lot for real or part of a bad comedy? Im not on the climate change agenda because the climate has always changed.....but we all need to be on the reduction of pollution agenda and we all need to pull our collective heads out of the sand and just be realistic about where the world is moving.......and if you think being part of that is too hard then perhaps its time to sell the farm
Qlander
14/07/2015 1:28:52 PM

The G7 members making the most noise about "phasing out" coal, are the one's who's reserves are the most depleted.
Steve
14/07/2015 2:27:08 PM

For those with a reasonable degree of intelligence, I ask you not bother responding to Darwin's comments - you'll only look as puerile as he is.
Darwin
14/07/2015 4:21:05 PM

Leading the way with blind ignorance and censorship Steve ?
Ivan A. Tincal
14/07/2015 4:41:54 PM

I always get disheartened when I read comments on here around climate change and Jock Munro's backward thinking single desk utopia. My hope is the views expressed are the minority. Climate change is real and should be addressed. Coal has taken the world as far as it can but it's fast being replaced by cleaner renewables. As farmers I would've thought being ahead of innovation and science goes hand in hand.
Darwin
15/07/2015 6:38:16 AM

Those with a reasonable degree of intelligence Steve know that Lookout's claims are puerile.
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