16 August 2011

Fracking politics

The debate over land use with gas extraction (and other mining) versus farmland is vital for Australia. Do we have to go grubbing for every gobbet of gas that may or may not be out there? Do we have to transport gas vast distances across the continent or is it better to just pipe it from under our feet? If we screw up our continent at a deep, structural level, a few degrees' warming won't matter and we'll all have to take to the boats and find a refuge where people won't laugh at us.

This issue gives rise to moral and legal issues every bit as big as those arising from the Mabo and Wik cases. Politically, it is an existential threat to the Nationals. It is every bit as serious and far-reaching for them, and the Coalition, as Communists and Catholic worker movements fighting over the ALP during the 1950s. Only now are the Nats starting to wake up to it, apparently:
The opposition spokesman for resources and energy, Ian Macfarlane, said prime agricultural land should be exempt from mining altogether. Mr Macfarlane, who lives in the Darling Downs where coal seam gas is heavily concentrated, said "in terms of prime agricultural land, the very best land in Australia, there needs to be a clear exemption for that land from mining". But he, too, rejected the Greens bill, saying it was a ploy to wedge the Coalition.

"It will be a cold day in hell when they are the friends of farmers," he said.
He doesn't just live there, or sleep there. Macfarlane is the elected representative of part of the Darling Downs. The runoff from that land, whether artificial nutrients from fertiliser or mining residue chemicals, contaminates a vast swathe of the country's productive capacity. Nobody with any understanding of politics begrudges Macfarlane for standing up for his patch.

In his shadow ministerial capacity, however, he has a wider responsibility that isn't addressed by that statement (or which reveals more about his thinking than might be wise politically).

There is plenty of farming country around Australia which is not Prime Agricultural Land (good luck to those who'll have to draft the legislation defining that term), but which nonetheless regard themselves as farming communities and Coalition voters. If Macfarlane is only sticking up for squatters on big holdings in black-soil country, the Nats and the Liberals can give up on dozens of rural seats that form the core of their political base.

Macfarlane's snarl at the Greens is not the sort of idle comment you'd expect from his leader: it is more like a defensive measure from a cornered animal, aggression as a transparent mask for mortal fear.

Labor went through something similar with the decline of manufacturing industries and unionised workers, but it has had a generation to adjust while the Coalition faces a collapse at the next election: just as government seemed so tangible, so close.

The main threat to the Libs and Nats is not the Greens in themselves. Your standard urban Greens activists, with their multiple piercings and scent of patchouli, are going to experience a slight increase in the Green vote in rural electorates but can hardly claim authentic leadership of particular local communities and organic representation of their concerns. The main threat posed by the Greens is that they funnel preferences away from the Coalition toward local people who had not been particularly political but who decide to take a stand on this issue, and who get swept up in activism to the point where they start knocking off Libs and Nats from key political positions (and, who have been forced from a livelihood compromised by aggressive miners whose half-baked PR strategy annoys more than it allays).

Tony Windsor built his career by portraying himself as the people's champion against physically and mentally remote public servants - and including the Nationals as part of the problem. This is also the ground that Katter has slapped his brand-name on: Farmers First and Always. Liberals and Nationals have a massive task in finding and implementing a political solution (from which laws and public policy measures flow) that stops Windsor wannabes from pushing the conservatives off the land and into the suburbs).

Canberra commentators go on and on about how freaky the current configuration of the government is, kept in office by rural independents (leaving aside for a moment the Members for Melbourne and Denison). If the Coalition botch the politics of this issue, as they will under their current 'leadership', the current parliament could be the model for future parliaments: city-based brand names parties with city-based leaders jostling for minority government with coalitions of sui generis rural-and-regional independents. Tony Abbott won't be able to make that work for him or his party either, and neither will anyone else accustomed to parties that expect and get tight control over their members.
Senator Joyce said if the Greens were serious about protecting the property rights of farmers, they would broaden the private members' bill to also override state laws that prevent the clearing of native vegetation.
See, there's a time for ambit claims and a time when issues like clearing becomes a distraction from truly vital all-encompassing issues. Joyce is pissing at a bushfire, he's warding off a flood with a mop, he is showing his inadequacy to face the task before him.

Same applies to Abbott:
TONY ABBOTT has said prime arable land should be protected from mining but has rejected supporting a Greens bill that would prevent miners having untrammelled access to farmland.

Mr Abbott said yesterday mining and farming were important but the coal seam gas issue was primarily one for the states.

"We support the mining industry but we don't want to see prime agricultural land destroyed," he said. "We think the rights of farmers should always be respected.

"It's important that we come to a balanced approach which acknowledges the importance of the mining industry to Australia's economic future but which protects prime agricultural land and respects the rights of farmers."
As usual, Abbott is trying to cover all bases. If he faced the sort of light-and-fluffy media coverage he has enjoyed throughout his career, and if "punters" take their media at face value as the journosphere would assume, he would get away with that. On this issue, however, hard choices must be made - and Tony Abbott cannot make them.

Abbott's first task should be to do what the Nationals are doing, and shore up the base first. Unlike the Nationals, this need not mean siding with the farmers against the miners, but in political triage the farmers need public attention first. By going into a flat spin of all-things-to-everyone Abbott shows once again he's not a man for complexity under pressure. Even after many, many examples over many, many years, Canberra commentators who are both highly experienced and half-witted continue to claim seriously that Abbott really has an option to "flick the switch to a more positive agenda". These are the wrong people to help us understand how we are governed.

To put it simply, but hopefully not flippantly, farmers and gas extractors are not in a win-win situation. Use of particular land is often mutually exclusive and a decision one way or the other can be hard to reverse. There's more to it than simply standing up for farmers over miners (Windsor and Katter own that ground and the Nats and Libs have not fully reclaimed it). There's more to it than simply asserting the reverse (foreign gas extractors might have plenty of cash and be willing to donate it to friendly political parties, but in all other respects they offer bugger-all as a political base. You can't eat money and you can't just stuff it into ballot boxes either: nobody wants or needs a gold-plated how-to-vote card).

The whole model by which Tony Abbott and other modern careerist politicians have got to where they are involves being ignorant of issues except for the way they have been framed by others, picking a side and fighting for one interest or another over that issue, ignoring any collateral damage to those with greater knowledge of the issue and whose stake in that issue goes beyond "the media cycle". This has obviously been effective to some extent for the participants but it has meant important issues become lumbered with legal and policy outcomes that don't really address the issues.

As recently as the 1990s we saw Mabo and Wik transform traditional legal understandings of property title. Farmers and miners argued their corners and they developed a solution which balanced their interests against those of traditional owners. The political campaign against this, waged by the Libs and Nats with a support cast of "culture warriors" like Windschuttle and Chris Kenny, had the faint whiff of racism about it. By the late '90s traditional owners faced a harder task in establishing their claims: another one of those Howard government triumphs that left everyone but a small number of participants worse off and cheapened.

Racism won't play in this debate. Gas companies are often but not always foreign-owned, and so are vast tracts of Prime (and sub-prime) Agricultural Land. It wouldn't be politically incorrect so much as fundamentally dumb strategy to inject an element into the debate that has no place there, that increases confusion over what is already fraught and complicated. Bob Katter himself has been careful not to do so, and he has greater standing in dealing with Aborigines than the entire Coalition and the rest of the parliament put together: for all that, he cannot vouch for or rein in some of his more exuberant supporters and the candidates who will be his political franchisees, who are almost certain to play that worthless card in this debate.

Abbott too has not played the race card, one of the few things he can be proud of; but he hasn't achieved much else either in this debate. His verbal discipline under pressure isn't great and the Stockdale re-election shows he always cleaves to the far right when it really counts. That mealy-mouthed bullshit quoted above isn't a policy, and it won't even hold off a media that has magically become less enthralled. People can be "respected" even when the decision goes against them, but when everything goes against them they may not accept either the decision or those who make it.

It isn't good enough to flick this issue to the states. Ever since Bolte, Askin and Bjelke-Petersen ganged up on John Gorton no Federal Coalition leader has been able to use that as the excuse that trumps all others. Abbott is the most anti-states leader the Liberal Party has ever had: for him to claim "states rights" would only show that patriotism isn't the last refuge of people like him. With Coalition governments in three states (and more than likely to win the next elections in the three states Labor governs currently), such a feeble defence would be unsustainably, lose-more-credibility-than-you-gain stupid.

That leaves us with the current federal government. I'd back Gillard to grind out some lawyerly behind-closed-doors agreement that kind-of addresses the interests of miners and farmers as represented behind said doors. The record of this government suggests that any such agreement would please no-one with intense focus on the negatives, fatally fracking any rose-coloured framing slapped on it by so-called issues management professionals within the government. Under the rules of transactional, PR-driven politics such an outcome means you abandon the issue entirely and keep looking for a good headline (until Tony Abbott dumps all over your lovely headline, whereupon you just keep on looking, looking as though your whole way of operating isn't inherently broken).

Some issues are so pressing, so important on so many levels to so many people and so many big corporate interests, that they cannot be abandoned and will not be shunted off the political stage. One of these is the issue of managing land use conflicts between gas extractors (and other miners) and farmers:
  • The Nationals can't address the issue, being inseparable as a political force from farmers.
  • The Liberals can't address the issue, because they're led by someone whose idea of rising above a fight where he can't just pick a side is to be mealy-mouthed.
  • The Greens, Katter and Windsor (and local activists so busy coming to terms with ideas like BTEX that they can barely articulate the predicament that may lead them to where the Greens, Katter and Windsor are today) can't address the issue because their political operations and perspectives do not encompass the wider national interest, of which (yes, Virginia) foreign-based corporate interests do form part. These capacities and perspectives may emerge over time but in 2011 it is more hopeful than true to assert otherwise.
  • Then there's Labor (you there, stop laughing). They should be able to do more than gibber about "sovereign risk". They are the political heirs of those who came up with the legal framework around Mabo, the same crowd who were powerless/disinterested to stop it becoming the half-baked legal morass it is today. The farming-mining conflict affects a far greater and more densely populated part of the country than so-called terra nullius ever did.
No Australian who is neither a farmer or a miner (and that's most of us) wants to see the water table fracked and/or the land ravaged with DDT and superphosphate.

I don't have a solution to this issue either. Not being a Liberal any more I do have respect for those who are working to find one. I have no respect for those clogging up the country's political offices and just fighting one corner, confusing themselves with lobbyists; or trying to be all things to everyone, or ignoring the issue while jonesing for the magic headline/TV image that will render us all as forgetful as they.


  1. Excellent read, even if it challenges my ever-decreasing attention span.

  2. You inspire me to do what I can, Denis.

  3. This didn't even seem to be an issue until good old Alan Jones buttonholed Mr Abbot about it. Assuming it doesn't just run out of steam and get forgotten again (a real possibility), my bet would be on Labor sorting it out (no really). For all their faults and inability to communicate with the electorate, they are good at working out compromises and finding some sort of middle ground. Of course given the likely outcome of the state elections calling this a "states rights" issue has little downside for the PM, and less upside for Mr Abbot.

  4. DaveM, it's a big and increasing issue, but I can see how city slickers like us could overlook it.

  5. Andrew
    I have attended 'Lock the Gate' rallies here on the Darling Downs.
    Moi is not a Greenie but it is the priciple of food security for the future.
    Never thought I would see the day when farmers & Greenies would be fighting side by side.
    They are gaining traction on the Downs.

  6. MacFarlane is not repping his constituents, and if I were one I'd be angry. He ought to be forging alliances with the Greens and Independents to get better outcomes for his constituents. Instead he's rolling on the floor, shaking and foaming at the mouth and screaming, "Bob Brown is the devil."
    Chris Grealy
    No URL!

  7. Great post, we've already seen enough of the damage done in the 'States and Canada. Why is it so hard to just pass laws that protect land holders from the worst practices of the big corporations?

  8. DDT has long been banned and superphosphate is a fertilizer pretty handy if you want production, a disaster if you want to preserve native pastures. The balance between those competing claims is another debate.

    I think professors Blaney's book "The rush that never ended" should be compulsory reading when entering this debate (http://www.amazon.com/Rush-That-Never-Ended-Australian/dp/0522845576).

    Australia is what it is (a wealthy country with a large middle class, no matter how many cry poor) because of mineral wealth. Our land ownership laws reflect this. Freehold does not give you ownership of exploration rights.

    Arguing farmers should have control is trying to overturn a convention that has been in place for over 100 years.

    Abbots back peddling probable reflects the advise given to him after he shot his mouth off again with little thought (and probable no knowledge) of the fundamental issue he was commenting on.

    I suspect the solution is not a change in land ownership rights, but the banning of a few mining practices that should be banned, practices that should be relegated to the same bin as DDT for the same reason, the environmental damage is too great.

  9. THe ABC Lateline did a good update on this issue last night (monday), featuring an interview by a sharp Ally Moore with that strangest of politicians, Anthony Burke. I wouldn't have thought things augered well for the future, on what I saw.