Fossil fuel's win may be Coalition's loss
by Richard Denniss
[Originally published in the Australian Financial Review, 27 May 2019]
There’s no doubt the Adani coal mine helped the Liberal National Party win votes in North Queensland but there’s also no doubt it helped them lose a lot of votes – and economic credibility – in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. And while the triumphalism of National Party MPs like George Christensen and Barnaby Joyce is understandable, so is the frustration being expressed by Liberals clinging to the disappearing margins in formerly blue-ribbon seats such as Boothby and Higgins.
The Coalition's tension over the definition of their base is nowhere clearer than in the actions of Minister for Resources Matt Canavan. When campaigning to win seats like Herbert in North Queensland, he is can-do Canavan who wants to rip away "green tape" and get things moving. But when campaigning for Nicolle Flint in the now ultra-marginal seat of Boothby in the south Adelaide he becomes a hasten-slowly kind of guy.
On the eve of the election, as the Coalition clung to its narrow route to victory, Canavan announced an entirely new layer of green tape for Equinor, the Norwegian oil company eager to drill in the Great Australian Bight, to cut through. There was no talk of sovereign risk, or the need for investor certainty, and nor was there a hint of irony. In modern Australian politics, when seats are in play, credibility and consistency get spent even faster than money.
For years the Queensland LNP has sneered at "inner-city elites" who take issues like climate change seriously when casting their vote. When those voters were primarily in seats held by Labor and the Greens such tribalism might have made some political sense. But now that once safe seats like Higgins and Kooyong are swinging heavily to the Labor Party and the Greens, crowing from the Queensland Nationals about the joys of subsidising fossil fuels is causing lasting political pain for small ‘l’ Liberal MPs trying to hold onto their economically conservative and socially progressive voters.
When Zali Steggall defeated Tony Abbott she won all but five of the 50 polling booths in Warringah. Not only did she deliver an 18 per cent swing against the former prime minister, she won votes comprehensively across a large, diverse and once safe Liberal seat. In her worst booth she won 45 per cent of the 2PP vote. The result raises some interesting questions. If concern about climate change is an elitist issue, then the pro-Adani faction in the Coalition are a fundamental threat to the Liberal’s ability to hold the traditionally blue-ribbon suburbs.
And if the reason Warringah swung so hard against the Liberals was that Abbott was toxic, then weren’t the moderates in the party right to replace him with Malcolm Turnbull?
There were hopes in corporate Australia that a re-elected Scott Morrison would attempt to take some of the the heat out of climate politics and appoint a moderate like Senator Arthur Sinodinos to the Environment and Energy portfolio. Instead Sinodinos is overseas on a diplomatic posting leaving Angus Taylor, Canavan and Joyce to convince well-heeled Liberal voters that electric cars and solar panels are a step towards socialism.
The Coalition holds a minority of seats in most states but their dominance in Queensland is big enough for them to govern over the entire county. But as Canavan’s new-found concern for thorough approval processes in South Australia shows, at least some in the Coalition are figuring out that what works in Queensland, might not work so well across the rest of Australia.
The ACT has a 100 per cent renewable energy target for 2020 and some of the cheapest electricity in the country. Liberals that opposed that target haven’t been in power for 18 years. No matter how determined some Queensland MPs are to ignore climate change, there will always be Liberal MPs in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide who are keener to hold their seats than they are to subsidise fossil fuels.
Drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight, fracking for gas in NSW, and building new coal mines in Queensland all create small numbers of jobs, but they’re all beginning to shift large numbers of votes. While the next three years might deliver some unexpected wins to to the fossil fuel industry, the 8 per cent primary swing to Labor in Boothby and Canavan’s new-found fondness for green tape shows the fossil fuel industries’ wins may well end up being the Liberal Party’s losses.
Richard Denniss is chief economist at The Australia Institute @RDNS_TAI