Myths, mines and mobs of money

STRONG REACTION: A shot taken earlier this year of anti-Adani activists halting a coal train near Bowen, in Queensland.
STRONG REACTION: A shot taken earlier this year of anti-Adani activists halting a coal train near Bowen, in Queensland. Front Line Action on Coal

AFTER the 1992 Mabo decision, which led to the acknowledgement of Native Title in Australia, Premier Joh Bjelke Peterson warned Queenslanders that Aborigines were coming for their back yards.

Political theatre has always had its scene stealers like Joh, and its skeptics.

But the laughs ring hollow in the face of a very real threat now upon us, in the shape of miners and gas drillers, the same industry that opposed Mabo.

And they are coming for our backyards.

The Australian mining industry has a quarry vision for the North of Australia, and it should be of concern to Territorians and others who love the North.

Heartbeat readers well know that Territorians against fracking-including at least one-third of NT pastoralists-have lined up on one side of a fierce debate over whether or not to frack NT shale gas.

Industry groups, fossil-fuel lobbyists and a conservative federal government have lined up on the other.

But this familiar picture was recently painted for another fight, by Melbourne journalist Anna Krien in her 2017 Quarterly Essay The Long Goodbye: Coal, Coral and Australia's Climate Deadline.

Concerned with Indian miner Adani's plan to build the world's biggest thermal coal mine in Queensland's Galilee Basin and the threat this poses to the Great Barrier Reef, the essay reminds us of the cost of climate change and that in the Territory and elsewhere, such fights are also ours.

Not only because of the reef, or the familiarity of the players involved, but also because Australia suffers one of the cosiest relationships in the world between its politicians and the minerals industry.

Take mining juggernaut Gina Rinehart, who in 2010 stood on the back of a truck in Perth shouting "Axe the tax", a hoarse protest against Kevin Rudd's proposed mining super tax.

Miners XStrata argued the tax would cost 3000 jobs and joined Rio Tinto and BHP in a $22m campaign across television and newspapers opposing the tax.

In short order, Rudd was toppled by Julia Gillard, who shaved the tax and struck a deal with miners.

The message was clear, writes Krien, quoting Paul Cleary's book Minefield: the Dark Side of Australia's Resources Rush.

Cleary describes how Rio Tinto's former CEO Tom Albanese later told a group of mining executives in London that the Australian experience should "send a salutary message to governments around the world. Governments should 'learn a lesson' from the episode, he declared."

In other words, Australians now knew who wore the pants in mining affairs; the industry had toppled a prime minister with a 4% lead in the polls. (It should also be noted that Albanese currently faces charges of fraud in the US, on other matters).

Soon-to-be the Liberal Party's biggest donor, Paul Marks of Nimrod Mining then helped Australians elect a prime minister no-one liked: Tony Abbot, who duly did Rinehart's bidding and "axed the tax."

Any wonder Australia is known overseas as a nation of coal evangelists.

Each year Australian taxpayers subsidise the fossil fuel industry with $5.5b in non-agricultural fuel tax credits, $650m in tax deductions for exploration and prospecting, and a further $1.24 billion concessions on aviation fuel.

It should ring alarm bells then, that Adani's Carmichael Mine and 300km rail link to Abbotts Point Port can expect a further $1billion handout from taxpayers, while accountants still scratch their heads over whether the deal even stacks up from Australia's point of view.

Such arithmetic relies on a myth, says Krien: Without mining Australia is nothing.

Indeed, as economics writer Ross Gittins observes, mining is not as important as we are led to believe, and accounts for just 7% of Australia's GDP ($1.69 trillion in 2017) and employs some 230,000 workers (about 2% of Australia's workforce).

By comparison, in 2011-12 the Great Barrier Reef generated 69,000 jobs and $5.68b in turnover, the difference being that the reef would continue doing so ad infinitum, if not threatened by climate change and an Adani coal mine.

A heavy investor in solar in India, Adani was this week accused of falsifying test results over a significant environmental spill in a part of Queensland where coal dust already washes up on the beaches.

In 2016, Adani was fined for sending to sea-filled with coal-an unseaworthy ship, which sank, damaging mangroves and polluting beaches. For five years, the company failed to clean up its mess.

In the same year, Adani Hazira Port Private was fined $5m for undertaking development without a permit, and roundly scolded by India's environmental watchdog for its "irresponsible attitude".

Before he was Adani Australia's CEO, Jeyakumar Janakaraj managed a Zambian copper mine found to be discharging toxins to a nearby river. The company was fined several thousand dollars, but months later did it again.

Adani's environmental record is appalling, its promised 10,000 jobs grossly inflated, and, according to Krien's analysis, the company has railroaded Native Title in Queensland.

Moreover, Carmichael is only one of nine mines proposed for the Galilee Basin, with Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer also there, and approvals being handed out despite widespread opposition and serious threats to the region's finite groundwater resources.

Such water allocation outcomes are familiar to Territorians, though Krien's essay does not examine the NT per se.

For her part, Rinehart recently invested big in cattle and the Territory, buying into the Kidman holdings, some 8 million hectares of land crossing four jurisdictions

Rinehart's external affairs manager for Hancock Prospecting, the pastoral arm of the company, is former NT Chief Minister Adam Giles, who took the position after losing the Territory election to Labor in spectacular fashion in 2016.

Of perhaps even greater interest, is the considerable slice of Rinehart's beef holding that is prime fracking land.

In March 2015, while Giles still held power, his pro-fracking government struck a deal for Rinehart to explore over 6583 sq km of the Top End, citing jobs for traditional owners as part of the package.

In fact, insiders of the day say Giles spent rather a lot of time courting Rinehart, a woman who, in her rush to develop the North, once scorned Australia for being mired in bureaucratic red tape while "Africans are happy to work for $2 a day".

Krien's essay is a nuanced and important account of Australia's World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef now threatened by shameless profiteering. But it is also the story of a warming Earth, which under climate change might be considered-in Krien's expert prose-a "planet with a fever".

Glenn Morrison is in-conversation with Anna Krien at the Alice Springs Library for the NT Writers Centre on February 23.

Topics:  adani australia fracking glenn morrison heartbeat column northern territory