The Queensland Labor Government’s recent decision to approve Adani’s groundwater management plan – clearing a significant hurdle for the project – is one of the party’s more shocking recent betrayals of the environmental movement and progressive politics more generally. Then again, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. Since the federal election result – which saw Labor not only fail to win any of the seats they had targeted in Queensland, but also lose many of the ones they held – conventional wisdom has swung in behind the theory that Labor’s lukewarm position on Adani was to blame.
For the past few years, Queensland Labor has professed support for Adani but delayed actually approving the project. This represented an increasingly futile attempt to appeal simultaneously to regional communities in north and central Queensland, for whom Adani represents a vital chance for jobs and economic survival, and urbanites in the south-east, the majority of whom want the project to be stopped. There are real electoral stakes here, and not only in the regions. Indeed, perhaps the person feeling the sharpest edge of this ever-sharpening contradiction is Deputy Premier Jackie Trad, whose inner-city seat of South Brisbane is likely to be taken by the Greens in the next state election.
The federal election result illustrated the impossibility of this vacillating two-step. The dust had barely settled when it became obvious that Queensland Labor was finally going to pick a side: hence the approval of Adani’s remaining management plans, and the government finalising its support for one of the biggest coal mines in Australia’s history.
While the project has been scaled back from its original size, it will open up the Galilee Basin for further development, with six additional mines expected to take advantage of the precedent and the rail line that will be built for the project. The seven mines are anticipated to produce 262 million tonnes of coal per year. This will occur on the land of the Wangan and Jagalingou people, who have consistently expressed strong opposition to the project.
Many of us have been left feeling in equal parts rage and existential dread. So deep is this horror that it’s almost difficult to believe that there are people who have greeted the announcement with happiness – but this, perhaps, is part of the problem. The conversation on Adani, even among many on the Left, has largely ignored or brushed aside the very real reasons why some people might want it to go ahead. Census data show that the ‘Adani country’ voting bloc – the electorates of Kennedy, Dawson, Herbert, Capricornia, Flynn, and Maranoa – have unemployment rates ranging between 5.6% and 9.4%. Of course, Adani will not fix this problem. Job figures associated with the project have swung wildly, and seem unlikely to approach the 8,250 indirect and direct jobs most recently promised by the company. But pointing this out as though it should have changed the minds of regional voters ignores the lived reality of economic desperation: even the chance of a job is better than no chance at all.
Others on the left have taken the predictable route of blaming the electorate. Regional Queensland communities are just stupid, selfish, and short-sighted, or so the argument goes – unlike we enlightened urbanites, piously voting for ‘our children’s futures’. This thinking is noxiously elitist, and further undercuts any possibility of solidarity and shared interests between metropolitan and regional Queenslanders. But even those who don’t explicitly blame the voters seem to argue that the jobs promised by Adani are simply ‘not as important’ as the future of the planet. While it may sound commonsensical, this argument is deeply flawed: it accepts the construction of ‘jobs’ and ‘environment’ as a dichotomy, and thus locks us into a fundamentally limited debate.
The terms of this debate also preclude recognition of the more likely reason behind Labor’s disastrous election result in Queensland: their failure to offer voters something worth voting for. Other commentators have pointed out that the nationwide result can hardly be read as a stunning victory for the Coalition, which recorded its second worst primary vote since the Liberal party was founded. In most of the ‘Adani country’ seats, the LNP received primary vote swings of less than 2%. By far the largest swings (in some cases up to 17%) went to One Nation and the United Australia Party, and even the Greens increased their vote in most of these seats.
In other words, the result in Queensland and elsewhere does not reflect a ringing endorsement of the Coalition so much as total disaffection with both major parties. It was Labor’s chance – and Labor’s responsibility – to speak honestly to this disaffection, and to offer a bold, transformative vision for the future. Jeff Sparrow has already pointed out in this magazine the numerous ways in which they failed to do this, but perhaps Adani stands as the starkest example. Cutting the Gordian knot between the economy and the climate has never been more crucial, but Labor has shirked from the challenge.
This is not to imply that cutting this knot is a straightforward task, or that such a strategy would have automatically won Labor those central and north Queensland seats. This promises to be a long, multi-election project that seeks to engage with and take seriously the concerns of the people who live in these areas, while expanding the possibilities for green jobs and large-scale infrastructure investment. This kind of political vision is increasingly referred to in the US as a ‘Green New Deal’, and UK Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell has written about the need to introduce it there. If nothing else, Adani’s convoluted path to approval represents the very real need to begin these discussions in Australia. A more radical vision invokes the potential for a low-carbon future where jobs are less necessary, via the introduction of a universal basic income. (Former coal miners who are now struggling to find work would make ideal candidates for Australia’s first UBI trial.) Fundamental to both these approaches is a rejection of the rhetoric of austerity around climate change, and a strong assertion that transitioning to a low-carbon future can and must involve an improvement in the material conditions of most people’s lives. We can find ways, as Alyssa Battistoni has put it, ‘to live luxuriously but also lightly, adequately but not ascetically.’
And yet no party went to the recent election strongly espousing this narrative: the Greens’ focus on just transitions probably came the closest, but the policy mechanisms were overly complicated and the party too often fell back on simple anti-coal rhetoric. And perhaps it’s naïve to expect Labor to take this path, as the Adani approval was just the latest in a series of disappointments which demonstrate clearly how the party remains unwilling to break with the neoliberal economic consensus that has governed both major parties since the 1980s. However, there are also important lessons here for the Greens and other left-wing forces in electoral politics. It should be clear by now that positioning oneself as a superior moral force on issues like climate change – a tactic best exemplified by the disastrous Stop Adani convoy, but also espoused by many Greens politicians – is a deeply limited strategy.
The idea that people should care about climate change, and vote accordingly, is a misunderstanding on many levels. Perhaps the entire concept of ‘care’, as it applies to electoral politics, is flawed. People can and do care about all sorts of things in the abstract, but abstractions are rarely what determines their vote. Many of the people who want Adani to go ahead likely do care about the environment, and worry just as much as the rest of us about the planetary doomsday that seems to creep ever closer with each successive report on the climate. But, unlike the rest of us, they were being asked to vote against what they perceived as their immediate interests.
Offering an alternative – a vision for the future that expands, even explodes, the current terms of the debate about climate change and the economy – is crucial to resolving this contradiction and moving forward toward a future where there is some hope for the survival of the planet. Labor has so far failed to offer this vision, and the consequences will be borne by all of us.
Image: The Carmichael River photographed by Tom Jefferson