Crunch time for Labor’s decision on Adani

Labor is under mounting pressure to take a stand against the Adani Carmichael coal mine.

Less than three weeks out from the Batman byelection, Labor has yet to announce a definitive policy on Adani’s Carmichael coalmine.

Climate activists have focused their campaign on calling for Labor to announce that in government it would reverse existing approvals for new coalmines in the Galilee Basin. Labor leader Bill Shorten has responded with statements that have been interpreted as being “tougher on Adani”, but that have fallen far short of the demands of the movement which regards Labor as still straddling the fence.

It is clear that Labor is under pressure to come up with a policy that will appeal to those opposed to new coalmines and, at the same time, satisfy the concerns of sections of the trade union movement such as the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), as well as voters in central Queensland electorates.

CFMEU national president Tony Maher told the Guardian on February 15: “I see no reason for Labor to toughen its position. Why win Batman and lose in central Queensland? 

“The environment groups have worked themselves up into a passion about it. I don’t know why. Adani is just another project and it should be judged on its merits.”

Maher is sceptical about whether the Adani project will ultimately proceed, but he said if it did, the union would seek to make an agreement with the company.

There are a range of views within federal Labor about what to do about Adani. Labor sources have told the Guardian that internal consideration of legal mechanisms to potentially stop Adani remains ongoing, but the party is also focused on sending a clear message to Queensland that Labor will produce a regional industry policy that blue-collar workers can believe in.

Caucus and shadow cabinet meetings held since the opening of parliament have failed so far to arrive at a united policy. Recent speeches by Shorten and senior shadow ministers have reflected this.

Shadow infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese told an Adelaide radio station two weeks ago that Labor had not taken any decision to oppose the mine.

“That’s not the decision that we have made,” he said. “We have certainly been very questioning about the project, about its financial viability, whether it will go ahead. We’ve been quite rightly questioning about the impact on water and some of the environmental consequences of the project.

“But Labor has to stand up for Labor values and one of the things about Labor values is jobs and making sure the economy can function.”

Shorten has embarked on a series of “consultations” in regional Queensland, aimed at developing a jobs plan to shore up support for Labor in marginal electorates most impacted by the Adani project.

At a public meeting in Townsville on February 19, where he was greeted by local residents protesting against Adani — and where an Adani supporter was arrested for assaulting a protester — he was careful not to adopt a position of outright opposition to Adani.

He told reporters there is a role for mining in Australia, and “there is a role for coal in Australia”. He echoed Maher’s description of Adani as just “another project”.

At the same time, in a speech to the Sydney Institute, shadow minister for climate change Mark Butler said the Adani project is “utterly exceptional” because it is the only significant export-oriented greenfields mine opening up “on the face of the planet”. Butler argued the industry is clear Adani would have a zero sum effect, displacing “coal and jobs in existing coal regions, like the Hunter Valley”.

“For the life of me, I can’t see how that prospect is in the national interest.”

All shadow ministers and the CFMEU agree the Carmichael mine does not make financial sense and use this as a substitute for coming out in opposition to the mine. However, Labor is under pressure from its members to clarify its position.

National convener of Labor’s Environment Action Network Felicity Wade said the party needs to make a decision. “It’s time for Labor to make its position on Adani clear,” she said. “The Adani mine is not in the national interest and does not have broad community support. Digging up low-quality polluting coal isn’t a winning strategy in a carbon-constrained global economy.”

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