Opposition Leader Bill Shorten told the National Press Club in Canberra on January 30 that he had become increasingly sceptical of Adani”s Carmichael coalmine in recent months: “We’re certainly looking at the Adani matter very closely,” he said. “If it doesn’t stack up commercially or if it doesn’t stack up environmentally it will absolutely not receive our support.”
Labor’s shadow cabinet has discussed whether to oppose the project and Shorten has promised a decision before the next election. “We haven’t decided where we land on this, but Bill has heard the deep community concern,” a senior MP told the Sydney Morning Herald.
This is a shift from his previous position. In May last year he said: “There’s no point having a giant coal mine if you wreck the Reef. But, on the other hand, if the deal does stack up, if the science safeguards are there, if the experts are satisfied, then all well and good and there’ll be jobs created.”
So why has Labor made this shift between last May and January?
The answer lies in the growth of the movement to Stop Adani which, during 2017, successfully campaigned to cut off Adani from possible funding sources and project partners.
This also shifted public opinion. A growing majority of Australians now oppose the construction of Adani’s huge Carmichael coalmine, while environmental groups are ramping up pressure on Shorten and federal Labor to rule out support for the project.
ReachTEL polled 3312 people on January 25 and found 61% opposed or strongly opposed the new coalmine. This represents a 13% rise in opposition to the project, from 52% last March.
Significantly, the poll found an outright majority of National (55%), One Nation (52%), Labor (76%) and Greens (94%) voters all oppose the mine. More Liberal voters (43%) opposed or strongly opposed the project than supported or strongly supported it (35%).
Environmental groups campaigning to get federal Labor to make a commitment to rescind Adani’s mining approval had met a brick wall until the Queensland state election late last year. Pressure from activists, who also followed the Premier on the campaign trail, helped make Adani a key election issue. The campaign is credited with helping the Greens win their first state seat and giving Deputy Premier Jackie Trad a close call in her inner city electorate.
This has been replicated in Melbourne, with Stop Adani launching a campaign even before the former member for Batman resigned, forcing a byelection. Environmental groups assessed Shorten’s Press Club address as a thawing of Labor sentiment and a stimulus to ratchet up the campaign.
Stop Adani activists dominated the launch of former ACTU President Ged Kearney’s campaign for Batman. However, in the absence of a specific statement to reject the Carmichael project, activists remain vigilant.
Shorten seized on a Guardian Australia report that Adani put in “an altered laboratory report” when appealing a fine for contamination of wetlands near the Great Barrier Reef. “If Adani was relying on false information,” he said, “that mine does not deserve to go ahead”.
He called on the government to investigate the claim, and said that if it did not, Labor in government would do so.
Labor’s shadow cabinet and caucus are yet to reach an agreed approach to Adani, but is under pressure to make an announcement during the Batman byelection campaign. In response to lobbying, Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek said: “I do not believe that the Carmichael mine project stacks up economically or environmentally. Businesses are even refusing to finance the project ... The $1 billion that [Prime Minister] Malcolm Turnbull is proposing to spend should instead be used to support new jobs in North Queensland through infrastructure projects, agriculture and tourism.
“That is why last week Bill Shorten announced a consultation process in North Queensland with locals to discuss where this money should best be spent rather than on a new coalmine.”
For Shorten to go the way of Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk who, in response to pressure from the movement, reversed previous policy and vetoed an application by Adani for a Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility loan, we have to keep up the pressure to stop the project.
The Batman byelection has forced the issue. It remains to be seen whether Labor will move beyond its weasel words to specifically commit a Labor government to reverse the approvals for the Adani mine and all the others in the Galilee Basin.
[Margaret Gleeson is an activist in the Stop Adani campaign in Sydney.]