Yesterday, former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was unceremoniously dumped as chair of the New South Wales government’s climate advisory board, just a week after being offered the role. His crime? He questioned the wisdom of building new coal mines when the existing ones are already floundering.
No-one would suggest building new hotels in Cairns to help that city’s struggling tourism industry. But among modern Liberals it’s patently heresy to ask how rushing to green light 11 proposed coal mines in the Hunter Valley helps the struggling coal industry.
Coal mines in the Hunter are already operating well below capacity and have been laying off workers in the face of declining world demand for coal, plummeting renewable energy prices and trade sanctions imposed by China. The problem isn’t a shortage of supply, but an abundance.
The simple truth is building new coal mines will simply make matters worse, especially for workers in existing coal mines that have already been mothballed or had their output scaled back.
It gets worse. Once an enormous, dusty, noisy open cut coal mine is approved, the agriculture, wine, tourism and horse breeding industries – all major employers in the Hunter Valley – are reluctant to invest nearby. While building new coal mines hurts workers in existing coal mines, the mere act of approving new coal mines harms investment in job creation in the industries that offer the Hunter a smooth transition from coal.
The NSW planning department doesn’t have a plan for how many new coal mines are needed to meet world demand. Nor does it have a plan for how much expansion of rail and port infrastructure is required to meet the output of all the new mines being proposed.
That’s why my colleagues and I recently called for a moratorium on new coal mines in the Hunter until such plans were made explicit. Just as you wouldn’t approve 1,000 new homes in a town where the sewerage system was already at capacity, it makes no sense to approve 11 new coal mines in a region that couldn’t export that much coal if it tried.
But if there’s one thing that defines the debate about coal in Australia, its that it makes no sense.
Just as it made no sense for then-treasurer Scott Morrison to wave a lump of coal around in parliament in 2017, it makes no sense for right-wing commentators to pretend approving new mines will help create jobs in coal mining. And it makes no sense for the National Party to ignore the pleas of farmers to protect their land from the damage coal mines do.
On the surface, Turnbull’s support for a pause on approving new mines while a plan is developed is old-fashioned centrism. It protects existing coal workers from new, highly automated mines, it protects farmers and it should make those concerned with climate change at least a bit happy. Win. Win. Win.
But there’s no room for a sensible centre in the Australian coal debate. And when someone even suggests the industry might not be set to grow, its army of loyal parliamentary and media supporters swing into action.
Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon said Turnbull “wants to make the Upper Hunter a coal-mine-free zone”. The Nationals’ Matt Canavan suggested stopping coal exports was “an inhumane policy to keep people in poverty”. The head of the NSW Minerals Council suggested 12,000 jobs were at risk.
But of course, the opposite is true. Turnbull’s proposal to protect existing coal workers from competition from new mines would save jobs, not threaten them. He didn’t suggest coal mines be shut down tomorrow, or even early. And, given existing coal mines are running so far below capacity, his call has no potential to impact coal exports.
Predictably, the Murdoch press ran a relentlessly misleading campaign in support of the coal industry and in opposition to their least favourite Liberal PM. But surprisingly, the NSW government rolled over in record time.
While the government might think appeasing the coal industry will play well among some older regional voters, they must know such kowtowing is a gift to independents such as Zali Steggall, and a fundamental threat to inner-city Liberals such as Dave Sharma, Jason Falinski and Trent Zimmerman.
The decision to dump Turnbull might have bought NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian some respite from attacks from the Daily Telegraph. But such denial of economics and climate science will provide no respite for existing coal workers in shuttered coal mines or the agriculture and tourism industry that is looking to expand.
No doubt the National Party are pleased with their latest scalp. But it must be remembered this is the party that last year wanted to wage a war against koalas on behalf of property developers. Such political instincts might help the Nationals fend off the threat from One Nation in regional areas but it does nothing to retain votes in leafy Liberal strongholds that deliver most Liberal seats.
Richard Denniss, Adjunct Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University