A ready explanation of why Australians hold politicians in such low esteem can be found in a solitary word: Adani.
Queensland Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, fighting for her political life in the state election now under way, has been caught up in a humiliating and entirely foreseeable potential conflict of interest over public funding arrangements for Adani’s proposed Carmichael thermal coal mine in central Queensland.
Ms Palaszczuk, premier since February 2015, shocked even close supporters when she announced that her government would veto a crucial $1 billion federal loan for the mine’s rail link.
The Premier is avowedly pro-Adani, almost embarrassingly so, even in the face of the most damning allegations of financial crimes and corruption levelled at Indian conglomerate Adani Group. Not to mention the doubts raised about the economic viability of its controversial project.
The Premier’s shock announcement was just the latest instalment in the unseemly saga that has unfolded since Adani unveiled plans for the Carmichael coal mine and rail project in 2010.
When Ms Palaszczuk indignantly announced that she would veto the concessional loan from the federal government’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF), she revealed that her political opponents had intended to “smear” her with revelations that her partner, PwC infrastructure advisory director Shaun Drabsch, had been involved in preparing the NAIF loan application for Adani.
“Let me make it absolutely clear, I guard my integrity most dearly. I want to put beyond any doubt that this is nothing more than an LNP smear,” she protested, adding that she did not know her partner was working on the Adani project for PwC.
“Shaun has always told me he has worked at PwC, working on infrastructure, and that is it,” she explained.
Perhaps Queenslanders should admire the sturdiness of the Chinese walls in the Premier’s household. Or perhaps Ms Palaszczuk, who as the daughter of a former Beattie government minister, Henry Palaszczuk, is no political ingénue and needs to get her political antennae serviced.
“I have done everything by the book, my partner Shaun has done everything by the book,” a defiant Premier insisted.
And there’s the problem: the book.
That book on which politicians model their short-sighted and win-at-all-costs behaviour. Voters are sick of “the book” on which Ms Palaszczuk has placed so much store.
That book has served Adani well in Australia.
Most Australians by now know or suspect that the Carmichael project is at best a while elephant, at worst an environmental catastrophe, in the making. They know the giant mine is at odds with everything they have been told about the perils of climate change.
Australians have heard that Adani is under investigation in India, that the proposed rail line to freight coal from the Galilee Basin to Adani’s port at Abbot Point is a threat to the Great Barrier Reef, that the mine is not going to provide anywhere near the promised 10,000 jobs, that the project is not viable, and that the big four banks have denied Adani finance for the project.
And yet politicians of all political stripes are falling over themselves in support of the mine.
When Westpac ruled out financing the Adani project (without actually mentioning Adani) on economic and environmental grounds, Resources Minister Matt Canavan unleashed an extraordinary attack on the bank, accusing it of being “wimps” and urging Westpac customers in Queensland to switch banks.
The Carmichael saga is eerily reminiscent of the eventually aborted Bell Bay pulp mill in Tasmania.
It’s all there: questionable approval processes, secrecy, and the strong whiff of generous political donations.
The unflinching support of the federal and state governments, Queensland’s LNP opposition and even the wishy-washy support of federal Labor raises an obvious question: why is the Carmichael mine even a thing anymore?
The answer: naked politics. Adani confirms that politics in Australia has reached its lowest point, bereft of integrity and occasioning barefaced lies and tolerance of corporate malfeasance that would not be tolerated in an Australian company.
How Ms Palaszczuk reconciles promising to veto the $1 billion NAIF funding if returned to government, while vowing her full-throated support for the mine, remains to be seen.
If her government is returned it will be a conjuring trick for the ages.
The Carmichael coal mine project, meanwhile, will stumble from one uncertainty to the next, irrespective of who is in power in Brisbane or Canberra.
Adani has nothing to fear from anything resembling leadership integrity or principle from our political leaders. In that sense it is among friends.
If Labor is returned, the coal mine project will presumably fall over in the absence of the $1 billion lifeline.
If the LNP wins government, its support for the deeply flawed mine may prove irrelevant. The mine project is a financial and environmental dud and like the Gunns pulp mill it likely faces a death of a thousand cuts.
And our political leaders will be revealed for the shills they are.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine.