‘CanDo’ What? Global Dynamics and Local Power in Queensland

David Ritter explores the confluence local circumstances and global dynamics animating Queensland’s politics, and the likely implications for good governance, the Great Barrier Reef and greenhouse gas emissions.

Following an election held on 24 March 2012, former Mayor of the City of Brisbane, Campbell Newman took power as Premier of the State of Queensland, which covers the north east of Australia. It was, by any measure, a landslide, as Newman’s Liberal National Party (LNP) promising a ‘Can Do’ approach to government and the economy, took 78 out of 89 seats in the jurisdiction’s single legislative chamber. The lopsided numbers were not the consequence of electoral irregularity. Rather, the voting population of Queenslander had simply decided, in large majority, that a change of government was in order. In common with subnational politicians around the world, Newman must navigate the tensions associated with twenty-first century globalization, mediated in the local context. The exercise of local power in Queensland is conditioned by globalization, including a number of dynamics that bear directly on Australia’s north-eastern state by virtue of its geography and economic base. The case of local power in Queensland is of great moment: at stake is not only the future of the Great Barrier Reef – one of the seven natural wonders of the world – but the fate of the world’s climate, given the sheer scale of planned expansion of known coal reserves in the state’s geographical centre. In Queensland, local circumstances and global dynamics have come together to produce conditions that are likely to entrench the interests of the coal industry at the expense of good governance, other sectors of the economy and society, the ongoing viability of the Great Barrier Reef, and the overarching imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Queensland, a short introduction

Although the differences may be subtle by the standards of many federal polities, there are not insignificant variations in history, culture, politics and political economy between the six Australian states. In contemporary cultural parlance in Australia, Queensland is often identified as being in some sense ‘different’ to other states. Indeed the distinctness of Queenslanders is an observation (and claim) often enough made and emphasized by Queenslanders themselves. The subjectivity of ‘uniqueness’ is significant, as subnational power is invariably conditioned by its relationship with the national polity and manifestations of nationalism. In Queensland’s history, the proud peculiarity of the state and accompanying rhetorical hostility to ‘southerners’ and ‘outsiders’, has not been infrequently relied to legitimize clientelism and other forms of illiberal power.

Queensland was first recognized as a separate British colony in 1859. A little over two decades later, Queensland acted unilaterally in acquiring the western portion of New Guinea as a colony – the only instance of external colonialism in Australian history. In 1901, Queensland joined the five other British Australian colonies – Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales – to form the Federal Commonwealth of Australia, but retained a strong state cultural identity. Under the constitutional settlement, powers were distributed between the states and the new national government, with the latter to prevail in the case of any inconsistency. In 1922, the State Labor Government led by E.G. Theodore abolished the upper house, leaving Queensland with the only unicameral parliament in Australia.

Arguably, Queensland is the Australian state most prone to extreme politics, usually of a conservative variety, though the state also elected the only member of the Communist Party to ever sit in one of the country’s parliaments (Fred Paterson, MLA for Bowen, 1944-1950). The National Party premiership of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen (1968-1987) saw the emergence of what was, by the standards of 20th Century Australia, a distinctly violent and clientelistic political culture, memorably characterized as ‘the Moonlight State’ in a landmark 1987 television expose which led to the downfall of the Bjelke-Petersen government, the establishment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry and numerous arrests and convictions of public officials. The Report of the inquiry, which was led by senior lawyer Tony Fitzgerald QC, was submitted to Queensland’s Parliament in 1989. Fitzgerald found that corruption, originating in post-war networks of patronage and influence, was widespread:

For many years, Queensland has had a corruption problem. The public perception of the problem, in earlier days, centred upon the Police Force. Police corruption was common knowledge, particularly among police, and there was a general acceptance that nothing could be done because police, police union officials and politicians were either involved or would resent the adverse publicity which would result if the problem were brought into the open…. Successive governments and their departments, including the Police Force, have either failed to eradicate corruption or ignored or even condoned it. Meanwhile, the community’s confidence in public institutions has been undermined.

In the 1990s the anti-globalisation and chauvinist ‘One Nation’ Party soared to brief prominence under charismatic and eccentric leader Pauline Hanson, garnering over 22 percent of the vote and 11 seats in the 1998 state election. Racial politics in Queensland have also often been vexed, from ‘black birding’ and bloody conflict in colonial times, to the contemporary complexities associated with the recognition of Indigenous land tenure, and some infamous recent instances of alleged police brutality. It would be utterly wrong, though, to characterize Queensland’s politics as abidingly reactionary: indeed the state showed an altogether remarkable capacity for democratic renewal in the wake of the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

Preconditions for Abuse of Power

In Queensland today, certain preconditions exist that may prove conducive for renewed subnational illiberalism. As one writer observed in the wake of Newman’s election, “[w]ith a single chamber of state parliament, Queensland’s executive is far less constrained than other states by parliamentary oversight”, a situation that is made worse by the vast scale of the LNP’s majority. In a clear application of ‘shock doctrine’, Newman has also adopted the strategy of using a purported fiscal crisis – saying at one point that Queensland was at risk of becoming ‘the Spain of Australian states’ – to justify both extreme action against the state’s civil service and the reduction of procedural checks and balances in relation to development proposals. In accounting for local power, it is necessary to be clear about the world views which animate the actors and condition their arenas of operation. In the case of Newman and the LNP, the operating ideology might be said to be vulgarly pro-development, populist, conservative in relation to certain ‘culture war’ issues but radical in terms of cutting public services, jingoistic for Queensland, and possessing an evident authoritarian streak, at least by mild Australian standards. The ideology and psychology Newman LNP government is to reject constraints on action – an attitude memorably evoked by the ‘CanDo’ moniker. However, as Fitzgerald remarked in the report from his inquiry:

'The rejection of constraints is likely to add to the power of the Government and its leader, and perhaps lead to an increased tendency to misuse power'.

Although the Newman Government has been in office for less than a year, there are already worrying signs of abuse of power and process. Following the election, some apparently nepotistic appointments were quickly made to the high echelons of the public service. Newman has also flagged wide-ranging changes to Queensland’s Crime and Misconduct Commission – set up as a consequence of the Fitzgerald Inquiry – potentially reducing the institution’s ability to investigate political matters. Polling suggests that large numbers of voters have become anxious about the Newman Governments’ level of openness and accountability.

Political Economy

Local power is fundamentally conditioned by available opportunities for capital accumulation, forms of production, and linkages with broader trade and monetary systems. At the center of Queensland’s economy is the minerals sector, with a heavy emphasis on coal exports. Coal is Australia’s largest export earner and the source of particularly substantial royalty payments to the coffers of state governments. In 2008-2009, for example, coal royalties were worth $3.1 billion to the Queensland Government. Although the coal industry also generates all sorts of perverse consequences for the Australian economy (one recent study argued that ‘slowing down the pace of coal exports would actually result in enormous benefits to the Australian economy’) there is no doubting the industry’s level of political influence. Australia’s constitutional settlement makes matters worse: lacking taxation powers, state governments are overly reliant on mining royalties, creating a structural political bias in favor of the extractives industry.

Queensland’s alleged budgetary crisis is not only the ideal context for Newman to embark upon an ideologically driven program of government cuts, but to reduce procedural scrutiny on development, and with concomitant opportunity for the coal industry to further enhance its political influence. In his inaugural speech to the Queensland Parliament, Newman said:

…. we will facilitate major projects instead of impeding them. We’ll protect Queensland’s environment by raising the bar on environmental performance; and by cutting unnecessary environmental red tape and ideology….

In addition to loosening the approvals system, in the July 2012 state budget, the Department of Environment and Protection was stripped of a large portion of its workforce, creating real doubt over whether the remaining processes could be properly administered. Harmonizing with the Premier, Michael Roche, Chief Executive Officerthe industry peak body, the Queensland Resource’s Council, asserted in his 2012 annual address that:

We can no longer afford the complacency which leads some in our community to say that they enjoy the benefits that the resources sector brings to our state, but that we can actually afford to go without this mining project or that gas project. The days of being able to be choosey are gone. … We want to see new resource investments in Queensland nurtured, not discouraged by unnecessary and expensive conditions and processes.

Critics of big coal are given short shrift, not only by the industry itself but by the Newman Government, which declines to even engage in debate with NGOs on the issue. With an eviscerated public service, a dismally outnumbered opposition, no parliamentary house of review, and with the coal industry and government in lock step, the preconditions exist for local power to be exercised to the enrichment of one sector, at the expense of the remainder of the community. The circumstances also now exist for the subversion of liberal norms and processes.

Global drivers, global consequences

Variations in local power can to some extent be accounted for through the impact of global political events and processes. The Fitzgerald Inquiry noted how the conditions of post-war global economics and politics established the basis for the emergence of systemic corruption in Queensland. Now, a confluence of global factors condition the circumstances in which the exercise of local power is developing under Newman. Queensland’s coal mining boom is underpinned by the world historical economic rise of China and India, countries which are now the state’s second and third largest export markets respectively, with more coal output expected to come on line soon. As the Australian Government’s recent white paper Australia in the Asian Century noted, ‘the pace of the economic emergence of China and India has lifted the demand for Australian commodities to a new scale’. For example, hitherto unknown or previously uneconomic coal reserves in the Galilee Basin are now in line to be dug up and exported, largely because of demand from China and India, and exploration is underway in the even more remote Eromanga Basin. The Australian company Waratah Coal – which is one of the proponents in the Gallilee Basin – provides an example of the depth of the transnational linkages. Waratah Coal is aiming for first coal production in early 2015 from its planned ‘China First’ mine, expects to be funded and built by Chinese state owned companies and to export for coal solely for use in Chinese power stations. In other cases Indian and Chinese companies – including Adani, GVK and Macmines Austasia – are the actual proponents of proposed new mines in the Gallilee, with all output destined for their home countries.

The transnational economic drivers behind Queensland’s radical coal export boom are in stark tension with another global dynamic, namely the imperative to reduce carbon emissions. In 2011, the International Energy Agency (IEA) advised that: “[o]n planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.” In November 2012, the World Bank warned that we are on track to a four degree warmer world by 2100. And last year again the IEA noted that ‘[n]o more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal, unless carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is widely deployed’. The next batch of comprehensive studies by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is due to be released in 2013/14 and is expected to present a grim prognosis.

Although neither the Australian nor Queensland governments even track the greenhouse gas emissions that occur as a result of export coal being burned elsewhere in the world, there is no doubt that the contribution is significant and increasing. One study has shown that in the Galilee Basin alone, if the nine mines that are currently planned proceed as the proponents hope, the resulting emissions from burning the coal would be around 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) every year. Astonishingly, if ranked against current CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning of the biggest polluting countries in the world, the CO2 emissions from burning the coal mined in the Galilee Basin would make it the seventh largest emitter of CO2 globally. Another recent report has noted that, calculated as a single project, Australia’s planned coal expansion is the second largest of fourteen fossil fuel expansion enterprises that will irrevocably alter the world’s climate, pushing associated CO2 emissions up by 1,200 million tonnes a year in 2025, once the coal is burned.

Yet, if Queensland’s coal export industry stands out as one of the greatest threats to the global climate, the state will also pay a terrible price if climate change gets out of control. As Australia’s Climate Commission has said, ‘Queensland’s climate is already changing and is likely to change further in the future, posing significant risks for the state’. Already extreme weather events, regarded as more likely as a consequence of climate change, have badly impacted on Queensland. In a feature in Rolling Stone magazine last year, Jeff Goodell noted that Queensland would be at the forefront of severe climate impacts on Australia:

What water is left is becoming increasingly salty and unusable, raising the question of whether Australia, long a major food exporter, will be able to feed itself in the coming dec­ades. The oceans are getting warmer and more acidic, leading to the all-but-certain death of the Great Barrier Reef within 40 years. Homes along the Gold Coast are being swept away, koala bears face extinction in the wild, and farmers, their crops shriveled by drought, are shooting themselves in despair.

Major floods in south east Queensland in January 2013, just two years after the deadly record floods of the 2011 wet season, has focused attention on how communities and infrastructure will cope with more frequent extreme events.

In relation to the Great Barrier Reef in particular, the expansion of coal poses a more immediate threat than climate change, because of plans to build new ports and related infrastructure, leading to a potentially enormous increase in ship traffic through the Reef. Again, there is tension evident both between and within global and local processes. In June 2012, the United Nations World Heritage Committee supported the recommendations of a UNESCO Monitoring Mission in March 2012, which urged Australia to ‘not permit any new port development or associated infrastructure outside of the existing and long-established major port areas within or adjoining the property, and to ensure that development is not permitted if it would impact individually or cumulatively on the Outstanding Universal Value of the property.’ The Committee also warned that the Reef could be listed as ‘World Heritage in Danger’ in 2013 if decisive action is not taken to manage unprecedented development pressures. Strikingly, the Queensland Premier in his response to the UNESCO report told media that:

We are in the coal business. If you want decent hospitals, schools and police on the beat we all need to understand that.

Despite Newman’s protestations, given what is now known and the probable susceptibility of Australia’s north east to climate change, the proposed expansion of coal exports is exposed as a plan that will lead to the emiseration of future generations of Queenslanders.

Where Now?

History can serve up some unhelpful conjunctions. Governments in Queensland are elected to quadrennial parliamentary terms and given the size of Newman’s majority it seems likely that the Liberal National Party will be in power for at least eight years. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure in the same period is absolutely essential if the world is to avoid runaway climate change. Ideally, at the vanguard of global efforts to reduce carbon emissions would be the Australian state of Queensland, relying on its extraordinary wealth, highly educated workforce, and abundant sources of natural renewable energy to spearhead the energy transformation that is required. Sadly, the actual situation could hardly be further from the ideal: the trajectory of ‘CanDo’ government does not give cause for optimism.

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