Malcolm Turnbull should have consulted with his regional MPs before making coal and gas mining his signature cause for 2017. The naked attempt to wedge Labor not only makes it harder to settle sensible bi-partisan energy policy for the long term but it could really back fire on him. Some of the biggest opponents to expanding coal and gas mining are on his own backbench.
When the Andrews Labor Government announced a permanent ban on the exploration and development of all onshore coal seam gas for Victoria in August last year, it didn’t come out of the blue. There was already a moratorium put in place by former Liberal Premier Denis Napthine and deep concern in regional Victoria about the impact of CSG mining on the ‘clean, green’ reputation of Victoria’s agriculture sector, which employs more than 190,000 people.
Bi-partisan support also came from federal Liberal MPs in marginal regional seats. In Corangamite Sarah Henderson had been critical of Victorian Labor for not acting more quickly and more decisively on the issue. In January 2015 she told her electorate I do not support CSG exploration in Corangamite and I will work closely with the communities to support them in their fight.
In NSW the former Baird Liberal Government also reacted to deep community concern about the impact of CSG mining by cancelling exploration licenses in many regional areas. The NSW Labor Opposition wants to go further and impose a five year moratorium and permanent no-go areas in the northern rivers region – a move supported by many of Malcolm Turnbull's own backbenchers.
Meanwhile, in the outer-metro seat of Hughes, the climate change sceptic Craig Kelly MP has attended anti mining forums and told constituents he supports the NSW Governments cancellation of exploration licenses.
Down south in the Goulburn based seat of Hume local Liberals are unlikely to welcome coal hugging Treasurer Scott Morrison anytime soon. The community, backed by many high profile Liberals, are locked in a long running battle against the Korean Steel giant POSCO who seeks approval to build a new coal mine in Medway. The local MP is the Prime Minister’s junior minister Angus Taylor. He has adopted a conveniently NIMBY posture to gas extraction telling the Goulburn post “there is no shortage of gas away from sensitive areas like Wollondilly and the Southern Highlands, especially in far western Queensland, Northern South Australia, Bass Strait and offshore of Gippsland. We have enough gas in these places to avoid threats to water aquifers or prime agricultural land, whilst meeting our energy needs.”
This conveniently overlooks the fact that most of the conventional gas extracted on the east coast has been diverted from domestic use and is being exported through the new export terminal in Gladstone. That's why the price is going up for electricity generated from gas fired power stations and why the PM is goofing around the CSG issue in NSW and Victoria.
But it's not just the country Liberal MPs who will embarrass the PM in his big wedge attempt. The National Party are under pressure as well. In the marginal NSW seat of Page held by the National MP Kevin Hogan who is also feeling the heat from an electorate that doesn't want a bar of CSG. It was a top order issue during his campaign to unseat former Labor MP Janelle Saffin. In 2013 he told the Australian Newspaper “My biggest reservations are about coal seam gas mining.” “I would be absolutely prepared to cross the floor on the issue.”
He will be praying that Turnbull doesn’t give him the chance to make good on this promise.
In South Australia the summer blackouts have made that state the latest flashpoint for energy politics. Predicably question time saw SA’s coalition MPs asking Dorothy Dixers to the PM and Energy Minister- an invitation them to lay the boot into Labor’s policy of transitioning to cleaner renewable energy sources.
He clearly forgot that as recently as May last year he was at pains to comfort constituents on his approach to CSG. In words that echoed the NIMBY posture of his colleagues from Victoria and NSW he wrote: sufficient gas resources exist elsewhere in our state and indeed interstate, to support our needs. Not content to leave the matter there he told his elector “ I have called on the State Government to implement a moratorium on unconventional gas mining in our state’s high value agricultural zones.”
These regional MPs are not alone. Many others have been keen to place on the record, their opposition to coal seam gas mining in their own electorate.
So the PM has a political problem which is one entirely of his own making. After launching a fake war on opponents of coal gas and the proponents of sensible policy – he now needs to deal with the forces he will unleash. There is considerable unease in regional electorates about the issue and government MPs will soon discover that the stunts that looked good in question time have a way of unravelling. They become less and less funny the further you get from Canberra and do little to keep the lights on or the power bills down.