QUARTERLY ESSAY 66 The Long Goodbye



Matt Canavan

I sometimes feel very humbled that so many southern Australians care so much for a quaint little coalmine in the wilds of central Queensland, near where I, and my wife and five children live.

Adani has at least put us on the map. I don’t think many Mexicans would have heard of towns like Clermont, Alpha or even Bowen, the location of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia movie, before Adani. And that is not even to mention the Doongmabulla Springs, or the Wangan and Jagalingou peoples. They have now, thanks to Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine.

After my central Queensland chest pumps with pride, I do then get confused: why do people thousands kilometres away care? It can’t be the size of the mine: at 25 million tonnes per year, it would account for just 0.4 per cent of world production. It can’t be the Great Barrier Reef. The mine is 400 kilometres from the reef and will have no material impact on the number of ships travelling there. It can’t be the Caley Valley wetlands. These are an artificial formation created to attract ducks for shooting. Surely the list of environmental issues that needs fixing is not down to protecting manufactured duck ponds (and the rights of shooters that rely on them). It can’t be Aborigines. They voted 293 to one recently in favour of the mine.

So it is with a great sense of gratitude that I thank Anna Krien for her evocative travelogue, The Long Goodbye, which reads like a modern reworking of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Like Conrad’s protagonist, Marlow, Anna Krien journeys into the tropics and discovers a world alien and hostile, at least to her Melbourne sensibilities. I commend her for venturing north of the Tropic of Capricorn and her piece is well written, yet it ultimately reveals more about the author than her subject.

She reveals that this southern rebellion against northern wishes is not based on the facts above but a much more understandable, earthy and human trait: prejudice. When a local expresses his support for the opening of a new coalmine, Ms Krien “struggle[s] to compose the thing inside me that wants to leap over the desk and throttle him.” When that is your philosophical starting point, well, the endpoint is all too predictable.

Yet this prejudice appears to extend beyond just a little black rock to other things of colour. The Galilee has been explored by, shock horror, “Indians and Chinese.” Fruit-picking in Bowen is done by “Pacific Islanders.” And, according to Ms Krien, a recent Adani television ad is voiced by a lady with a “warm European” voice. Why is any of this relevant?

Ms Krien really doesn’t like small country towns either. Townsville is described as a crime-ridden, tumbleweed-infested, unruly suburban “spaghetti western” town – again with the ethnic jibes. Bowen is a “457-visa” town – I have no idea what misguided fact that is even based on. And to top off the unfolding nightmare that is regional Queensland for Ms Krien, a local hotel has only air-conditioning for keeping cool, not her preferred method of fly-screens and a fan!

Yet Ms Krien’s greatest sin of prejudice is not the depiction of small towns or the unhealthy obsession with race. All of that is nothing compared with the patronising way Ms Krien treats our first Australians. Ms Krien admits that, at a recent meeting of the Wangan and Jagalingou peoples, the vote came back 293 to one in favour of the Carmichael mine. Yet she then implies that this vote was because “Adani had organised three days of accommodation, food and travel for 150 people.”

The meeting had taken place in Maryborough, a lovely small country town north of the Sunshine Coast. As beautiful as Maryborough is (it has some great coffee), it is not Honolulu. Yet Ms Krien gives credence to the view that 150 Aboriginals sold out their heritage for three nights’ accommodation at the Best Western Maryborough – perhaps the movie channel was on Adani!

Could you get more insulting if you tried? This attitude lends extra credibility to Marcia Langton’s view that the stance of activists like Ms Krien is the second coming of terra nullius. Apparently the wishes of traditional landowners can never be accepted at face value. Better that more intelligent and educated peoples make decisions for them. So much for native title!

I would add that this form of global environmentalism has more to do with Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden” than St Francis of Assisi’s love of nature. Warren Mundine is right. The Carmichael mine involves an Indian infrastructure company proposing to build a mine on Aboriginal land. The white people involved are the environmental activists opposed to it.

If the Aboriginal population of north Australia ever do achieve real self-determination, I predict that Ms Krien’s piece, like Joseph Conrad’s novels, will be required reading in a left-wing English discourse subject at the University of Weipa.

So what of the Indians that Ms Krien identifies? There remain around 300 million Indians without access to reliable electricity. Life remains dark, short and often nasty for these poor people, at least in comparison with the modern luxuries we all enjoy.

Understandably one of the greatest desires of the Indian people is for electricity. India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, has made electrifying towns a centrepiece of his government’s policy.

Prime Minister Modi does have an ambitious goal to boost renewable energy in India, by 175 gigawatts. That would make India the largest producer of renewable energy in the world, but the Indian government has not yet been hypnotised by the fairy tales of the global environmental movement. Greenpeace is banned there. India knows that it needs other forms of power too.

So India plans to build 50 gigawatts of modern high efficiency, low emission (HELE) coal-fired power stations over the next five years. This amounts to the energy equivalent of thirty Hazelwood coal-fired power stations. Adani is the largest private provider of power in India, but its plans extend to building just seven of thirty power stations, in energy-equivalent terms.

The greatest thing that has happened in the world since the Berlin Wall fell is that hundreds of millions of people have emerged from crushing poverty in our region. India is following the path taken by China and other Asian countries. India now has the fastest-growing major economy in the world.

We sometimes fall into the lazy complacency of believing we have a strong relationship with India. We have the three Cs of cricket, Commonwealth and curry. Yet compared with our relationships with Japan, China and Korea, our links to India are immature. The gap we need to close is about a fourth “C”: commerce. And, just like our first steps in trade with those three other Asian nations, coal is opening the doors to a world of greater economic opportunities.

Coking coal (used in steel production) is already our biggest export to India by far. But it is hoped that we will now build on this to expand our second biggest export to India: education services. By contrast, we are a small supplier of thermal coal to the Indian market. Indian coal imports are dominated by Indonesian and South African coal.

The coal-fired power stations that India is constructing will boost India’s demand for thermal coal by 300 million tonnes per year over the next decade. Australia produces just 250 million tonnes of thermal coal every year and it is our second biggest export. We have some of the world’s best coal. 

The latest coal-fired power stations use advanced metals and welding techniques to generate power at higher temperatures and pressures, and thus increase their efficiency. Older technologies generate electricity from around 35 per cent of the energy embodied in coal. The latest HELE plants can achieve efficiencies of 45 per cent or higher. Higher efficiency means more electricity from less coal with lower emissions.

This is good news for the world and good news for Australia too, because these latest coal-fired power stations work best using high-quality coals. As Morgan Stanley recently concluded in its analysis of coal markets: “Indonesia and Australia are the two largest exporters of thermal coal, but Australian export coal typically is higher energy and lower moisture, although it often contains more ash. Overall, it is better suited for use in HELE power stations.”

That will mean thousands more jobs for people in Australia. I am often asked to pinpoint the precise number of jobs that Adani will create. These are not my estimates, they are those of the Queensland government’s Coordinator-General. The Adani Carmichael coalmine will generate 2,475 jobs in construction, and 3,920 jobs in operation.

But that is not all. The Carmichael mine is just one of six mines in the Galilee Basin at various stages of approval. Altogether, according to the Coordinator-General, these mines will generate 16,000 direct ongoing jobs. When unemployment is 11 per cent in Townsville – and, according to Ms Krien, the place is “crime-ridden” – wouldn’t we want an opportunity like this for our fellow Australians, including our Indigenous Australians? So much for the left being on the side of the worker!

One focus of criticism is the possibility of Adani receiving a loan (not a grant) from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility to help build an open-access rail line from the Galilee Basin to the port of Abbot Point. Opening up a new coal basin requires substantial investment in rail and ports to bring the resource to market. Every coal basin in Australia has been opened up through federal and state government investment in rail and ports.

In the case of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, the Australian government still owns the rail network. As recently as 2008, the Rudd government decided to invest more than $1 billion upgrading the rail lines of the Hunter Valley. Kevin Rudd at the time trumpeted the announcement, saying that: “This $1 billion project will more than double the amount of coal being transported to export markets from 97 to 200 million tonnes a year.”

Fifty years ago, Australian governments had to make a choice about whether they would support the development of the Bowen Basin and the expansion of coal exports in the Hunter Valley. At the time, the CSIRO advised the government that Australia did not have sufficient coal reserves to justify exports.

Fortunately, the government, led by visionary ministers like William Spooner, ignored that advice and did invest in the rail lines and ports that created a new coal-export industry, which, in turn, created enormous wealth for Australia and helped develop central Queensland.

If governments do not show similar vision and bravery today, we stand to lose this latest opportunity for Australia to create jobs and wealth and to further develop frontier areas of our nation.

I remain proud that Queensland’s coal industry can have such a disproportionate impact on global thinking. We have great coal and a great industry full of great people. I knew we had made it when a few years ago one of the world’s largest multinational food companies, Unilever, through one of its brands (Ben & Jerry’s), launched a “Scoop ice-cream instead of the reef” campaign.

The campaign was too good to be true, a biting satire of the misguided priorities of the modern world worthy of a contemporary Evelyn Waugh. Here we had an ice-cream company lecturing on morals and ethics. An ice-cream company!

I love ice-cream, but until I discovered this campaign I had never really thought of its moral implications. On reflection, though, I concluded that the moral purpose of ice-cream was to make rich people fat.

Let us make the comparison then to coal. Coal makes poor people warm. Coal remains the cheapest way of producing electricity on a large scale. There remain more than one billion people around the world without access to electricity. The cheapest way of producing electricity for them will also be the quickest.

Bring on the morality challenge, because I will be backing Australian thermal coal over chocolate-chip, cookie-dough ice-cream any day of the week!


Matt Canavan is the former Minister for Resources and Northern Australia. He was previously chief of staff to Barnaby Joyce, and before that an executive at KPMG and an economist at the Productivity Commission.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 66, The Long Goodbye. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 67, Moral Panic 101.


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