Features Australia

Dog of a fight

Barnaby takes on the Pinkish-Green Baron

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

Like a latter-day Snoopy, Barnaby Joyce has been dreaming of bringing down the Red Baron —Nats’ leader Michael McCormack— ever since Joyce lost the job of deputy prime minister in 2018.

Who can blame Joyce for being bitter — shot down by a ‘bonking ban’ that didn’t even exist when he breached it and got his former media adviser and now partner pregnant? Then again, anyone who did a deal with Mr Turnbull, after what Turnbull did to Mr Abbott, can hardly claim that they were unaware of a certain track record of treachery.

None of that deterred Joyce who went on radio almost a year ago and declared, ‘If there was a spill and the position’s vacant, I am the elected deputy prime minister of Australia, so I’d have no guilt at all in standing.’

Twelve months later, McCormack is the elected deputy prime minister, but Joyce and his backers argue, quite reasonably, that it was their dogged persistence in staying true to mining jobs in regional Queensland that delivered the government victory at the last federal election. That’s why the government’s announcement last weekend to fund a $4 million feasibility study of a High Efficiency Low Emissions coal-fired power plant in Collinsville, central Queensland, fired up the latest round of the climate wars.

The government was meant to have announced the funding for the feasibility study months ago — indeed it committed to it before the last election — but has been pressured by Liberals in wealthy inner-city electorates to abandon that promise. In going to the backbench, former minister for resources, Senator Matt Canavan, was not just supporting Joyce’s challenge, he was sacrificing a ministerial portfolio to try to ensure that the government honoured its commitment to fund the study into the HELE plant which helped it win the north Queensland seats of Herbert, Dawson, Capricornia and Flynn. For Canavan, Collinsville, once known as ‘Little Moscow’ because of the strength of its support for Labor, is the key to the future. As he sees it, the plant, which was decommissioned in 2018, is the only way to keep power cheap enough in north Queensland, which has no other source of baseload energy, to support manufacturing jobs, processing food and fibre and smelting aluminium. As Canavan puts it, in standing up for mining jobs in the Adani debate, ‘the LNP has become the natural party of the worker.’

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese seems keen to prove the point. Asked if Labor would allow a new coal-fired power station he said, ‘You may as well ask me if I support unicorns.’ This is no doubt a message like that goes over well in inner-city Marrickville, where the Greens are the biggest threat Albanese faces, but pixie power does not cut it in Queensland. Just in case they didn’t hear him the first time, he said there was ‘no place for coal-fired power plants in Australia, full stop’, no private sector operation would ‘touch a new coal-fired power plant with a barge pole’ and the funding was ‘hush money for the climate change deniers in the Coalition.’

This might come as a surprise to the Japanese government which recently announced that it will build 22 coal-fired power plants in Japan but it was music to former PM Malcolm Turnbull, who seems to have forgotten that he himself announced a feasibility study into a coal-fired power station in 2017 and demonstrated his commitment to recycling by once again likening the ‘climate deniers’ in the Coalition to ‘terrorists’.

In reality, McCormack’s sin is not so much being a ‘Red Baron’ — every National has a soft spot for agrarian socialism — he is a ‘Pinkish-Green Baron’, too weak to stand up to the pink and green Nats who infest the state parliament in NSW (or their counterparts in the federal Coalition.) The NSW Nats have a dismal record over the last decade. They lost almost four per cent of rural voters at the state election in 2019, while the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party gained more than 11 per cent of the regional vote. They were the first to jump into bed with Labor PM Julia Gillard, supporting the Gonski plan to supercharge salaries for teachers while educational outcomes dive-bombed. Then, despite their appalling performance in the NSW 2019 election, they supported amendments that threatened, amongst other things, to persecute doctors who conscientiously object to abortions and created such a furore both within and outside the parliament that the Coalition was nearly torn apart. Undaunted, their ringleader shocked his Coalition colleagues by forming a working group in January, in cahoots with the Greens and with the bushfires still burning, to bring euthanasia laws back before the NSW parliament.

Everyone agrees that mild-mannered McCormack is a decent bloke; the trouble is no one thinks that underneath his suit is a leotard and that when his party needs him to, he’ll duck into a telephone booth and turn into Superman. McCormack, in a sense, is like Morrison, trying to bridge a chasm between warring tribes. But he has failed to take up the fight on behalf of the policies that are essential to the electoral success of the Nationals at the next election. Barnaby is not perfect, reason his supporters, but he is a gifted retail politician who is willing to do battle with One Nation and the Shooters and Fishers mob as well as with the inner-city Liberals who are just as much of a threat.

The brawl in the Nationals has received saturation coverage in the media. There’s nothing the left-leaning media likes more than disunity in the Coalition which they fervently hope will bring about its death at the next election. They still feel bitter that the federal government has cheated them three times at the ballot box despite their best efforts.

Yet this stoush is more than just a state of origin battle between Wokey Doke blokes in the NSW Nats versus ‘King Gee’ Queenslanders — if they were any tougher, they’d rust. This dogfight is about winning the next election; where a commitment to cheap baseload power and the jobs it will underwrite is crucial. Victory will require a leader who fights for the people who rely on those jobs instead of one who sits back twiddling his thumbs as they are sacrificed on the altar of lowering emissions for little or no gain.

There is a solution to the most dire predictions of environmentalists, but it highlights the irrationalism of the environmental movement. Nuclear power is the obvious answer to climate change. Environmentalists’ attitude to nuclear power is like a dying man who refuses the medicine that will cure him because it has side effects. Or a woman who takes essential oils to cure cancer. It’s the logic of the person you inch away from on the train. They may have good intentions, they may be decent, but you know they’re playing in a different key to the rest of the band.

Imagine the worst-case scenario of climate-change doom. Now imagine, as an alternative, the dreadful scenario, at least that depicted by decades of environmental activism, of dozens of Fukushimas around the world. In other words, compare the relative awfulness of the two extreme cases of environmental disaster. In one scenario we all die from the effects of climate change. In the other scenario, human beings die from radiation. These are the alternatives that environmental propaganda would have us believe are facing humankind unless we magically return to a prelapsarian Eden before industrialisation. But it is a false choice. Nuclear power is safe. Chernobyl, the worst nuclear disaster of all time, was caused by what is now obsolete technology. Comparing current nuclear technology with Chernobyl is like comparing a Spitfire to a stealth bomber. They’re both airplanes but there the comparison ends.

If we are serious about climate change, and if there is a tipping point at which it is too late to reverse the terrible putative effects of global warming, then it is imperative that we build as many nuclear power stations around the world as possible – and in the shortest time frame. Warning of the apocalypse but rejecting the one approach that will mitigate its dreadful effects is the quintessence of irrationalism. It’s also a perfect description of sadomasochism. Either the threat of global warming is of monumental proportions or it’s not. You can’t have it both ways.

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