Just because you’re spending other people’s money doesn’t excuse you from making choices.
Should the government lend $900 million to help lay 189km of heavy rail track in central Queensland capable of transporting 60 million tonnes of premium thermal coal a year?
Or would it be better to splash out on a 12km tram line to convey beret-clad Canberrans between coffee shops on Northbourne Avenue?
The carbon fearmongerers are implacably opposed to the first option but are crazy about the Gungahlin tram, a green vanity project adopted by the ACT Labor government that will fleece an estimated $937m from taxpayers during its lifetime.
It is the type of project that ticks all the boxes for the modern Labor Party, satisfying the romantic yearnings of its progressive base and the anti-competitive tendencies of its union sponsors. Construction work on Capital Metro is effectively a Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union closed shop — inflated pay packets, fanciful allowances and abundant rostered days off.
Fixed point-to-point transport projects are unlikely to “stack up”, as Bill Shorten would put it, in a city with a population 12 times smaller than Melbourne and one of the highest car ownership rates in the country.
Even on the most optimistic assumptions the line is expected to generate less than $340,000 a month in revenue across its first 20 years, meaning that for every dollar a passenger pays, the taxpayer will be throwing in a tenner.
If there were a prize for egregious public investment, the Gungahlin tram, cruising at a stately 29km/h across broad acres of Canberra’s median strips, would be hard to beat.
Enter Shorten, the leader of what was once called the workers’ party, who raves about public transport but is unsure if the business case for the Adani Carmichael line “stacks up”. “I am not convinced the taxpayer of Australia should underwrite the risk of the project through a billion-dollar loan,” he told reporters in Brisbane last week.
Shorten’s decision to align himself with the fanciful claims of the fruitcake fringe and against the interests of private industry is a seminal moment for the ALP.
Labor’s ideological journey from a socialist party that merely wanted to take over the means of production to a deep green party that wants to close down the whole lot is complete.
Construction of the Carmichael mine would boost sluggish regional economies from Gladstone to Townsville, lifting wages and employment. A concessional government loan for the rail link would mean that up to five more mines might follow.
Yet Shorten is content to let the green reactionaries triumph and leave the Galilee Basin coal reserves untouched. The interests of the workers are sacrificed for environmental populism.
Labor’s flirtation with the green movement began in the early 1980s when Bob Hawke decided to stand with Bob Brown in opposing the Franklin Dam. It was a popular move on the mainland, where Hawke won the 1983 election with a 4 per cent swing. There was a 4 per cent swing against Labor in Tasmania, however, where the dam meant progress and jobs.
Hawke’s finance minister, Peter Walsh, warned that no good would come from trying to satisfy the insatiable demands of ecological activists. Labor, he wrote in his memoir, had knowingly put Tasmanian blue-collar workers out of work “to appease the bourgeois left and middle-class trendoids in the gentrified suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne”.
What Walsh and others did not predict was that the workers would eventually be squeezed out by the middle-class trendoids, just as they were squeezed out from the workers’ cottages in inner-Sydney Chippendale.
Nor could anyone have foreseen in 1983 that the kayak-paddling nature lovers blockading the Franklin would spawn a protest industry with a nine-figure turnover, or that demonisation of dams would be eclipsed by the demonisation of coal, a combustible sedimentary rock that gave us modernity. By the mid-1980s, the green movement, radicalised by its own success, was congratulating itself on locking away every hectare of untamed wilderness and was looking for new targets for its righteous anger.
The marginal, drought-prone pastures of the Galilee Basin became a cause worth fighting for once the Greens had succeeded in portraying coal as public enemy No 1.
The anti-coal campaigners met their match in Gautam Adani, a university dropout from India’s Gujarat state who set up his own diamond brokerage at 20 and traded his way to become a multi-billionaire.
The Adani Group’s stubborn refusal to let green spoiling tactics stop its plan to open Australia’s largest coalmine makes its tenacious chairman a true Aussie hero.
There is far more at stake in this fight than the fate of one coalmine, just as more rested on the Franklin campaign than the future of one dam. It is a test of strength between ideology and pragmatism, a choice between deep-green dogma and progress.
If the environmentalists were to win this fight it would put an effective moratorium on the expansion of coal for the next 30 years, just as Franklin put a stop to large-scale water storage.
By refusing to offer material support to the project, Shorten, on behalf of Labor, has effectively thrown in the towel. He presumes to know better than private sector investors prepared to risk billions of dollars of their own capital in the project by declaring that the project doesn’t stack up.
He is prepared to fight Malcolm Turnbull over the allocation of money from the Northern Australian Infrastructure Facility, controlled by an independent board charged with offering concessional loans to projects that pass a public interest test on which they can reasonably expect a return.
In his 2016 book, For the Common Good, Shorten dismissed the future of thermal coal and instead declared his ambition to make Australia a “clean energy superpower”. The growth in mining exports is fading, he declared. Renewable energy is “the biggest business opportunity in the history of business”, and Labor, in time, will be shown to be “on the right the side of history”.
Now that Shorten has revealed his intention to put the kybosh on Adani, the portent of his extravagant rhetoric is a little less opaque.