Hogsback explores the wacky world of ambit claims

Q: WHAT’s the difference between Qantas engineers and far left politicians? A: Nothing. They both make ridiculous ambit claims to achieve a lesser end, a negotiating trick which Hogsback reckons the coal industry had best watch carefully.

Tim Treadgold

The Qantas example refers to a demand by its engineers, the chaps in overalls and with grease on their hands, that they get membership of the Qantas Club as part of a wage settlement.

The far left coal warning refers to a demand from the anti-coal green brigade that no new coal mines be developed in Australia and that all existing mines be phased out.

There’s no way that Qantas will ever agree to its lower-ranked workers hobnobbing it with its most valuable customers, unless the workers buy their own membership to the exclusive air travellers club.

The engineers union knows that, but it has made the claim as a form of “straw man” negotiating ploy; something that Qantas management can have the pleasure of knocking down, while being lulled into accepting other demands.

It’s the same with green demands over coal mines. To even suggest that all mines be phased out, and no new mines allowed, indicates an ulterior motive to the plan – or that the people making it are indeed from a different planet.

If you assume that the Greens, such as deputy leader Christine Milne, are not from another planet – which is a bit of a stretch – then you must accept the ambit claim manoeuvre, which will involve a fallback position that is not quite as unacceptable to the Australian government as closing the coal industry.

What that true objective is we are yet to see, but there is no doubt that it will not be good news for mining, even if the government seems to be awake to the Greens’ ploy.

Resources Minister Martin Ferguson is onto the game, perhaps thanks to his many years as a trade union leader, making the ambit claims.

In a marvellous demonstration of what it means to have a poacher turn gamekeeper, Ferguson slapped the Greens across their collective face on the question of coal, and its close associate coal-seam methane.

In reply to the Greens demand for no new mines – while secretly angling for something less offensive – Ferguson said: “Not only does the coal seam methane export industry have a great potential for Australia over the next 10 to 20 years, but so has the coal sector, and I might say the iron ore sector.”

He said this was despite “the best endeavours of the Greens to undermine and destroy that industry in Australia”

Other players in this latest round of coal v green competition weighed in on the coal side, including a member of the government’s own Climate Change Commission, Roger Beale, who was even blunter in his choice of words.

“If we simply cut coal off, we would have economic and social chaos,” Beale said.

Precisely, says Hogsback, while wondering what is it that the Greens are really fishing for in their ridiculous suggestion that Australia’s biggest export industry, or second biggest, depending on the year, be consigned to the dustbin of history.

One possibility is the carbon tax question, how much it should be and who should pay it.

By making an absurd demand over coal the Greens have set themselves up for a negotiating session which will start with a promise to drop the “close coal” campaign in exchange for a carbon price of at least $40 a tonne, and a full tax on coal and petroleum.

In that way, the anti-coal brigade will be able to portray themselves as reasonable men and women who are prepared to accept a second best option when they can’t get what they really want or, in this case, pretend what they really want.

Hopefully, Ferguson and his union pals in government can see the trap being laid and will deftly skirt around it. Or maybe Labor will decide that the close coal campaign is the step too far that the Greens were always going to take and walk away from any deals it has made with them.

A full walk-away is unlikely right now, given the low popularity of the government and the potential for it to be turned out of office.

But, the close coal calls do reflect a worrying period, with the Greens demanding a deal from the government on carbon (and coal) and the government knowing it has very little wriggle room.

It boils down to this: Ferguson might sound like coal’s best friend in government today, but it remains to be seen whether he still will be in a few month’s time when the hard talks commence.

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