The issue that is not going away

A RADIO host is turning the tide against coal mining in what are seen as prime agricultural areas. The Outcrop by Robin Bromby.
The issue that is not going away The issue that is not going away The issue that is not going away The issue that is not going away The issue that is not going away

Courtesy Queensland Resources Council.

Staff Reporter

Perhaps the biggest mistake the coal industry made was buying up and demolishing most of the small Queensland town where Alan Jones went to school.

While the 2GB breakfast man, who has the highest rating program in Sydney (and is also syndicated to regional stations), has long been an advocate of rural values, his opposition to stripping farmland for open cut mines (he doesn‘t oppose underground operations) has been at full pitch in recent months, culminating (for the moment) in his addressing the National Press Club yesterday.

True, the emphasis of his campaign has been on coal seam gas extraction but the coal miners are also well and truly in the line of fire.

While CSG is outside the purview of, the factor of pumping water, chemicals and sand underground are now inextricably entangled in the public mind with the quite separate activities of coal miners.

Destroying water tables or ripping up prime farm land – in the public mind of those in the eastern states – the activities are seen as one, especially if the perpetrators are foreign-owned coal or energy companies.

It comes down to this – open cut coal mines are being portrayed as threatening our country’s food security.

Jones has the gift of being able to get the picture into people’s minds – for example, taking one proposed open cut coal mine and reading out the statistics for how much the affected land produces (the numbers of cases of avocados, the tonnage of wheat).

For months, as I listened to Jones on this issue (and not a day goes by that it is not featured sometime between 5.30am and 9am on 2GB), I thought this was just another of his campaigns that would eventually peter out. But it is gathering strength and now the issue is starting to seep into newspapers.

Jones struck a chord with an audience far wider than his regular morning listeners.

The Greens and he are on the same page but no one outside the core environmental movement was listening to Bob Brown on coal mining.

My guess is most of the population realised (a) you needed coal to keep the power stations running and (b) the exports of coal are a large part of why we can afford widescreen television sets, holidays in Bali and a new car every few years.

Jones has taken the coal mining issue over and beyond the Green perimeter and into the general population.

Coal mining is no longer the Greens' issue of environmentally “dangerous” – now it threatens the very food you put on your table every day, something that has the potential to horrify voters across the political and social spectrum at a time when food prices are soaring anyway.

In fact, there’s a third and deadly issue – the individual’s right to own their land.

Every person who owns their own home will be astonished a farmer has no right to stop a coal company coming on their property. They’ve seen The Castle and will wonder if they’re next.

For those readers not living in New South Wales and Queensland, the implications of the Jones campaign may not have registered. However, this issue is shaping up as something that may be just as important as native title in terms of its long-term effects.

Eddie Mabo in the 1980s, Alan Jones in 2011. That’s how serious this could become.

After all, he is the son of a Queensland farmer (of modest circumstances, from what one can gather), who knows the regions concerned like the back of his hand. Just last week he was in Gunnedah addressing a town hall meeting. A few weeks earlier, it was Queensland.

One of the first of the other media to pick up and run with this issue was The Australian (disclosure: I am a contributor to that paper).

Now the Sydney Morning Herald is on the case and has just broken the story that a confidential draft plan in NSW will allow conservation areas, prime farming and horse breeding land and winery regions to be open to coal seam gas and coal mining, under the plan prepared for the NSW government to manage land use.

The ABC is featuring the story of a cattle farmer who is legally blind and whose land is about to be drilled by NuCoal Resources. He argues his disability would prevent him moving to a new farm with which he was not already familiar.

James Packer’s wife, Erica, has joined the campaign. Originally from Gunnedah, she was at the food security forum Alan Jones addressed. It's spreading fast.

This has a long way to run and no one can predict the outcome.

This article first appeared in ILN's sister publication on Thursday.