Gas and other hot air

VOCAL anti-CSG forces shout that the industry has no social licence, while it insists that those doing the yelling are drive-in, drive-out environmental mercenaries. There’s nothing like an election to sort the fact from fiction … in theory.
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James McGrath

The thing about elections is that they are the absolute arbiter of public opinion. Two sides of an argument may claim the “silent majority” support, but when that silent minority puts pencil to paper on Saturday, there will be little disputing the results.

After all, it’s a general election rather than a referendum on a particular issue.

However, there are ways to slice and dice numbers to prove a point.

One of the more divisive issues in recent times is the vexing question of CSG.

Undoubtedly, living next to drill rigs is unpleasant, but it seems the anti-CSG forces have whipped up enough fear to have the laws surrounding CSG changed at both a federal and state level.

In Canberra, key independent Tony Windsor had his ire raised as a result of demonstrations against Santos at Spring Ridge in 2010.

He went on to apply enough pressure to the tentative Labor government to have both an independent scientific committee and “water trigger” legislation passed.

At the state level, public pressure has forced NSW’s Liberal premier to introduce ‘tougher’ rules against CSG, including putting a 2km exclusion zone between CSG activities and towns of more than 1000 people.

While there are similar rules in Queensland, the industry didn’t appreciate having the rules changed

Especially AGL, which recently took heavy write-downs over the issue.

Meanwhile, juniors such as Metgasco, Dart Energy and Planet Gas have put NSW in the “too hard” basket.

Even Santos with its ex-Eastern Star Gas assets has scaled back activity, although it denies that it has scaled back, having not actually put a concrete development plan on the table in the first instance.

Both legislative decisions were results of politicians sticking their finger in the air and seeing which way the wind is blowing. When people in your electorate are out on the streets and yelling, it’s not exactly hard to figure that one out.

However, those who are for the development of CSG often say that the protesters are blow-ins and don’t actually reflect a genuine community concern.

With rules for the federal election dictating that voters actually do so in their own electorate, this may be one of the first opportunities to figure out whether CSG is on the nose in regional towns of NSW and Queensland, or just in Lismore and in the inner cities.

Interestingly, this sort of question does have a comparatively recent marker.

During the last state election in WA, the result in the seat of Broome was seen as a defacto referendum on whether the people of Broome wanted a gas hub at James Price Point, or whether the protesters were right in saying that the was no community consensus on the issue.

Amid Greens annihilation, as voters opted for the Liberal Party, the seat of Kimberley was considered to be one of the few bright spots.

In fact, the contest went right down to the wire with about 25% of the primary vote going to the Greens.

The Greens naturally have used this figure, particularly the Broome poll result, as evidence that the region is dead against the JPP development.

But then again, the Greens were the only party to overtly oppose the development at JPP, meaning that 75% of voters in the electorate were voting for a candidate who either supported the hub or who were ambivalent about it.

The Greens actually won the town of Broome though, with the Greens candidate bagging 572 votes out of 1331 cast, beating the next best with 286.

Although applying the same logic to the Broome result, 670 people voted for the Liberals, Labor and the Nationals, all of whom did not oppose the JPP hub.

Depends on how you want to slice the numbers really.

Back to the upcoming election, and the wind at this stage seems to be blowing in the direction of a swing to the Coalition and likely victory.

To be honest, it’s been on the cards for a while now and while the resurrection of Kevin Rudd did have a honeymoon period of about a week. It seems Tony Abbott is the man to beat despite numerous gaffes throughout the campaign.

Whether this is an implicit acceptance on behalf of the community of CSG remains to be seen.

In the House of Representatives, a few seats seem to be bellwethers for CSG.

The retirement of Tony Windsor has put the seat of New England up for grabs, with Barnaby Joyce seemingly in command for the seat.

While he hasn’t come out saying that CSG should be abandoned altogether, he would like to see it done outside of his electorate and a lot more study done on it. However, he’s resisted calls for moratoriums to be placed on CSG.

Meanwhile Lyne and Parkes look to be the National’s electorates to lose.

Meanwhile in Queensland, the seats of Maranoa, Groom and Sunshine Coast are seats to watch. At this stage they’re likely to be won by the Coalition, but any swings to the Greens or the Palmer United party could be used to demonstrate growing resentment against CSG by those parties.

While The Greens’ stance on CSG is well-known, Clive Palmer has been on the record as saying that Australia should put a pause on CSG development.

Interestingly, anti-CSG group Lock the Gate Alliance have hosted an ‘election scorecard’ prepared by the Hunter and Central Rivers Alliance.

It lists 19 seats it thinks are vital to stopping coal and CSG extraction.

Obviously, this is where the Alliance and broader green movement think they can make gains by pumping up the outage against CSG and coal.

12 out of the 19 seats listed are in NSW, which has not seen too much CSG exploration, but a heck of a lot of noise.

The rest are over the border in Queensland, while Corangamite is in Victoria.

It may well be worth coming back to these seats after the election to take a gander at any particular swings to see which way the wind is blowing.

However, the real fun is in the senate.

The senate is where the micro-parties come out to play and reflect a whole state’s thinking rather than one electorate’s.

It’s also shaping as a vital house for a coalition trying to ease the restrictions on CSG, including creating a one-stop shop for environmental approvals.

If met by an obstinate senate, it could prove rather difficult for the coalition to implement its agenda.

In NSW, there are no Greens leaving the senate meaning an anti-Greens vote cannot be directly measured.

Leaving the senate this term are three Labor senators, two Liberal senators, and a Nationals candidate. All of whom are standing for re-election.

A mammoth 110 candidates are standing for the senate in this term, making below-the-line voting a exhaustive process for voters.

The Greens are putting up six names for election, matching both Labor and the LNP. Micro-parties such as the “Stop CSG” party are also nominating this time around.

Meanwhile in Queensland, three Liberals and three Labor senators are stepping down during this term, with three of those retiring altogether.

This is where it could get interesting.

Incumbency tends to lend itself to being re-elected, but with three senators stepping down there could well be change in Queensland.

The Greens are putting up three candidates, while Queensland is considered a relative stronghold of the Katter Australian Party and Palmer United Party, both of which have come out against CSG, although Bob Katter has come out more stridently against it.

Any swings to these parties could indicate an anti-CSG stance on behalf of voters, but it’s always hard to get a guide on whether CSG has anything to do with a person’s vote.

It’s always difficult work to pinpoint a single issue when it comes to a general election, but the Australian National University had a crack back in August.

It polled 1200 people, asking them what they thought the biggest issues facing Australia were.

In spot number one came “Economy/Jobs”, number two came “Immigration”, number three came “better government”, and then “environment/global warming”

It would seem to indicate that voters are thinking about their hip-pocket and their standard of living. Theoretically selling a multi-billion dollar industry should be easier, but of course people may be thinking about the rise in the price of gas in the east coast.

In any case, we’ll know more after tomorrow.

Then we can slice and dice the numbers.

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