Clapped out: an industry and a government

Grubsheet has been in Roma during the past week. No, not the Eternal City but the town of the same name in the western Darling Downs of Queensland, some 600 kilometers west of Brisbane. Roma has many of the typical features of a Queensland regional centre – a string of charming 19th century timber pubs with expansive verandas draped around gruesome modern shopping complexes, with their K Marts and Kentucky Fried Chickens. Yet there’s a distinct buzz around Roma that sets it apart from most places. For the fortunes of the entire region are set to be transformed by a joint Sino-Australian-American project to tap the country’s largest known concentration of coal seam gas.

Those reserves lie in the Surat Basin beneath the vast expanse of farmland bounded by the regional towns of Roma, Miles and Chinchilla. The joint partners – Australia’s Origin Energy, America’s Conocophillips and China’s Sinopec Corporation – have formed a group called Australia Pacific Liquid Natural Gas (APLNG). In time, pipelines will be laid to the Queensland coast and vast quantities of gas shipped to China.

The importance of this is that Australia will soon be supplying a relatively clean form of energy to the world’s biggest carbon polluter. So there’s a quiet sense of pride among Queensland “bushies” that they’ll be shouldering more than their fair share of the burden of saving the planet. Yet at the same time as they savor the notion of an impending economic boom as the massive project comes on stream , an acute sense of anger has gripped the bush about the way in which they’re being governed from Canberra.

Regular readers of Grubsheet will know that we’re no fans of prime minister Julia Gillard. Yet even we were startled by the white-hot animosity displayed towards her out here at the merest mention of her name. National opinion polls are telling us that the Gillard Government has plunged to unprecedented levels of unpopularity, with a support base of just 27 per cent in the latest Newspoll. But it’s the personal way that anger is expressed that has us convinced that Gillard’s fate is sealed two years out from an election she still thinks she can win.

A "bushies" rage

Take the following stream of invective from the driver of the live cattle truck in our main photograph who we found stranded in the small town of Condamine: ” The f***ing bitch has “f***ed the Northern Territory and now she’s f***ing us! She’s got to go! Now!” The man’s voice was raised to fever pitch, his face contorted with rage. This is not your average dissatisfaction with an unpopular government and prime minister. This is something else – pure, unadulterated hatred.

Days later, we watched the Liberal frontbencher, Joe Hockey, trying to hose down a questioner at a public meeting who spoke of people “taking up arms against the government”. However much middle Australia would have shared his obvious discomfort, this is by no means an isolated opinion in the bush. Out here, many people – especially those in relatively unskilled jobs – sense a distinct threat to their always tenuous ability to “earn a crust”. And however much that may not be directly linked to the prime minister, she’s become a lightening rod for their anger and frustration and increasingly, a figure of derision and hate.

It’s not just Gillard’s notorious back-flip on her pre-election promise not to introduce a carbon tax, though this is a constant mantra locally, doubtless fueled by the big city shock-jocks who dominate the regional air waves too. Our “truckie” has been prodded into his unbounded rage by the government’s mishandling of the live cattle export trade, which has posed a direct threat to his livelihood and is yet another example of a party seemingly unable to govern with any sense of competence and purpose.

Cruelty compounded

A stomach-churning Four Corners television program a few weeks back was all it took to shut down an entire industry and destroy the livelihoods of thousands of people. Yet we now know that the relevant minister, Joe Ludwig, knew about the allegations of animal cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs when he first took office last year. A briefing paper from his department warned that public support for the live cattle trade risked being jeopardised if the Indonesians continued with their practice of not stunning cattle before they cut their throats and hack off their limbs.

How this extraodinary disclosure today will provoke the already fevered anger in the bush can only be guessed at. Yet it’s a sign of how disconnected Labor has become from reality that Julia Gillard remains convinced that she can turn the party’s fortunes around before the next election. She can’t. It’s all over. And not just because of a fumbled response to a TV program that’s put ordinary lives in rural Australia on the line.

Long road to a bullet

Yes, we’re making a big call as we say arrivederci to Roma. Because if a week is a long time in politics – as the saying goes – two years is an eternity, the poll seemingly light years away. But Gillard is not only trying to sell a carbon tax she promised she wouldn’t inflict. She’s embarked on a climate policy that no-one understands or believes will make the slightest difference towards saving the planet if the world’s biggest polluters aren’t willing to take the same measures.

Out here, people can see that the natural gas that lies beneath their feet might help by gradually weaning the Chinese off the dirty coal that forms the bulk of the world’s carbon emissions. But Julia Gillard? She’s dismissed as little more than hot air and most people have stopped listening. More often than not, the very mention of her name brings forth that most colourful of human emissions – a curse.

Do you find the carbon tax debate in Australia confusing? Well, here’s a link to a brilliant piece by the foreign editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan, that explains the whole sorry mess.

And from Christopher Pearson in the Weekend Australian, The Beginning of Labor’s End.

Lest our readers think we’ve overplayed the damage to Labor, the first opinion poll since the carbon tax was announced has Julia Gillard in an even worse position than before, despite the massive financial incentives she hoped would win over the electorate.

UPDATE JULY 28TH – A federal government report confirms the cruel impact of the live cattle export ban on Australian farmers, including the direct loss of 326 jobs.