Is Garrett Smarter Than We Think?


Last week’s decision by Environment Minister Peter Garrett to block the Queensland Government’s massive Traveston Dam in the Mary Valley marks the first major project he has vetoed under the Environment and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Unlike the pulp mill in Tasmania, and unlike the Gorgon development off the coast of Western Australia, this time the federal minister has intervened decisively to stop a major state project.

In his media release, Garrett explained that "after carefully considering all the information put before me and advice from my Department, it is very clear to me that the Traveston Crossing Dam cannot go ahead without unacceptable impacts on matters of national environmental significance."

Garrett apparently based his decision "on the science presented to me, and the science shows that this project would have serious and irreversible effects on nationally listed species such as the Australian lungfish, the Mary River turtle, and the Mary River cod."

Environmentalists rejoiced. So did Mary Valley residents who had fought a bitter three-year battle against the dam but the groans from Brisbane’s Executive Building must have been audible all the way down George Street.

It’s worth remembering that under Commonwealth law, this is only a "proposed decision". The Queensland Government can now make comment on the decision, but it appears as though Anna Bligh won’t seriously fight it. Instead, the Queensland Government will have to work out where to find billions of extra litres of drinking water for the south-east corner of the state. It will also have to offload 449 properties — worth half a billion dollars — that it had acquired in order to build the dam.

Bligh said last week that "we’ll need to bring forward construction of new desalination plants to make up for the water Traveston Crossing Dam would have provided," adding that if a dam couldn’t get built on land that had been cleared for a century, "it’s very hard to see how any large-scale dam will ever again be approved in Australia."

Most media outlets painted the decision as bad news for Bligh and it’s hard to disagree. It was only nine months ago that she became the first female premier of Queensland and the first premier of a state anywhere in the country to win government in her own right — but the sheen has worn off very quickly. Labor has been in power in Queensland for essentially two decades now, and while Bligh is intellectually very much the equal of her predecessor Peter Beattie, she has not shown the same deft political radar or acrobatic tactical flexibility.

The Traveston project, for instance, dates back to the water crisis during Beattie’s premiership, when south-east Queensland suffered a devastating drought that threatened Brisbane with level six water restrictions. Beattie ignored the problem for years, essentially praying for rain, before panicking into action with a $9 billion "water grid" of new dams and desalination plants for the south-east corner. While Traveston was the centrepiece of that program, which was supposed to supply 70,000 megalitres a year, there was also a big new desal plant announced for Tugun on the Gold Coast. The Tugun plant is running 18 months late and has been plagued by corrosion problems.

More generally, like Sydney and Melbourne, south-east Queensland is bursting at the seams. Thirty years of rapid population growth has stretched state resources to the limit, to the extent where Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser elected to keep borrowing to fund necessary infrastructure, even if it meant Queensland lost its AAA credit rating. It did.

Then, over the weekend, Bligh’s chief of staff, Mike Kaiser, departed suddenly for a plum lobbying job at the National Broadband Network Company. The much-loathed Kaiser is a long-standing factional warrior and ALP apparatchik. Forced to resign as a parliamentarian after the now-forgotten Shepherdson Inquiry of 2000, he rebuilt his career in the backrooms, eventually moving to New South Wales where he worked as a key adviser to Morris Iemma while he was premier. After taking office from Beattie, Bligh lured Kaiser back to the sunshine state where he worked assiduously behind the scenes as a government enforcer.

Hated by his factional enemies, Kaiser was none-the-less an effective chief of staff. His departure has already prompted media speculation about Bligh’s leadership — but at this stage it remains just that. Bligh has a firm grip on both the numbers and the factional system and has already shown she can win an election with her back to the wall.

Meanwhile, the Traveston decision tells us a little more about Peter Garrett’s under-rated political smarts. Those who dismissed the former rock star and environmentalist have gradually been shown by events to have misjudged his political nous. Garrett’s decision on the Gunns pulp mill, for instance, may yet turn out to be smarter than it looks. Gunns and the environment movement portrayed his decision as a provisional approval, but in reality it was exactly the opposite. By rejecting three of the so-called "environment modules" of Gunns’ proposal, while still giving the company more time to come up with a better plan, Garrett cast enough doubt on final legal approval for the project to make it very hard for the company to find finance for its development. Even if it does find the money and resubmit, Garrett can still block the pulp mill down the track. It’s the sort of cunning tactics you’d expect from someone who trained in the law before going into rock music.

In the broader scheme of things, though, this decision demonstrates the sheer scale of the infrastructure problem confronting Australia. As I wrote last week, there is a glaring inconsistency between Kevin Rudd’s unapologetic desire for a "big Australia" of 35 million people and the environmental and fiscal resources available to support them. For instance, by forcing Queensland to build more desalination plants, this decision will actually increase Australia’s future greenhouse gas emissions.

Creaky planning bureaucracies, skinflint state governments and NIMBY politics just make the challenges more difficult. As the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann pointed out on his blog last week, "no one here has yet used an environmental concern to oppose a solar power plant, but we haven’t built one of any real size yet so don’t rule it out." Don’t laugh: Californian Senator Dianne Feinstein is currently trying to block solar power developments in the Mojave Desert for this reason.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, world leaders threw in the towel on reaching an agreement on climate change in Copenhagen. And in Queensland, more coal will be burnt to make desalinated drinking water. The paradoxes of clean development keep growing.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.