How The Greens Learnt To Speak To Queensland

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Larissa Waters, the 34-year-old former environmental lawyer and freshly minted Greens Senator, is the response to a question everyone, including her own party, has been asking: What should a Queensland Green look like?

Far from the anti-Katter we would expect, Waters demonstrates both the Greens’ increasing engagement with the political mainstream and an appreciation for the pragmatic necessity that Queensland politicians have to be, well, Queenslanders. This means agriculture, mining, immigration, blonde hair and perfect smiles are all high on the agenda.

Greens branches in other states have mutated since being transplanted from Tasmania, and they have taken on local characteristics. The Queenslanders are no different, and their agenda has quickly become the national agenda: the live export ban and protection of prime agricultural land from mining have both exploded into the debate in recent weeks.

Whether Waters is driving these issues or they have their origins in Bob Brown’s mind, it’s clear that as well as speaking to the environmental movement, with Waters in the Senate the Greens are learning to speak to Queensland.

On the live export ban, Waters had this to say: "The global market for live exports is drying up. It’s cruel, there are no extra funds that are brought back to farmers as a result. We have alternatives…"

Apart from the usual arguments for the necessity of live export — lack of refrigeration in consuming countries and cultural arguments — there are some interesting points of geography to take into account.

Australia’s live cattle and sheep exports come overwhelmingly from the NT and Western Australia; sheep in particular are a WA thing with around 70 per cent of the haul being exported from Fremantle each year. Dairy cattle, goats and some sheep come from Victoria and SA.

That’s not to say Queensland isn’t involved in live export, but its industry is in the far north, outside Greens-voting territory. Cattle farmers typically sell less than 50 per cent of their cattle for live export in any case, and the usual figure (pdf) is far less than that, usually below 5 per cent.

This being said, Queensland live cattle export values have skyrocketed by over $80 million per annum in the last two years almost solely due to trade with Indonesia, which wants our beef so badly they’re prepared to pay stupid amounts for it.

Economically, backing live export is a golden egg, but Waters can run a political argument for the ban without doing herself much electoral harm — the northern cattlemen probably weren’t going to vote for her anyway, and besides, they’re a small group outsized by their competitors in WA and the NT. Plus, she nabs the inner-city and coastal moral vote.

And besides, the other major Queensland Greens issue, mining speculation on prime agricultural land, throws agriculture a bone and sets the rest of the electorate’s mind at ease: the Greens really do care about farmers, which is why we won’t let mining companies take our best land for speculation. The land in question is in the dryland and irrigated agriculture dominated south-eastern corner, areas like Condamine and the Darling Downs where new coal and gas fracking outfits are being championed by the Liberal-National Party.

It’s a savvy way to package the Greens’ anti-mining campaign in language Queensland likes, giving a nod to the pastoralists to keep them onside. For instance, in an interview with the Queensland edition of 7:30, Waters clearly plays from both decks  — arguing on the one hand "what price food security, what price ground water", before referencing the Greens Senate push for a blanket moratorium on coal seam gas mining. The well-known environmental impacts of fracking aside, she is playing clever politics, leveraging a unique Queensland issue to push the Greens’ broader national agenda.

There are challenges though. Waters has to negotiate the Greens’ stance on immigration and asylum seekers in a state regarded as Australia’s most racist. In an interview on Bundaberg local news, she acknowledged locals’ worries "that their lifestyle will change as a result of the influx of new people". If she is going to struggle on any Greens policy during her first term, it will be this — after all, the immigration debate has become nastier and nastier since 2001. It looks unlikely to change any time soon, especially with the advent of climate refugees.

With Queensland quickly becoming the next battleground for the national battle between the Greens and the mining sector, the party needs to learn how to speak the language quickly. Waters, a former environmental lawyer, who is so friendly that she gets compliments from Barnaby Joyce, is a native speaker. She can spout the tourist catch-phrases of the coast — "…eventually the world’s not going to want our dirty coal …it’s going to want our clean sunlight". She speaks the language of agricultural jobs. Waters is the answer to the question about what a Queensland Green looks like. Can she remain true to both?

 

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