Shenhua mine approval shafts Barnaby and tears a hole in the nation’s heart while Bishop undoes love child Abbott.

Barnaby in parliament having a moment

‘The world’s gone mad,’ barks Barnaby, Federal biosecurity watchdog and Boo and Pistol impounder, Minister for Agriculture, Member for New England. Or could it be Barnaby has been driven over the edge of reason?

Joyce fails to see Greg Hunt’s outstretched leg.  He trips awkwardly, drops his portfolio and plunges to the bottom of a virtual mine-shaft. It’s all part of Operation Lose Barnaby before the next election which could be any time Abbott gambles on a double-dissolution trigger.

On the nose with the electorate, terror scares not making a difference, the economy going south, gay marriage opening a wedge, a punt looks more and more attractive to a desperate Tony Abbott. An Abbott-Joyce LNP ticket, however, would scare off voters. One loose cannon is too many.

Abbott, Hockey, Hunt quickly tip barrow-loads of bullshit on top of Joyce in the traditional Liberal burying of the politically dead. Barnaby, says Hockey, is an “outstanding” deputy leader of the National Party. He talks shit, sometimes, but it is always patriotic shit.

“Sometimes I don’t agree with him, often I do agree with him, [but] you know what I love about him? He puts Australia first,” he says, returning to complete the section of the TPP which cedes the nation’s sovereign rights to multinational corporations should projects unaccountably be vetoed.

Shifty Hunt gushes brotherly love over Barnaby, whom he believes exists to be patronised, overruled and betrayed. He is a National after all. This is how the coalition forges consensus. ‘We are still buddies,’ he says after his mine approval double-cross.

“I really like him. Like, I really like him,” Judas Hunt damns Joyce with faint praise.

“He is an incredibly decent guy and passionate, and people should be proud to have a representative such as that.” In other words Hunt sees him as a likeable but ineffectual buffoon. Abbott can’t stand the man. And he’s increasingly unpopular with his electorate.

Barnaby Joyce is a sell-out, Watermark farmers swear.  Local Aboriginal people are so furious at their virtual exclusion from the decision they plan to take their case overseas. Hunt, however, claims the mine is proceeding solely because of community consultation. And because state Labor started it. Word is that locals were warned not to get too political. ‘Barnaby would handle that.’ He hasn’t.

A Namoi Valley Independent poll has garnered 4,300 votes. 4,132 (96 per cent) oppose the mine. A social media campaign aims to mount a blockade of more than 40,000 people to stop work. The Shenhua mine decision is shaping to be a major flashpoint.

Tony Windsor wants his old seat back. He would get it too, so well has Joyce alienated his electorate. Farmers are maddened by the LNP’s lunatic economics as much as its lack of support. As Greens Senator Larissa Waters puts it;

‘With the coal price in structural decline, it’s economically insane to be sacrificing valuable farming land for the dying coal industry, especially when we have viable renewable energy alternatives.’

So begins another surreal week of coal-powered politics in the Land Down Under in which Barnaby Joyce publicly attacks a major coalition decision but remains in cabinet; Bronwyn Bishop gets away with not only claiming expenses on a fund-raiser but blowing $5,227 on an 80 km chopper ride, opting for the most expensive copter on offer to patronise her adviser’s mate’s aviation firm. Unrepentant, she has a swipe at Joe Hockey for saying poor people don’t drive. Fairfax publishes details of her overseas travel which portray the speaker as profligate with public money.

Cracks are appearing all over the coalition’s crazy pavement. Yawning gaps appear which have the PM on the hop. Labor says his leadership has failed the test of reining Mrs Bishop in. Or the consistency test.

Unlike Peter Slipper, Bishop is simply permitted to pay back the money.  The former speaker’s $900 Cabcharge conviction, later overturned, looks even flimsier and falsely trumped-up in contrast.

Worse, Abbott’s attack on Slipper in 2012 deeply compromises his protection of Bishop. Back then the then Opposition Leader was full of lofty principle in a judgement now expunged from Liberal Party official websites.

‘The Prime Minister, to uphold the integrity of the Parliament, needs now to require the Speaker to step down until these matters are resolved.  It’s also incumbent upon the Australian Federal Police to swiftly investigate the potentially criminal allegations that have been made against the Speaker.’

Protecting Bronwyn Bishop at all costs but leaving Barnaby in the dark, Abbott backs away from the Shenhua deal to let Hunt ‘stand up for coal’ on his own. Hunt bypasses cabinet and deals Joyce out of the decision to allow the Watermark coalmine deal to proceed.

Prudently, Abbott revokes Joyce’s right to freedom of speech on Q&A and the PM announces his White Paper on Agriculture in Grafton in his minister’s absence. Never know what the man will come out with. Abbott would know.

An unhappy Barnaby yelps that he’s been shafted by the Shenhua mine approval. Hunt allows the biggest coal mining company in the world to sink a thirty-five kilometre square black hole into the heart of Australia’s agriculture.

But it’s not his fault. Barnaby’s done his bit. He appears, however, to protest too much and produce too little evidence of his labours.

“I’ve never supported the Shenhua mine. I think it is ridiculous that you would have a major mine in the midst of Australia’s best agricultural land,” posts Joyce on Facebook, the one communication medium left him by Wednesday. He blames NSW Labor for approving the project originally. The pass the parcel blame game catches on.

In a dazzling tour de force of virtuoso buck-passing, Environment Minister Hunt, his PM and others duck shove responsibility back on to the state, the law, anywhere but themselves. This leaves Hunt ‘approving’ and imposing conditions on a project which he says he is powerless to stop.

In a cop-out which stretches Westminster responsibility beyond breaking point, Hunt claims he had no other choice, he says, but to agree to the mine based on the advice he was given.

“No federal environment minister could have reached a different decision,” he squeaks before second-guessing the law in a trend which echoes his mentor Abbot’s disturbing contempt for legal process in revoking citizenship.

“With six scientific reports, with legal advice, with departmental advice, any decision other than the one we made would have been challenged and — on all advice that I have — rejected by the courts.”

Joyce is also keen to let everyone know he’s not to blame.

“I’ve done everything in my power to try and stop the mine … I think the world has gone mad when apparently you cannot build a house at Moore Creek because of White Box grassy woodlands but you can build a super mine in the middle of the Breeza plains.”

Joyce is keen to place on record his opposition. But later he swings around to accept his government’s decision because of the safeguards built in over water use. It is a flip-flop which recalls that which he performed when he first opposed, then accepted, Indonesian interests buying Northern Territory cattle stations in 2010. Barnaby, it seems, is a man for all seasons. Sadly, however, the water safeguards argument appear less than watertight.

Former environmental lawyer, Larissa Waters argues that Hunt has no legal option of stopping the mine on the basis of a legally ‘blurry’ water plan without incurring a vast compensation claim. Hunt is using the plan merely to wimp out of admitting that he gave his approval.

Water plan safeguard or not, the Shenhua company has moreover a blemished record in Mongolia where it converts coal to oil. In 2013, Greenpeace East Asia revealed that the Shenhua plant was overexploiting groundwater in the Haolebaoji basin in Ordos, an area of fragile ecology. The organisation also exposed Shenhua’s illegal dumping of toxic industrial wastewater.  But Hunt was us to trust their assurances. And Barnaby appears simply out of his depth.

Former New England Independent, Tony Windsor alleges that the federal Agriculture Minister, has “essentially done nothing” to prevent the mine from getting Commonwealth approval. He threatens to re-enter politics because Joyce has failed his New England electorate on coal. He has a case.

“Part of the process initiated back in the previous parliament, and funded, was a valley-wide Bioregional Assessment process,” Windsor says. ‘It hasn’t been done.’ A Green’s senator unkindly tweets the widely held view on many local farms that Joyce is f***ing useless.

Windsor’s legacy is impressive His ‘water trigger’ legal constraint on mining developments allows the Federal government to pause projects to assess their impact on water use, legislation exploited by Hunt to halt progress on the mine to aid Liberal prospects before the NSW state election.

Joyce did, however, have a point about the giant coal-hole’s approval. Do we really need another coal mine in Australia? Do we want one? Existing mines are losing money after coal’s steep drop in value on international markets. Some face closure. Can Shenhua even pay its way? Chinese economic growth is slowing and prices are the lowest since the GFC and declining.

Even on current prices, big losses appear likely. Whitehaven’s Narrabri and Maules Creek mines nearby suggest that Shenhua Watermark will produce 1.78 million tonnes a year of semi-soft coking coal at a loss of US$20 a tonne, while producing 8.22 million tonnes of thermal coal at a loss of $9 a tonne. The new mine can expect to lose over 100 million in its first year. And it has cost a bundle before any digging has started.

Seven years in the pipeline, the projected open face monster, 4000 football fields in area, has cost its backers dearly. “After eight years, Shenhua has spent $700 million and has little tangible progress to show for this investment in NSW,” the firm’s Australian chief, a frustrated Liu Xiang,​ observed in February before reflecting that his company had not experienced the ease of investment on which our ‘open for business’ government promotes itself.

The mine has not been the straightforward project Shenhua had envisaged with local indigenous groups to appease, hostile farmers to placate and complex legal restraints to negotiate. Success in all of these areas has so far eluded the Chinese firm and more problems are brewing. Environmentalists have begun to take it up the cause against it.

The ten million tonnes annual output expected from Shenhua Watermark is scheduled to continue for 30 years. This represents an environmental threat in terms of its emissions and its impact upon local ecology. Destroyed will be 789 hectares of an endangered ecological community, mostly box-gum woodland, and 148 hectares of other woods.  But it’s Hunt’s captain’s call. Bugger Barnaby or consulting the rest of cabinet. He tries a Bromantic touch.
Greg he tells us he loves Barnaby. Bugger off Hunt. He loves Joyce so much in fact he’s let the Chinese mine coal in the middle of prime agricultural land in his electorate for the next thirty years.

In a Shenhua-Coal-mines-meets-Brokeback-Mountain moment, Hunt claims that a little thing like a massive coal mine could never come between himself and Barnaby yet the furious Agriculture Minister is appears not to be feeling the love.

Theirs was an “incredibly positive, civil relationship”, Hunt insists, leaving his captain to talk up the passion. Barnaby who can’t bear to look at either of them shoots through to Bunbury WA.  Is he done for? Has Joyce been stitched up in this deal? Don’t write him off too soon. Parachuted into the electorate the former Queensland senate scene Barnaby has a lot of skin in the game. Yet his boss would cheerfully tan his hide.

Captain Abbott loves his ‘passionate’ and ‘committed’ loose cannon so much, it seems, he wants Warren Truss to stay on. At least that’s the whisper from some Liberal MPs. If Wokka gives it another term, another nematode resistant replacement National leader has time to be bred up out the back of the tractor shed or behind a silo.

In the meantime, Abbott’s banned Joyce from appearing on Q&A. He’s launched the White Paper on beefing up Top End agriculture without him. Joyce is on a flight to WA when Abbott visits NSW to spruik ‘beef roads’ and other top end infrastructure spending to boost our live cattle trade, a trade which has just slumped with Indonesia’s 80% cut from 200,000 to only 50,000 in its imports.

The PM insists on radio that the cut is a ‘one-off’ despite Indonesia’s government plans for self-sufficiency whereas to our Agriculture Minister it is a trend which could see our Indonesian live trade cease quite soon. As an ABC report would say, its future is ‘unclear. ’What is clear is that the government needs to make up its mind what is going on before Barnaby heads to Jakarta to sort it all out. Even clearer is the question mark that is hanging over Joyce’s handling of his portfolio. And over Greg Hunt’s career after his capitulation to Alan Jones.

“I will do something today that I have never done before, that I am not required to do by law. I will make a public commitment,” Hunt ventures to salvage some credibility after his savaging on Jones’ radio show.
Hunt is bullied into this promise by Jones who shouts at him that he is wrong about where the Shenhua coal mine would be located and everything else on his Thursday’s breakfast show.

Yet Hunt’s crafty commitment is no concession at all. He is just going to palm Jones off with a water report. And hasn’t he said he was powerless to stop the mine going ahead? Hunt turns his attention to a shirtfront he can win and attacks the CEFC. All is fair in love and war after all.

Hunt claims his government’s attack on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is fair. His directive to the CFEC to drop ‘proven’ technologies like wind and solar is just a little house-keeping to realign the green bank with its original charter, he lies.  All Labor’s fault. Labor set it up to fail.

Hunt says he wonders what all the fuss is about. According to him, the CEFC is charter bound to invest in untried technologies that would send them broke and save the Abbott Government the democratic hassle of negotiating with a hostile senate to abolish it.

At the end of the week the coal-powered Abbott government is in a spot of bother with a mine nobody really wants, the greenies hate and which no-one can make pay. Joyce has been shafted along with New England’s farmers who foolishly trusted their MP to represent them. Renewable energy industry investors are left in uncertainty as the government flicks the off switch on the CEFC. Hunt has stitched up Joyce and anyone else who trusted him to act like an Environment minister, independent of the pressures of fossil fuel interest groups.

At day’s end Bronwyn Bishop, appears, in her mind, a Valkyrie hovering over the fray, transcending petty politics and mere mortal rules with lofty impunity, secure in her master’s protection and her power to decide who lives and who dies in battle. Including if only accidentally a collaterally damaged Tony Abbott.