Shorten on the coal face in CQ talks up mining
THE day before the federal election was called, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was quite literally at the coal face, on the road in Central Queensland.
In Rockhampton, health, infrastructure, wages, and housing are issues as they are anywhere in the country, but this is coal country and Mr Shorten couldn't avoid one of the subjects dominating the 2019 election.
For some time he has faced accusations of a floating position on Adani's Carmichael mine - one for Melbourne's "inner-city latte sippers" as Capricornia MP Michelle Landry insists on calling them, and another for the traditional Labor voters relying on mining for their bread and butter.
This week Mr Shorten denied his position had fluctuated. When asked why his position on Adani had changed so often, he simply replied, "It has not".
He didn't have a lot more to add, except to say the Coalition government's approval of the groundwater dependent ecosystem management plan this week was "so badly handled it was breathtaking".
"This is not the look of good government," he said.
On the topic of coal in general, Mr Shorten was more open.
He calls himself a "realist" and although his environment spokesman has made it publicly clear he is not a fan of coal mining in general, and mining the Galilee Basin in particular, Mr Shorten doesn't agree.
"Everyone's entitled to their opinions. James McGrath is apparently not a fan of Melissa Price's decision making," he said.
"I will be the Prime Minister, I will set our direction and be upfront with what we are doing.
"For us mining is a part of our foreseeable future ... it's a generational time frame.
"There will be coal as part of our energy mix domestically and our export mix."
Curious onlookers recognised the Opposition Leader, who lingered over a beer on Rockhampton's riverbank, happily agreeing to the only request for a selfie.
Capricornia is a seat he is desperate to win, as evidenced by seven visits to Rockhampton since the 2016 election.
But if his candidate Russell Robertson is to have a chance, he's going to have to win the hearts and minds of Rockhampton, because out west, in coal towns like Moranbah, Clermont and Tieri, Labor is losing support.
The feeling "out there", that the party has betrayed its traditional base, is undeniable.
Mr Robertson is a third-generation coal miner, but even that didn't guarantee him a warm welcome in the west, with one hotel actually refusing him entry.
His challengers have called for him to be more vocal in his support for Adani's Carmichael Mine project.
"If a company wants to open a coal mine and if they follow the rules and regulations, I welcome it," Mr Robertson said.
"If (Adani) is diligent and meets their requirements, that mine will open and it will have my support. But it is important that we have good local, permanent jobs, not any more casualisation of the coal mining industry.
"I've made my stance clear, that I support coal, and I support coal mining communities.
"The opening of the Galilee Basin, like the Bowen Basin, is important to me. It means good stable jobs."
Mr Shorten acknowledges the coal industry is unpopular in sections of Australia but insists he doesn't share that view.
"It's not anti-coal to be taking positive action on climate change," he said.
"Coal is fundamental to my vision for the future, so is gas.
"But there's nothing wrong with planning for the future workforce."
The planning he refers to is his proposed Just Transition, which he says grew out of the learned experience of countless closures in the past - from Hazelwood to QNI - "when workers were left holding the baby after companies just shut the gates and didn't make a provision for them".
He acknowledged Just Transition was limited to coal mining, but believes it's an approach with applications beyond coal.
"It's an industrial relations approach," he said.
"As industries change and evolve, and with automation, I think it's a good prototype for how we plan for the workforce of the future."
With a bit of wrist tapping from his aides, it's time to catch a plane. There are southern voters, presumably "latte sippers" to woo as well.
But the electorate that handed Malcolm Turnbull a majority government in 2016 may yet see another visit from Mr Shorten before this campaign ends.
Such is the vital importance of Central Queensland to his political ambitions.