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Volume of Outrage Unrelated to the Number Producing It.

Stone the crows! Weekend coal seam gas has the locals a twitter where we roost. Not that there are drills in the Domain, the nearest work is aways away but the locals worry about adjacent water catchments.  It’s a greenish patch and the locals are given to making their opinions known, in ways which MPs hear. The same is occurring all over the state. In February, for example, Premier Barry O’Farrell banned CSG exploring and extraction within two kilometres of residential areas and “industry clusters”, for example, horse breeding and vineyards.[i]

This might seem sound politics in that it shuts activists up. Although, it is somewhat short-sighted policy. According to the Grattan Institute, without new refining capacity or local CSG sources, NSW could be short one-sixth of the gas it needs for a peak consumption day by 2016.[ii] And we should not expect other states to light up our lives. South Australian Resources Minister Tim Koutsantonis says that, except for a pipeline problem or an explosion, he would not redirect export gas from the state’s vast fields to a skint Sydney.[iii]

Still, it seems Premier O’Farrell does not have a whole lot of choice, what with everybody outraged by CSG.

Or so the Crows thought, until an election phone poll revealed that CSG was not an issue in 20 federal electorates where Labor and Greens candidates ran hard on it.[iv] Apparently, nobody mentioned it, even when prompted – nobody.[v]

Critics could claim that this is due to the right question not being asked. They have a point, people might have agreed it was important if asked, “given coal seam gas could cause cancer and reduce property values do you want it stopped?” or some such neutral question. And cynics point to the polling being commissioned from Crosby Textor by the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association – an organisation with less a dog than 101 Dalmatians in the fight.

Even so, Justine Elliot, who stepped down as parliamentary secretary for trade in February to focus on the fight against CSG in her northern NSW seat of Richmond, might feel like a dill – what with it being one of the electorates where Crosby Textor found the issue amounted to less than nothing much.[vi] Ms Elliott held her seat, copping a 4.68 per cent two party preferred swing, but this was not due to a big environmental activist vote. While the Greens candidate picked up a primary swing of 1 per cent, the Nationals were the big winner with a 16 per cent lift.[vii]

This does not mean activists are not upset about CSG or that the industry does not require rigorous regulation. NSW Chief scientist Mary O’Kane made the case for stringent control in a July report. However, Dr O’Kane also carefully suggested that opposition to CSG is not always based on solid science:

The uncertainties people may experience; perceived potential threats to property, business, and home, disruption of familiar environments, and fears of gas, chemicals, and possible toxic health effects, can all lead to real impacts on health. These impacts can be related to distress about continuing uncertainty, financial insecurity, changed health behaviours, stress effects and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Anger may develop over time, due to a sense of injustice, frustration over lack of clarity, perceived inability to help oneself, and no easy solutions being apparent to the individual or their family. This can increase distress and exacerbate existing health problems.[viii]

Whatever the science says, people are always outraged by what they decide is the toxic shock of the new. As the prime minister elect might remember. In 1995, protestors in Tony Abbott’s electorate forced Telstra to close a mobile phone tower next to a kindergarten, which they decided, in the absence of evidence, could cause cancer. [ix]

Imagine how they could use social media to exponentially amplify their concerns now (of course they would use wireless technology to do it). But for all the noise they made they only stopped one phone tower and the issue went away.

It’s the same on other special pleading platforms. This year the higher and further education lobbies have run hard against federal funding cuts. The National Tertiary Education Union in particular supported the Greens and Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie with the $1million “dumb cuts” election campaign, which urged more education spending.[x] And yet other than contributing to Adam Bandt’s re-election in the seat of Melbourne, it is hard to see an electorate where it had an impact.[xi] As the estimable John Black points out in his campaign debrief, despite Labor creating 430,000 new jobs in health and education there were no swings to Labor from voters educated in these disciplines.[xii] And although the Greens ran hard on university funding their national Senate vote slipped by 3.3 per cent. [xiii]

The signal is clear – there is no connection between the volume of outrage and the number of people producing it. Subordinating policy to popularity is a waste of time because there is no pleasing some people. Fortunately in many cases there are very few of them.



[i] Sean Nicholls, “Dead in the water: O’Farrell buries coal seam gas plans,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 19

[ii] Tony Wood and Lucy Carter, Getting gas right: Australia’s energy challenge,  Grattan Institute, June 2013, 28-29 @ recovered on September 14

[iii] Sarah Martin, “Barry O’Farrell on his own with gas crisis,” The Australian, September 5

[iv] Sarah-Jane Tasker, “Coal-seam gas wasn’t an issue in election,” The Australian, September 11

[v] Crosby Textor, “Summary Charts: Federal election day poll 2013,” September 7 @  recovered on September 14

[vi] Sue Gardiner, “CSG activists welcome Richmond MP’s role change,” Northern Star, February 5 recovered on September 14

[vii] Australian Election Commission, “Election 2013, NSW Division – Richmond,” September 13 @ recovered on September 14

[viii] Mary O’Kane, “Initial report on the independent review of coal seam gas activities in NSW,” NSW Government, July, 106 @ recovered on Sept 14

[ix] Thanks to Ketan Joshi in Business Spectator (August 6) for pointing to the Youtube collection of TV newsclips featuring Mr Abbott on the issue, @, recovered on September 14.  What the Crows want to know is who assembled it and why.

[x] NTEU, “Dumb cuts,” @ recovered on September 14

[xi] John Ferguson, “Adam Bandt retains Melbourne for Greens,” The Australian, September 8

[xii] John Black, “Where the ALP lost its long-time supporters, The Australian, September 14

[xiii] Rachel Carbonell, “Voters swing away from Greens,” ABC News September 8 @