An offensive against plans to end a decade-long freeze on coal royalties in Queensland has raised the ghost of a campaign that helped depose a Labor leader 12 years ago – but political and advertising experts say Australia is now a “very different place”.
Queensland’s treasurer, Cameron Dick, has flagged the state government’s intention to raise coal royalties when he hands down the budget on Tuesday.
The Queensland Resources Council quickly denounced the plans, with an angry response that included full-page ads in Brisbane’s the Courier Mail.
Styled as an open letter to the premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, the ads claimed a royalty hike would mean “breaking a promise” to Queenslanders not to raise or introduce new taxes, would risk jobs and the investments of retirees, and put pressure on electricity prices.
The offensive has echoes of the industry’s 2010 campaign against the resource super profits tax which played a role in the downfall of Kevin Rudd.
But the advertising executive Dee Madigan said mining companies were unlikely to be able to apply the same pressure they once did – and only had themselves to blame.
The late “master” ad man Neil Lawrence – the brains behind the iconic Kevin 07 slogan – orchestrated 2010’s axe the tax campaign.
Madigan, a regular panellist on the Gruen Transfer and an award-winning creative director, said while she was not supportive of Lawrence’s mining tax campaign, “from an advertising perspective” it was excellent.
“It reframed the issue, it humanised it,” Madigan said. “It made mining about people’s jobs, ordinary people’s jobs. You didn’t see any pictures of big old ugly mines or incredibly profitable mine owners. You almost didn’t know that it was a mining ad.”
The casualisation of the mining workforce over the last 12 years, however, meant this time around the miners won’t have the same “emotional levers to pull”.
“Regional towns know that mining companies have done the wrong thing by their workers,” Madigan said. “A warm and fuzzy campaign like that won’t work any more.”
Not only did she think the message lacked the same potency, the medium was also not as powerful.
“I don’t think the Courier Mail has quite the power it once did – and that goes to all [legacy] media,” Madigan said.
Australia too was “very different back then”. Among those changes was the skyrocketing price of coal.
“The profitability of those mining companies is huge,” she said. “And I think the community feels, quite rightly, that some of that money should go to schools and hospitals and roads.”
The University of Queensland economist John Quiggin said the public was likely to back plans to tap into soaring coal profits.
“Everybody pretty much understands that coal is on the way out,” he said.
Quiggin said the big players in the resources sector were selling their coal assets – or struggling to, in the case of BHP’s Mt Arthur mine.
“It’s been widely agreed that the world needs to get off coal, but in the meantime we have these very high prices,” he said.
“What we are left with is a bunch of specialist coalminers making as much as they can while it lasts.”
That meant that, from the government’s point of view, there was a big payoff in tapping into some of those profits and little risk of scaring off investment.
“Because all of these guys are just here for the short haul anyway,” he said.
Quiggin questioned whether coalmining companies had ever held the “magical power” over public opinion that some would ascribe to them.
“I think a lot of that perception is only resting on the 2019 election, and only on a couple of federal seats,” he said.
Whereas Rudd “made a mess of the politics in all sorts of ways”, he said, so far, “Palaszczuk has been a lot more politically astute in managing these things”.
“And bear in mind these are publicly-owned assets that are going to shut down,” he said. “It [raising coal royalties] seems like a pretty sensible option for the government, politically.”