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Originally published in The Canberra Times on July 6, 2024

Canberra doesn’t really have a fossil fuel industry, which perhaps explains why we lead the country in decarbonising our economy.

Too often other Australian governments kowtow to the gas and coal industry. But, heading into a tough state election, Queensland Premier Steven Miles is bucking the trend.

The Queensland Government’s decision to boost coal royalties and stand up to the inevitable industry scare campaign has already paid off big time for Queenslanders.

In 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent commodity prices soaring and the Queensland Labor government changed its royalty scheme so a greater portion of the windfall was paid to the community. The Australia Institute estimates that the revised policy raised $4.3 billion in revenue in 2022-23.

This money, that would otherwise have gone to multinational shareholders, is mainly being spent on better public services. All Queenslanders will receive a $1,000 rebate on their power bills (on top of the $300 rebate the Commonwealth is giving) and, for the next six months, everyone in South East Queensland will enjoy a reduction of public transport fares to just 50 cents.

It has also pledged to pour $1 billion over five years into a health strategy for women and girls aimed at achieving gender equality. This will include Australia’s first publicly funded endometriosis and pelvic pain clinic, expanded access to IVF, and free period products in all state schools.

There’s $41.8 million for abortion services to improve access to pregnancy termination care which can be lifesaving for women and girls. The number of social workers and nurses who work on terminations will increase, wraparound services will be improved, and a virtual service will help fix healthcare deserts.

Feeling sorry for Queensland’s fossil fuel companies? Don’t worry, they get plenty of subsidies from the Queensland Government too.

The Queensland Budget has allocated $520 million over six years to attempt to “drive emissions reductions in the state’s highest emitting metallurgical coal mines.” Yep, subsidising the state’s most polluting mines.

There’s also millions in the Queensland Budget for “unlocking significant gas resources” and for cleaning up abandoned mine sites.

Funnily enough, all these subsidies don’t get a mention in the mining lobby groups’ advertising scare campaign.

While the Queensland Government’s spending priorities aren’t perfect, state and federal political leaders should sit up and take note of what’s been achieved –  royalty reform has allowed the Labor Government to take a fair share of windfall profits and use this to fund badly needed public services.

Unaccustomed to seeing political courage and integrity, a journalist recently asked Premier Steven Miles if it meant the state government had “blown the chance” to work with mining companies because of the “huge royalties you’ve taken in over the last few years.” Only in Australia could a government be criticised for getting proper compensation for the natural resources that belong to its citizens.

Steven Miles noted it wouldn’t matter how much you consulted with the coal industry, they would always prefer to pay less in royalties: “I’m determined to see Queenslanders get their fair share, particularly when they’re in a super profits phase…At the end of the day, we own that coal and we sell that to them, and it cannot be dug up twice…and no matter how many ads the Queensland Resources Council runs attacking me, we will continue to stand by our policy.”

Despite the mining industry’s scare campaign, investment in the state has actually increased since the policy change. In other words, Queensland has not ‘blown its chance’- it’s cashing in.

So how are other states doing?

NSW belatedly followed Queensland in increasing coal royalties and, whadyaknow, the sky didn’t fall down there.

Dan Andrews increased Victoria’s royalties on coal in 2016 and gold in 2019, was met with predictable bleating from lobbyists about “consequences”, which subsequently failed to materialise.

Clearly taking on the miners isn’t just possible, it’s popular. Australians are sick of getting ripped off by polluting gas and coal companies raking in windfall war profits while driving up the prices of energy and insurance at home.

So it’s time to move onto the big one – the gas industry.

Australia Institute research shows that Australian governments charge no royalties on 56% of the gas that is exported from Australia. That number is 73% in WA and 100% in the Northern Territory.

This means that over the last four years, multinational companies made $149 billion exporting Australians’ gas that the companies got for free.

If royalties had been charged on this gas, at least $13 billion in revenue could have been raised.

That’s an estimated $13 billion that didn’t go to roads, hospitals, schools or rural fire and emergency services.

It’s worth repeating – Australia is giving a public resource to multinational gas corporations for free.

So, if royalties aren’t working, what about the Petroleum Resources Rent Tax (PRRT), which the Commonwealth is supposed to levy on oil and gas projects? The PRRT should be raking in revenue given it’s designed to charge more when profits are higher… but most of the gas mined in Commonwealth waters doesn’t attract the PRRT either.

Commonwealth Treasury has stated plainly, in the budget papers, that “To date, not a single [gas export] project has paid any PRRT and many are not expected to pay significant amounts of PRRT until the 2030s.”

It’s a complete embarrassment that state and federal governments have allowed the gas industry to get away with daylight robbery for so long.

Other major oil and gas exporting countries collect far more revenue to pay for public services than Australia does. Norway, invests the revenue it makes from oil into a sovereign wealth fund that has become one of the largest investors in the world. Qatar’s oil and gas industry is 50% bigger than Australia’s, but raises 700% more revenue.

The Queensland Government’s increase in coal royalties to fund services may not be enough to win another election after nearly ten years in office. But interestingly, the LNP opposition’s policy platform makes no mention of reversing them.

This shows that government choices matter. Delivering for communities, even if big business doesn’t like it, is popular.

Something worth reflecting on as the ACT heads into its October election.

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