Election campaigning kicks off in Australia's Queensland in political test for populist Hanson

Australian Senator Pauline Hanson addresses a Pauline Hanson's One Nation election function in Perth, Western Australia, on March 11, 2017.
Australian Senator Pauline Hanson addresses a Pauline Hanson's One Nation election function in Perth, Western Australia, on March 11, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (AFP) - The Australian state of Queensland, home to the Great Barrier Reef, has called a snap election that is set to test support for both the populist party of Pauline Hanson and an environmentally sensitive Indian coal mine project.

Campaigning began on Monday in the state, a major tourist destination, after Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk of the Labor Party set down a poll date of Nov 25.

Labor won power from the Liberals in a 2015 landslide, but most opinion polls indicate it will be a closer call this time. The vote did not have to be called until May 2018.

The election is shaping as a political test of Hanson's One Nation, which has enjoyed a tide of popular support in the state on its platform of zero-net migration and opposition to Islam.

Pundits are looking to see how the party fares in a traditional stronghold as an insight into whether it could remain a force heading into national polls due in late 2018 or early 2019.

Palaszczuk called the election on Sunday while Hanson was in India on a trade mission, giving her an extra week of campaigning without the One Nation leader around.

Hanson accused her of "cowardice", but Palaszczuk said it was a coincidence.

"I didn't know she was going to be overseas," she said, adding that an election decision was made to give business leaders and voters certainty moving forward.

Hanson first gained prominence in the 1990s, when she warned Australia was in danger of being "swamped by Asians".

After a 12-year hiatus from politics she returned in 2014, this time targeting Muslims and was elected, along with three others from her right-wing party, to the national Senate two years later.

Coal-fired versus renewable energy is set to be a central plank of the election, centred on the huge US$16 billion (S$21.8 billion) Carmichael coal mine being developed by Indian giant Adani.

The project gained government approval in July, but Adani has requested a US$800 million loan guarantee to proceed, and that remains to be resolved.

Environmentalists warn the massive mine will damage the under-pressure Great Barrier Reef and many voters are opposed.

But both Labor and the opposition Liberals say it is key to deliver thousands of new jobs.

Adani protesters ambushed an event held by Palaszczuk on Sunday and have vowed to dog her throughout the campaign.

"This election will help decide the future of the Great Barrier Reef and our climate," said Australian Conservation Foundation president Geoff Cousins.

"The dramatic impacts of climate change are already being felt right across Queensland. Now is not the time to dig the biggest coal mine Australia has ever seen." The Adani development proposes exporting coal to India from a massive open-cut and underground coal mine 160 km northwest of Clermont in central Queensland, home to the reef, via a 189-km rail link to port.