September 23, 2020

Federal politics


By Russell Marks

A climate change banner at Jerrabomberra Public School, north of Queanbeyan. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP

How climate politics is fracturing Australia’s party system

The Betoota Advocate, like all satirical outlets, must be tearing its metaphorical hair out over the political world’s apparently endless capacity to satirise itself. How does one lampoon Donald Trump or Tony Abbott or The Australian more effectively than they lampoon themselves? It’s surely impossible to dream up fictional scenarios as preposterous as the Nationals’ recent threat to, at long last, blow apart the Coalition agreement with the Liberals in NSW, not over coal or land policy, but over farmers’ apparent need to destroy koala habitats – a threat that ultimately proved empty after Premier Gladys Berejiklian called them on it and the Nats backed down.

But satire must go on. Following Scott Morrison’s announcement that he’d use tax revenues to build a new gas-fired power plant in the Hunter Valley in the event that the market failed to do so – an announcement that required a double-take to ensure it wasn’t itself parodical – The Betoota Advocate took aim at Labor’s weak response. “Now the nation is calling on Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese to say building more of these things that contribute to climate change is a bad idea and we probably shouldn’t do it,” the Advocate wrote. “The Advocate spoke briefly to Mr Albanese this morning via telephone where he thanked this masthead for passing the national sentiment onto him.”

On 15 September, news emerged that Albanese had authorised a draft policy platform that dropped the ALP’s previous commitments to specific emissions targets by 2030 – which Bill Shorten had taken to both the 2016 and 2019 elections – in favour of a 2050 target. “We determined the 2030 target in 2015,” Albanese told the ABC’s Michael Rowland, as if that explained everything. “Since then, there’s been two elections. By the next election, there would have been three and we would have been halfway through the period. It’s absurd, frankly,” he added, apparently not referring to Labor’s new target.

Albanese said something more revealing during a doorstop press conference when he was asked about the target in the draft platform; something that ultimately prompted The Betoota Advocate to suggest the response he should have given to Morrison’s plan for the government enter its own horse in the energy race. “No one”, Albanese said, “is opposed to new gas.”

That may have come as a surprise to all those who are, actually, opposed to “new gas”, on the basis of the awkward truth that gas remains a fossil fuel. We might ask: how sound, really, is Labor on climate?

There are various ways of answering that question. On the one hand, Kevin Rudd declared climate change to be “the great moral challenge of our generation”. But he did so from Opposition, and then squibbed on it as soon as the going got tough. On the other hand, the Rudd government was prepared in 2009 to actually legislate a carbon pricing scheme that it had negotiated with Malcolm Turnbull, who was then the Liberal Party’s leader. But then Turnbull was rolled by Tony Abbott, and the scheme was notoriously defeated by perhaps the strangest of bedfellows, the Coalition and the Greens voting together. And to its credit, Labor sought to revive carbon pricing under Julia Gillard, a brave decision to the extent that it was substantially responsible for the eventual collapse of her own leadership, and of Labor’s term in office.

The past 13 tumultuous years of Australian politics, during which time we’ve seen six changes of prime minister, points to an even more interesting observation than Labor’s apparent backsliding. Including John Howard’s term in office, the previous six changes to PM took 36 years. What explains the tumult? It’s impossible to ignore the role played by climate politics. Rudd defeated Howard on a wave of popular enthusiasm for climate action. Labor’s government and, ultimately, Turnbull’s leadership were defeated by the newly organised fossil-fuel interests, which found political representatives in the Liberal and National parties, and propagandists in News Corp’s media outlets. If things look spookily stable since Morrison won the unwinnable 2019 election, it’s perhaps because those interests are happy the way things are.

The more interesting observation is this: Australian politics is undergoing a painful realignment around the cleavages of climate politics. On one side of this realignment sit Liberal, National and ALP representatives of the fossil-fuel interests, including the “aspirational” consumer-driven suburban middle class, which is deeply anxious about what reducing fossil-fuel dependence means for their work, lifestyles and consumption habits. To the extent that Labor continues to represent the traditional working class, it’s difficult to ignore the reality that many “traditional” jobs depend (or are seen to depend) on fossil fuels.

On the other side of this realignment sit the Greens, obviously, but also the representatives – in both major parties – of climate-conscious voters in various inner-urban and other geographical areas. These voters are presently disorganised and disillusioned (at least outside of Twitter and GetUp!-style online petitions), and haven’t been able to respond at all effectively to the mobilisation of fossil-fuel interests since 2008–09. The Greens are the most obvious potential mobiliser of these voters, but I think it must be finally admitted that the party lost credibility when it voted down Labor’s carbon pricing scheme in 2009. Hindsight makes it clear that the Rudd–Turnbull combination was Australia’s best chance for a carbon price. Organisationally, the Greens haven’t been able to get their house in order since Bob Brown’s retirement in 2012 – though nor, really, has anyone else.

Presently, climate politics exposes the divisions in Labor – between its climate-conscious inner-city voters and its status quo–preferring suburban voters – much more than divisions in the Coalition. But that could change. Climate politics pits farmers against miners. How long will farmers put up with the Nationals, who have now augmented their traditional area of redundancy (a function of their keenness to trade influence for cabinet seats) with a spectacular new redundancy (forsaking an agricultural constituency for a mining constituency)? If farmers eventually desert the Nationals, where will they land? And how will the tourism industry (Australia’s fifth-largest export prior to COVID-19) mobilise to protect itself from the increasing threat posed by mining (Australia’s largest export)?

Australia, often seen as the global hold-out against effective climate action, can also be seen as the place where the politics of climate change have played out first. American political scientist Matto Mildenberger observes that climate change “has been politically divisive in Australia like almost nowhere else,” and in a way that “possibly pre-stages what it’s going to be like in other parts of the world” over the coming decades. He told ABC’s The Science Show recently that the realignment generated here by climate politics is the “canary in the coalmine” for global politics, as we’ve struggled – and so far failed – to grapple with the fact that “some of the economic activity that sustains parts of the Australian economy are just extremely destructive to the long-term health and wellbeing of both Australians and publics around the world”.

Australia is afflicted, as Judith Brett aptly puts it in her recent Quarterly Essay, by a “coal curse”. The curse has already claimed a generation of political reformers, and threatens to overwhelm the Greens. The most dramatic realignments, though, may yet be ahead of us. As the anti-coal interests mobilise, divisions in the major parties must surely become more intense. Eventually, Australia’s two-party structure – built around socioeconomic class and industrial labour economics – must reflect this realignment. Will Labor finally drop its industrial working-class constituency? Or will its pro-coal elements form a new “coal-ition” with counterparts in the Liberal and National parties?

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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