The Politics    Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Battle stations

By Sean Kelly

Can Bill Shorten really fight an election campaign on global warming?

A friend of mine – with no political affiliations – said this to me yesterday:

“It’s astonishing that the Liberal party can campaign against a carbon tax because it raises the cost of living – and then advocate a tax, the GST, that literally raises the cost of living.”

It’s a good point, and one that indicates just how far from sanity both the climate debate and the taxation debate in this country have run.

This morning, Bill Shorten confirmed he would be announcing a new renewable energy target at this weekend’s ALP national conference. A Labor government will commit to half of large-scale energy production coming from renewable energy within 15 years – instead of just 40% by 2050, as is current policy.

This is a significant announcement. The fact that it is being confirmed days out from the national conference may suggest it will not be the only policy announcement we hear from Shorten in the coming days.

Good. In November last year, Shorten said this: “2014 was defined by the force of Labor’s resistance. Today I commit to you that Labor will be defined in 2015 by the power of our ideas.”

It’s always a tricky thing in politics, setting a test for yourself. Shorten has been dogged by that claim all year. On one hand, the pronouncement made it clear he had a plan, which is always reassuring for MPs and branch members. On the other hand, it gave his critics ammunition. Where were these ideas?

The fact is Shorten has announced some sensible policies so far, but nothing that has captured imaginations. It’s now the end of July. Nobody knows when an election might be called. Shorten is under pressure, not direct leadership pressure but what might be called pre-pre-pre-leadership-challenge pressure, the type of chatter no leader wants to go on too long. He is personally suffering in the polls (though Labor remains ahead). The Trade Union Royal Commission hearing, while not a disaster, wasn’t a good look.

Shorten has to do something to justify his position – not so much to his colleagues, who are not going to move against him anytime soon, as to voters.

The renewables announcement may be the start of that. We shall see.

The announcement is important not just in itself but because of what it signals politically. Mark Kenny, who broke the story for Fairfax this morning, wrote that the policy is designed to “make global warming the defining battleground of the next federal election”.

That might be “courageous” in the Sir Humphrey sense. Given Labor’s ugly carbon heritage, it could be a disaster. But it might also work to show Shorten as that absent figure at the moment – a serious figure in Australian politics. Voters do not see him that way right now. If he can change that, then the game changes.

Putting climate policy at the centre of Labor’s political plan also has the virtue of going on the attack in an area that has recently condemned Labor to defensive postures. The cliché is often true: offence is the best form of defence.

There are suggestions that the renewables announcement might allow Labor to soften their emissions trading scheme, too – and Shorten did say today there would be “a reasonably soft emissions trading scheme and it will be linked to the rest of the world”. So it’s not just a vainglorious pursuit – there’s a pretty healthy dose of pragmatism mixed in.

Finally, it might give Labor something to talk about on the jobs front, which the prime minister has been trying to make his own recently. ACTU president Ged Kearney said today that jobs would be lost as the economy moved away from coal, but that a renewable energy target would also create jobs. It’s the second part of that equation that Labor will focus on.

Still, Shorten will need more than the announcement itself. He will need to campaign vigorously. He will need to show an ability to explain in terms comprehensible but not condescending. He will need to stay away from zingers. And this will need to be the start of a comprehensive policy platform, and not the end.

Of course, all of this depends on the Australian climate and tax debates becoming less ridiculous than they currently are. That may be too much to hope.


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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