A focus on regional jobs and an embrace of gas is set to guide federal Labor’s re-jigged climate and energy platform, with newly appointed spokesperson Chris Bowen telling a forum in Canberra that the party is the only one capable of taking Australia to zero net emissions.
Bowen is seeking to shift the focus of Labor’s policies away from talking up a major disruptive change to Australia’s energy system and a phase-out of transitional fossil fuel industries, which it now sees as having the potential to spook voters in regional electorates, and is instead repositioning Labor as a party focused on bringing jobs and new investment into those regions.
“I say the same whether I’m talking to a forum at the ANU, at a forum in inner-city Melbourne, or at a politics in the pub in Gladstone in Central Queensland,” Bowen said.
“The regions which built our economy with cheap energy, the Central Queensland’s, the Hunter’s, the Latrobe’s, the Portland’s, the Illawarra’s, are exactly the same regions which will generate the electricity of the future in a renewable economy.
Because they have the access to the pipelines, the railway lines, the ports, and the space necessary for renewable energy generation. And so this is an argument that we must take to those reasons and win.”
“My argument is that we have to give them a hopeful future. Simply going and saying to them that they part of the problem is not a way to convince them of the need for change.”
Bowen was speaking at a climate “townhall” held at ANU on Wednesday, which was the latest in a series of such events that Bowen has used to test federal Labor’s new messaging and positions on climate change.
Labor has revisited its climate change platform after a surprise loss at the 2019 federal election, with the previous climate change spokesperson, Mark Butler, shifted into the health portfolio after some within Labor ranks attributed blame for the election loss to a poorly communicated and too ambitious climate platform taken to the election.
Bowen sought to carve out a nuanced position on gas – reiterating his description of the coalition’s ‘gas-led recovery’ as “bullshit” while holding firm on a position that gas will serve as a necessary role within the energy market for the foreseeable future.
“To be honest, gas is not a low emissions fuel. It is not the answer to climate change. I don’t refer to it as a transition fuel either. But it is a very important part, nevertheless, of the transition, and will be for some time to come,” Bowen said.
“When there’s long periods of no sun or low wind, a battery is great for hours, not for weeks or months. Pumped hydro and hydrogen is better for longer periods. But we’re going to need gas to assist in that process. If you’re not going to have renewables, you’ve really got a limited number of choices: Nuclear, which I don’t support, or an ongoing role for coal. Well, actually, gas has a better role to play.”
The federal Labor party will soon vote on an updated policy platform, which is expected to include commitments to both a zero emissions target for 2050, as well as support for ongoing investment in Australia’s gas industry and carbon capture and storage technologies.
Throughout the town hall, Bowen faced a series of fiery questions from university that ranged from accusations that the federal Labor party were in effect climate change deniers due to perceptions that its climate policies were out of line with science, and that Labor was being influenced by its acceptance of donations from the fossil fuel industry.
But Bowen pushed back, arguing that Labor was the only ‘party of government’ that understood the need to act on climate change and that the party’s acceptance of a zero-emissions target for 2050 was a baseline for the party’s ambitions.
“There are two parties of government in Australia, the Labor Party and the Coalition. We believe in the science of climate change, we believe in action on climate change, we also believe in policies to make a difference,” Bowen said.
“If you are asking for every coal-fired or gas-fired power station to be turned off tonight. I respectfully disagree. We are being powered by one tonight. We need to transition to a much more renewable, much cleaner economy, and we need to take people with us as we do so. And that is the policy that we will embark upon and implement in government, should we win.”
Bowen said that he believed no new coal-fired power stations would be built in Australia and that Australia will need to transition to a net-zero emissions economy but would not commit to an eventual phase-out of coal mining in Australia, suggesting that the continued export of coal from Australia would still be consistent with a zero net emissions target.
“Will Australia stop coal exports tomorrow? No, we won’t. Is the international accounting mechanism, which says where those emissions will be counted written by me or the Labour Party or in Australia? No,” Bowen in response to questions about coal exports.
“Should we have that serious conversation about what role coal has in the future? Yes. Do I think it should be providing alternative jobs in diversifying regional economies? Absolutely.”
Bowen took particular aim at the Greens, which he described as “spoilers”, blaming the party for much of the ongoing conflict within the climate policy space.
“The Greens on our left, and the Liberals and Nationals on our right, have taken every opportunity to play identity politics, and it’s still that toxic politics in this country. And we won’t see real climate change action until that ends,” Bowen told the forum. “And that will end with a Labor government with a good solid working majority and with the ability to deliver legislation in both houses of parliament.”