“Critical decade” or “lost decade”? The conservative tide

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Political parties which vacillate between denial and delay on climate action are set to dominate Australian politics for the remainder of this decade.

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Australian Climate Commission reports in recent months (here and here) emphasise that this is “the critical decade”. Yet the bookies say there is an 85-90% probability that the Gillard Labor government will lose this year’s federal election – and by a big margin – heralding an era of conservative domination of Australian politics at national and State levels.

Just before Easter, ALP stalwart and former ACTU secretary Bill Kelty wrote that: “The politics of the next few months is no longer about the result of the next election” (emphasis added). Everybody knows Labor is lost, baring Kevin Rudd rising from the dead and at least giving the conservatives a shake.

The next day, the Australian Financial Review reported that “Labor faces annihilation in marginal seats”. Polling in 54 marginal seats found the two-party-preferred (2PP) swing against Labor since the 2010 election had almost doubled, to 9.3% from 4.8% in two months, exposing Labor “to the loss of all 24 marginal seats it holds across Australia and risking up to 15 more semi-marginal electorates”. It concluded that, at worse, Labor could win “as few as 32 seats in the 150-seat Parliament”. This was just after the Crean-Rudd leadership fiasco.

The irony is that while Prime Minister Gillard may proclaim to be personally “tough”, her government is anything but. It is strategically incompetent, communicates poorly, is disunited and faces an electoral wipeout. In Crikey, Guy Rundle wrote persuasively of 15 reasons why Labor is “on the edge of the abyss”. ABC presenter and former editor of The Drum, Jonathan Green, asked “Is it time to wonder whether saving the ALP is either necessary or desirable?”

The most recent Newspoll (25 March) had the ALP’s primary vote at 30%, whilst the Liberal–National Party (LNP) opposition had 50% of the primary vote and 58% 2PP. Just 26% approve of Prime Minister Gillard’s performance, whilst 65% disapprove. Crikey’s Bludgertrack 2013 (which averages and weights recent polls) as at 3 April points to an election result on current data of 48 seats to Labor and 99 to the LNP, excluding consideration of the five seats presently held by The Greens and independents.

In summary, most electors have long stopped listening to Julia Gillard (the corollary is that the higher her media profile, the more certain it is than Labor will lose), the LNP is likely to have a majority of 30+ seats, and is very likely to be in power for at least two terms, till 2019. (The last one-term federal government in Australia was that of Scullin in 1929-31.)

Electors’ dislike of Tony Abbott is only surpassed by their dislike of Julia Gillard, which is why Rudd as leader would have been a relief to many voters. At this late stage, Rudd would have been unlikely to keep Labor in power, but he would have at least saved some seats. These propositions were obviously too complex for the majority of members of Labor’s federal caucus.

THE SENATE: Team Abbott requires Senate support to amend or repeal the carbon price, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Renewable Energy Target. The Climate Authority and Australian Renewable Energy Agency can easily be trashed by administrative measures.

It is not impossible for the conservatives to control the Senate after 1 July 2014, with the willing support of the one current DLP Senator, John Madigan. This could happen in a number of ways:

  • Scenario one: The LNP would need to win one of the two spots in each of the two Territories, three of the six Senate spots in four States, and four of the six Senate spots in two States. The latter is far from impossible and requires the conservative side of politics to win just over 57% of the two-part preferred (2PP) Senate vote in that State. The latest Newspoll puts the LNP’s national 2PP vote at 58%, whilst Bludgertrack 2013 says 2PP support for the LNP is currently 60% in WA, 57-58% in NSW and Queensland, and over 55% is SA.
  • Scenario two: In NSW and WA, the final Senate sport (after the LNP claim 3 and Labor 2) will likely be between the LNP and The Greens. It is likely that the Katter Party (Qld) and Xenophon (SA) will win Senate spots, which would exclude the LNP winning a fourth Senate spots in those States.  However, either or both of these could support the LNP in repealing or amending climate legislation. If the DLP, Katter Party and Xenophon all support the LNP, then it only needs to win three of the six Senate spots in each State (very likely) to have a Senate majority. In which case…
  • Scenario three: The Greens Senate candidate in the ACT, Simon Sheik, has the opportunity to win that seat from the LNP, a result which may be crucial to who controls the Senate if Scenario two were otherwise realised. His cause is aided by rucktions within the ACT Liberals in which long-standing Senator Gary Humphries has been rolled by the more right-wing faction of Zed Seselja, who is now their Senate candidate. Seselja is abrasive and unpopular, with a recent poll finding 49 per cent had an unfavourable opinion of Mr Seselja, while 37 per cent looked on him favourably.

If the LNP cannot muster a Senate majority on climate issues, then it would need a double dissolution, which would be unlikely before 2015, and after the next Victorian State election. This may be politically difficult: some of the gloss will have gone from Team Abbott and lower house seats would likely be lost, especially if the tide turns on State LNP governments with another two years in power; the economy may dip for global and/or domestic reasons; and punters don’t like unnecessary elections. Of course should Labor cave in (not impossible given the repeated pattern of backflips on climate policy) on some if not all climate legislation, then there would be no Senate impediment.
Turning attention from national to State politics, a look at the political balance of power and climate policy-making in the major economic states is also sobering.

QUEENSLAND: Labor was wiped out in 2012, and now has seven seats in Queensland’s one-chamber parliament, compared to 75 LNP seats. The most recent State Newspoll found the LNP with 62% of 2PP, similar to the result at the State election, with Labor’s primary vote at 27%. It’s hard to imagine how Labor can be competitive in 2015, or the LNP could possibly lose. Given the coming federal Labor wipe-out in Queensland, the odds are on the LNP maintaining government for the remainder of the decade.

NEW SOUTH WALES: Following the March 2011 election in NSW, Labor holds 20 lower-house seats compared to the LNP’s 69 seats. The LNP also control the upper house with 19 seats plus the support of Fred Nile and Shooters and Fishers Party (4 seats). Labor hold 14 seats and The Greens 5 seats.  The most recent State Newspollgave the LNP 63% of the 2PP, compared to 37% for Labor, whose primary vote is down to an astounding 23%. NSW has fixed four-year terms, with elections in 2015 and 2019. Amongst many stenches surrounding the NSW ALP, the present ICAC hearings featuring Labor luminaries Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald are killing Labor’s brand. There is a very high probability of the LNP retaining power in NSW till 2019 at least.

VICTORIA: The first-term LNP State government, which controls both houses of parliament, had been trailing Labor in the polls, but the recent leadership change will improve its position. The next State election is in late 2014 and both sides have an opportunity to win.

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: In this year’s March state election, the LNP won 64% of the seats, compared to 36% of seats to Labor.  The ALP primary vote was 33%, compared to 53% for the LNP. In the upper house, the LNP have 61% of the seats. The LNP is in power till 2017, and are likely likely to be there till 2021 unless the state economy unwinds.

Taken together, it looks very likely that Australians nationally and in the big economic states – with the possible exception of Victoria – will be governed by conservative parties infested with a sizeable proportion of climate-denial parliamentarians, and with climate policies which could be charitably described as the politics of delay. Slash-and-burn of good environment and climate policies is probably a more honest descriptions, if the actions of incoming LNP governments in Victoria, NSW and Queensland over the last two years are any guide.

My perception at the moment is that most people in the climate movement think an Abbott victory is both appalling and all but inevitable. One big threat now is that the sense of inevitability combined with Team Abbott “looking like winners” may draw more (and especially younger?) voters to “back a winner”, which could effect both The Greens’ vote and the Senate balance. “Winners are grinners” is an old political maxim.

Labor-leaning environment and climate advocacy organisations (defined as those who have been unwilling to make substantial public criticism of Labor over the last decade, even when it was warranted) seem very subdued. Many have been largely off the radar since the climate bills passed in late 2011, and there are few signs yet of strategic  discussion on a likely Abbott victory.  My comments last year still seem valid:

What is even more disturbing is the evidence in 2012 that many of the larger organisations  who have been concerned about winning better climate policy also seem to have taken climate off the public agenda for now. Many big groups campaigned in 2011 under the “Say Yes” banner for the carbon price, which was legislated at the end of that year.  That was the start of a new battle, but in 2012 most of those objectively disappeared from the public discourse, leaving Labor and the Greens alone to fight it out against the opposition, the miners, the Murdoch press, the deniers, the shock jocks and all and sundry. To be honest, I have seen hardly a peep in the media in defence of climate action from the ACTU or unions, the aid and welfare sectors, or many of the big eNGOs. I can see only four explanations, all disturbing. Some ran for cover because it got too difficult or they had gotten what they wanted (for example, the welfare lobby); some didn’t understand the strategic need to continue fighting it out in public; the media and communications professional in those organisation were not up to the job; or these organisations and their campaigners were simply “exhausted”. All four point to management failure.

Perhaps because Labor decided to take climate off the agenda – selling its climate legislation as only about “clean energy” and those mysterious “household compensation” TV ads on tax cuts that made no link to the climate bills – then some groups also considered Labor’s electoral chances would be bolstered if they sat on their hands as well.  Their general unwillingness to take full advantage of the considerable public space created by the scientists, meteorologists and the Climate Commission on the link between current extreme weather events and global warming is not a good sign.

In contra-distinction, some of the smaller advocacy groups are full steam ahead at a State, regional and sectoral level. The “Lock the gate” campaign against coal seam gas has garnered amazing local community support and gained great momentum and state and national political and media attention, and the campaigns against coal expansion are growing across the eastern States, they are better resourced and attracting critical support from both local communities and experienced climate activists.  There has been strong community support for renewable energy, reflected in both the one-millionth solar PV domestic installation, and in the “big solar” Port Augusta campaign.

When all is said and done, and despite the comings and goings in Canberra, closing down the polluters is always at the heart of effective climate activism and advocacy, especially since end-use emissions from Australia coal and gas exports will dwarf domestic emissions by a factor of three- or four-to-one. Researcher Guy Pearse says that the expansion of Australian coal exports with the bipartisan blessing of Labor and the LNP will mean that by “2020 or soon thereafter, Australia is exporting nearly twice as much CO2 as is Saudi Arabia today.”  Pearse estimates that:

… Australian coal exports will generate around 75Gt (billion tonnes) CO2 between now and 2050 – perhaps another 5Gt will come from domestic coal use, and 8-10 Gt from LNG if the expansion of coal seam gas proceeds.

This totals around 90 billion tonnes of CO2, compared to current total domestic emissions of 0.55 billion tonnes a year, or just over 20 billion tonnes in total to 2050 if current emissions were held constant.

From this perspective, neither Labor nor the LNP by their behaviour indicate  any significant understanding of the policy consequences of the carbon budget approachwhich the government’s own Climate Commission advocates, nor any grasp of what needs to be done in this “critical decade”. The brutal truth is that if Labor should remain in power and stick to an emissions reduction target of just 5% by 2020 (achieved by importing carbon credits) and actual emissions not peaking till 2025,  this would still be largely a lost decade. With Team Abbott, the outcome is worse.

This article was originally posted on Climate Code Red. Re-posted with permission.

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  1. Alan Pears 7 years ago

    David, a very thought provoking article.

    One of the deep problems of democracy in Australia seems to be our inability to negotiate bipartisan action on climate issues – and many others. The sequence seems to be that a Labor govt brings in a weak policy, then the coalition comes in, dilutes it further but eventually has to admit that action is needed and that Labor was sort of on the right track. At that point, we reach consensus at a weak level, then slowly crank up action towards what’s needed. unfortunately this can take decades. We’ve more than used up the available time on climate policy.

    Effective action seems to simply be beyond politicians both here and globally. In fact, their weak efforts can make things worse by allowing people to believe that something is being done…..

    Let’s hope that community, financiers and technology innovators can pull a few rabbits out of a hat. I’m not holding my breath.

  2. Alastair 7 years ago

    Could prospects be more depressing? I guess Abbott could out-source the policy making capacity of his cabinet to the IPA. Oh yeah, he just announced he has at the IPA party in the NGV. The triumphalism of this lot before they have even had a ballot cast in their favour is noteworthy. Book out the NGV for a party, announce a 50 point plan for neo-liberal “reform” and have the audacity to invoke Gogh Whitlam’s name in the document pre-amble and hype, have the future PM thank you for the ideas and tick them off in public.

    With high fliers like Jo Hockey, Julie Bishop, Chris Pyne and Senator Brandis is there little wonder they need to outsource on policy. Why not go to the increasingly proto-facist IPA to come up with better ideas for making a small elite richer while destroying the future of countless generations of people and consign whole ecosystems to dust forever.

  3. Alastair 7 years ago

    The publics excitement for Climate Change action seemed much stronger when Howard was in denial about CC and opposing it. This strong sentiment might come around again for his understudy Tony Abbott. By the time Howard had sniffed the wind on Climate Change, Ambassador Rudd was way out in front and it was way too late for Howard to recover. When Rudd and the ALP dropped Climate Change action like a hot potato after taking power the publics enthusiasm started to wane. Maybe people are less for action when they figure it might actually cost them something not just cost ‘the government’ ? But largely I think it was concerted vested interests that focused a concerted attack through the media on the ALP around CC and the MRRT. The establishment was back in charge of Australia.

    I suppose one sliver lining out of this is that the ALP will have to redefine themselves as something more substantive than a neo-liberal-lite party or Coalalition-lite which was Rudd’s answer to Howard’s dominance — pro-status quo but with a conscience seemed to be his brand (turned out to be a mirage of a brand on several big issues though). How attractive a double dissolution election as referendum on Climate Change and the other 3 triggers they had is looking in retrospect for the ALP now.

    Hopefully the ALP undergoes a burst of generational change and not just ex-staffers are promoted from with in. Can’t think of a better way to put distance between any future ALP and the whatever-it-takes ALP train-wreck we see today would be to come out strongly in favour of a rapid 100% renewable energy transition. How that can happen with the dominance of mining and logging union interest in every corridor of the ALP offices (not to mention dozens of full time FF lobbyists) I don’t know. I do know the Fergos, Gary Greys and Tony Burkes need to be rolled if ALP is to ever get serious about Climate Change. They might actually be tempted to jump on the Climate Change bandwagon for real next time around — not just out of desperation — but from a place of genuinely held conviction as they see not just their children’s planet fading but their own.

  4. Ron Horgan 7 years ago

    Are we really this stupid?

    Catch 22 says that they will do anything to you that you let them.

    Where’s Yossarian when we need him?

    • Dave Johnson 7 years ago

      Never mind Yossarian. Where’s his little rubber raft?

      • Ron Horgan 7 years ago

        Yossarians rather crowded little rubber raft is drifting merrily down to the waterfall, and the only barbed wire paddles are silly bloody self interested politicians.
        While this is genuinely grim ,when about 10% of the population become fervently convinced of the need to change we will reach a tipping point. Then the need for change will become popular opinion, and then our politicians will preserve their jobs by doing what is required.
        The message is gathering important support from world leaders.

        Meanwhile I guess that we each take whatever small steps that we can as individuals and not despair.
        Silent prayers to the god of enlightened self interest may help.

  5. D. John Hunwick 7 years ago

    I wonder why this was written without any dot points to give readers a guide to the action that they can take to curb some of the excesses. Without that all I get is someone erudite in telling me what I already know without any direction as to what would be a strategic response – do I vote green ahead of Labor in the Upper House? What about voting for independents? What specific Policy of Liberals should I seek to deride and change before the election? Don’t leave me knowing what I already knew ut still no direction that could be embraced by myself and others.

    • Dave Johnson 7 years ago

      Mr. Hunwick, I don’t quite understand your problem. Is someone holding a gun to your head and forcing you to buy and to use tons of fossil fuels every year?

      You have lots of choices right now, and they have nothing to do with the politicians. Indeed, if you wanted to change your lifestyle radically, they could not stop you. Not without using real guns anyway, and probably not then either.

      Moreover, I say that as one who has already cut his carbon footprint by about 90%, and I still have all the modern conveniences that I actually need.

      I don’t like what the politicians are doing, but at least they are smart enough to get paid well for doing it.

      In contrast, calling the voters “sheep being led to the slaughter” would be overly diplomatic.

      It appears to me that the voters are actively conniving at their own abuse. Why else would they stand still for this sort of perpetual shakedown when it is so easy to avoid?

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