Having spent long weeks at coal centres across Australia, the thing that strikes me the most about these communities is that they are cherished by their residents.
People love their tight-knit coal communities perhaps all the more so because of the sense of vulnerability to threats looming on the horizon. This sense of vulnerability makes the social bonds forged in these communities stronger and more meaningful than most city folk can readily appreciate. These people also take pride in their work.
The spectre of climate policy, and an accelerated economic transition away from fossil fuels, is perceived as an unambiguous threat by these communities.
Their fear of the impacts of climate policy is compounded by anger when outsiders tell these communities that their everyday activities (instead of contributing to economic prosperity), are actually ultimately doing Australians and the rest of the world a disservice by accelerating global warming.
Understandably, many have reacted passionately to firstly defend the integrity of their communities, but also to attack climate policy proposals that they feel threaten their existence.
This passionate community resentment has been deeply transfused into our current federal parliament with the election of swathes of ‘climate change is crap’ politicians from regional electorates last year. So far, these politicians have faithfully executed their mandate of sandbagging their constituent communities from the threat of climate policies.
By reminding us that household budgets in regional centres are “bursting at the seam” (as Nationals MP George Christensen recently put it) ‘climate change is crap’ politicians have portrayed the climate change debate as being the indulgence of an urban elite who have the luxury of mulling over a ‘so-called’ future threat like climate change; this being in stark contrast to struggling regional folk who are utterly preoccupied with today’s financial struggles.
To further stoke regional fear and resentment, these politicians continue to assert that leftist climate policies are designed to make the daily struggles of these regional communities even harder as jobs dry up and electricity prices rise as a direct result.
Regardless of where truth lies in this political debate, the fear campaign is penetrating, and there’s no doubt that the Left is worried that its climate policies are still not resonating in the ‘hearts and minds’ of regional Australians.
In this context, and with the political debate continuing to putrefy, some in Labor’s ranks have taken to examining the art of peace brokering as a way of diffusing regional anxieties whipped up by the Right.
Out of this we have recently seen the principle of a ‘just transition’ gaining prominence, considered by some as an olive branch of peace to be extended to regional Australia.
The concept of a ‘just transition’ first evolved out of Canada in the late ‘90s, with a just transition for climate change gaining the support of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) late last year. The principle centres on ensuring that communities that are most vulnerable to environmental change are not disproportionately burdened.
In a climate policy context, a just transition is supposed to comfort regional communities that they will not be forgotten in an economy that transitions away from fossil fuels, and by doing this, many of its proponents hope that it will make regional voters more receptive to supporting economy-transforming climate policies.
It’s a perfectly valid principle, and essential as a safeguard to protect vulnerable communities as jobs shift around in a transitioning economy. But over-promoting a just transition as a strategy to woo regional voters will probably do Labor’s cause more harm than good.
By over-promoting just transition safeguards, Labor risks inadvertently entrenching regional voters’ suspicions that its climate policies are unambiguously biased against their economic interests. After all, why zealously promote wet lettuce ‘compensation, income support, and redundancy entitlement’ safeguards if Labor’s climate policies will have a net-positive impact on regional economies?
And if you believe Bill Shorten, the transition will absolutely be positive. In his latest National Press Club address, Shorten doubled down on his positive news rhetoric stating that a “proper renewable energy policy” would create “real jobs, not just jobs for the scientists, but jobs for blue collar workers, jobs for engineers, jobs for designers”.
But does promoting ‘safeguards’ (inferring negative consequences) and a ‘positive transition’ in equal measure betray Labor as hedging its bets? Does Labor actually have a clear region by region transition blueprint (or suite of positive transition pathways) on which to base its positivity?
In response, Labor would point to its recently devised Climate Change Action Plan which includes a proposed ‘Strategic Industries Reserve Fund’ and a ‘Strategic Industries Taskforce’. But this high-level document talks only of proposed funds, taskforces and enquiries of the future, and provides precious little detail on what the “proper renewable energy policy” that Shorten refers to actually looks like.
Equally, the ACTU’s proposal that an independent statutory authority ‘Energy Transition Australia’ be set up to “help navigate and smoothly manage this transition” suggests that manifestly credible region-by-region blueprints for a positive transition have not yet been developed.
Logically, a net-zero emissions transition strategy that also had a net-positive impact on regional economies should be welcomed by regional communities. But that’s if the transition plan is made believable before the next election.
Without the detail, sceptical regional voters could be excused for suspecting that Labor’s ‘just transition’ principle is being promoted alongside just in case, because it’s still just not sure about just how positive the transition really will be.
Let’s hope for the sakes of the economy, the environment, and the political debate that more details (and greater bipartisanship) are just around the corner.
Evan Stamatiou is Director of Carbon Risk Management.