Partisanship was never the problem. Labor needs to learn to lead | RenewEconomy

Partisanship was never the problem. Labor needs to learn to lead

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In my view, there was already bipartisanship on climate change, in that both parties were committed to not doing enough as slowly as possible. Labor needs to learn how to lead.

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Anthony Albanese at the National Press Club, Canberra. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
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A few years ago, I came across an old video of a young Anthony Albanese standing his ground on his home turf, in the Inner West, in Sydney. A relatively big crowd of seething, infuriated climate deniers had gathered outside of his electorate office. They were protesting the time Albanese had referred to the anti-carbon-price protest, named the ‘convoy of confidence’, as the ‘convoy of no consequence’.

Albanese steps up to the truly angry crowd, and patiently answers every single question, even as the protesters emit one long, unending jeer as he speaks. “I don’t do this because it’s easy. Just like talking to you isn’t easy. I do it because it’s the right thing to do for my son and my grandkids”. There is passion and moral clarity in his words. Spotting a sign that weirdly says ‘tolerance is our demise’ in the crowd, Albanese shouts into the microphone to call it out. “In the multicultural heartland of Australia, tolerance is our strength. Tolerance is our strength”. As he’s saying this, a single protester begins repeatedly screaming two words on repeat: “BITCH. GILLARD. BITCH. GILLARD. BITCH.”.

Nine years into the future, Australia’s carbon pricing scheme is long gone, climate change denial has essentially died off, and there has been a sharp recent rise in public support for climate action. It is born out by a range of polls, each confirming that from around 2018 onwards, the amount of public concern about climate change in Australia, and the desire for action, has increased. That was bumped upwards by the Black Summer bushfires, and has survived the pandemic so far. The 2019 climate strike marches were huge, far bigger than the 500 strong rally outside Albanese’s office in 2011. The bushfires left Australia terrified, and hoping for some way out of the drumbeat of ever-worsening bushfire seasons. Coronavirus has left us shattered and confused and desperate for good news, an enriching plan and solid leadership in the face of crisis and uncertainty.

It is hard to imagine a better time to create a vision for human-centred climate action that imbues justice, equity and fairness into a wide-ranging climate plan just like America’s ‘Green New Deal’ concept. A visionary climate plan that encompasses so many broader progressive policies and enacts a radical and shamelessly headstrong agenda of human improvement both in the short and long term would go down well, right when we need some good news delivered in a strong voice. And watching that video, we can be sure that Anthony Albanese has a strong voice.

Australia’s government has gone backwards on climate policy, openly ditching any hope of a 2050 target and still happily admitting the chance of adjusting the 2030 target downwards through an false interpretation of Paris climate rules. The government’s coronavirus economic recovery planning body is hilariously and openly stacked with fossil fuel interests, who are all happily declaring the need for new fossil fuel infrastructure locked into Australia well into the coming decades.

As crises and opportunities conflate and collide, Albanese has failed to summon whatever passion that drove him to confront climate deniers nine years in the past. Faced with the emergence of a faction in the Labor party pressuring for more open support of coal mining and coal-fired power stations, Albanese declared soon after the Black Summer bushfires that Australia will still be exporting coal in 2050. “I suspect we will. That will be determined by the market and by international agreement”. The United Nations production gap report highlights the urgent need to ramp down the extraction of fossil fuels around the world; something Albanese refuses to contend with.

“There is no need to do any harm to the coalmining industry”, said Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon. It’s true. That is why despite Labor setting net zero by 2050 target in 2015 (reannounced as if it was new in February 2020) drew the support of BHP Billiton, a company responsible for extracting and selling the highest quantity of carbon to other countries. When that carbon is burnt, the emissions impact Australia.

What about new coal-fired power stations? This should be simple: a flat no; given the sheer ludicrousness and harm of building the most carbon intensive thing, whether you look at money or ethics. Albanese compares the prospect to unicorns, but his MPs wouldn’t stop private investors from having a go. But as I have discussed here on RenewEconomy, it is the rate at which coal-fired power stations shut down that is the main game. Early retirement opens up the field for new renewable energy; delay closes it tight. Albanese hasn’t been asked about this, but he will be, and sadly I think we know the answer.

Albanese’s rhetoric has begun creeping closer towards that of fossil fuel advocates. “If Australia stopped exporting today there would not be less demand for coal – the coal would come from a different place,” he said. The old ‘drug dealers defence’. Tell me, would you agree with that sentence if you replaced ‘coal’ with ‘asbestos’? “We’ve got to consider what the actual outcome is from any proposal, and the proposal that we immediately stop exporting coal would damage our economy and would not have any environmental benefit”, said Albanese. “I have always been against a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme because it harms our economy without necessarily helping the environment,” said former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Albanese says coal ought to be dug and burned because that’s what powers the construction of wind turbines. That sounds familiar. And hey, my by my own reckoning, only a tiny fraction of Australia’s coking coal would be required to fuel a worldwide clean energy revolution, but don’t let numbers get in the way. Albanese even urged Australians to join the coal mining sector, even as a global downturn in coal demand begins to pick up pace, accelerated by campaigns and COVID19.

This week, Anthony Albanese announced a new era of “bipartisanship” with the Liberal party on climate change. A multi-pronged deal accepts a role for repeatedly failed carbon capture and storage technology, but builds walls around clean energy agencies that might be altered to fund fossil fuels by the government.

In my view, there was already bipartisanship on climate change, in that both parties were committed to not doing enough as slowly as possible. Labor has nervously avoided setting a short-term climate target pre-empting a furious, rage-driven News Corp / government campaign labelling their plan with gargantuan economic costs, as former Labor leader Bill Shorten saw last year. How will the party navigate this when the next federal election rolls around?

“Bipartisanship” simply means a widespread commitment to letting incredible harm to human life go ahead without limitations. The word appeals to centrist thinking on climate policy due to a severe misdiagnosis of the problem: close friendships and large donations between the fossil fuel industry and both major parties results in weak policy action. The chart below? That’s bipartisan. Really, really bipartisan.

The Labor party could easily stave off the predictable counter-attacks by creating a climate policy that isn’t solely about economic growth and jobs. It could create a climate policy aimed at justice, equity and the curing of wounds caused by the pandemic and by bushfires, such as building resilience to disasters through solar and storage while also reducing emissions and mitigating climate impacts. A strong short-term target paired with clear work and jobs programs for communities impacted by coal closures and a human-focused climate policies that seek to better life for those worst off would be a powerful, winning policy. Drop fossil fuel donations. Drop the parroting of lines from fossil fuel advocates and conservatives. Actually struggle and contend with the fact that if the world acts on climate change, that means the demise of Australia’s carbon export habits, and the need to save every single worker impacted by that.

We know Anthony Albanese has it somewhere inside of him to create a vision for climate action, instead of hovering metres away from a government that actively seeks to worsen the problem. “I don’t do this because it’s easy. Just like talking to you isn’t easy. I do it because it’s the right thing to do”. The world is moving on climate action, even in the depths of crisis and change and perhaps because of it. Australia will be eternally left behind if the Labor party doesn’t rise to the occasion and become a true, vision-based opposition.

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