Inside Story

Burying Margaret Mead

Labor seemed the obvious place to mobilise broader support for strong climate change policies, writes former Wilderness Society staffer Felicity Wade

Felicity Wade 2 June 2016 3448 words

Outside in: climate change protesters, including ALP members, at Labor’s 2015 national conference in Melbourne in July 2015. David Crosling/AAP Image

I was twenty-seven and had joined the staff of the Wilderness Society only a couple of weeks before. It had been a bumpy landing. It was late 1995, the dying days of the Keating government and a year of forest madness. At the end of the year before, the government had identified an extensive list of native forests to be given temporary protection from logging while proper assessments could be completed. In response, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, or CFMEU, had organised a logging truck blockade of Parliament House. The environment movement had played hardball just as strenuously and cabinet retreated, impossibly jammed.

A tired, conflicted government botched it with ample help from the key protagonists. While the sound and fury had mostly subsided, the Wilderness Society was still camped out in a rogue Labor Tasmanian senator’s office in Parliament House, lobbing grenades.

I was wandering about, finding the halls of parliament both exciting and lonely. I was pretty much ignored by my new employers, and given no sense of my task or the larger strategy. Unlike most in the Wilderness Society, I had no history in either the environment movement or politics. I’d never been to a forest blockade. I saw an ad in the newspaper and applied for the job as a communications officer. I was feeling nostalgic for my previous job in advertising, never mind that I had left it because I wanted to change the world. I was wondering what on earth I was doing there, but I hung around. I was irrelevant; no one stopped to include me amid the exciting flap of daily tactics.

Then Bob Brown waltzed into town. This was before his successful run at the Senate in 1996. I organised some interviews for him and was given the job of driving him to the ABC studios on Canberra’s Northbourne Avenue. It was the first time in three weeks that anyone had actually spoken to me. I don’t remember the details, but he asked me questions about my love of the bush and where I’d come from, and had me blabbing about the mistake I’d made in taking the job. He reassured me that we needed people like me in the battle for Australia’s environment and that my efforts to work out my place in it mattered. It was encouragement that changed the course of my life. Twenty years later, I remain a solid Bob Brown fan.

I have a backpack full of stories of the decades as an environment activist and my tetchy relationship with both the parties of the left, the Greens and the Labor Party. The activist straining for particular policy outcomes is inevitably in conflict with political parties whose interests are mixed up with the pursuit of power.

In the end, however, I joined the Labor Party to run the Labor Environment Action Network, or LEAN. My love of the once-in-a-generation politician and activist didn’t hold me to Bob Brown’s party, even though I had a box seat in watching its emergence and establishment in Australian federal politics. And even though the last federal Labor government hardly provided inspiration, I joined Labor because I believe it is time for environment advocates to talk to the centre.

Put another way, I am keen to bury Margaret Mead and her ubiquitous quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Those words headed the fundraising letter I received last tax time from one of Australia’s largest environment groups. On protection of the environment, Mead is out of date. Her quote speaks to an earlier stage of the environment movement’s mission.

Environmentalism has won the argument but not the institutions of our democracy. What’s more, with climate change threatening life as we know it, the challenge is huge and can’t be delivered by the morally fearsome few. We must speak to all sectors of society and truly build coalitions across interests. To deliver lasting and deep change we must take most of the society with us; change imposed by minorities is brittle and breakable.

The environment movement did a great job of hectoring from the margins and widening the goalposts, and people across society now recognise that we can’t trash the planet. Sure, there are still powerful vested interests trying to protect their profits. But while middle Australia may not particularly like smelly greenies and our austere, earnest ways, they are on our side. We are no longer a minority group of outsiders pushing from the edge.

My thinking was that it’s time for us to dump the moral superiority of vanguard politics. It is time for environment advocates to talk to the centre, rather than fight it and alienate natural allies. We need to own our status as representatives of middle Australian values, and join centrist institutions and enshrine environmental values in their heart.

So there I was entering the big, powerful institution of the Labor Party, feeling like Dorothy entering the Wizard’s house: tentative and awed, flanked by a few powerless comrades of the brave, brainy, big-hearted variety. We set about rebuilding LEAN and making it a force for change in the Labor Party.

LEAN was set up in 2004 as a cross-factional environment organisation within the Labor Party by Jenny McAllister (who would go on to be party president and a NSW senator) and Kristina Keneally (later premier of New South Wales). After a few iterations, LEAN is once again an active force and has proven the power of cultural subversions by winning its campaign to have the party re-embrace climate leadership, adopt a 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2030, and commit to net zero emissions by 2050 with credible interim pollution reduction targets to get us from here to there.

Of course, as with any campaign, we relied on those uncontrollable external factors that fell our way. Over the first six months of 2015, the build-up to the Paris Climate Meeting shifted the international discussion, and Tony Abbott’s strident opposition to climate action began looking crotchety and regressive. The debate over the Abbott government’s attempts to scrap or hobble the renewable energy target alerted Labor to the popularity of renewable energy in the electorate.

But when we sat down in a room above a pub in central Melbourne in late 2014, the fear that Labor would retreat on climate change was very real. The wounds from the political car crash of carbon pricing under Rudd and Gillard were still fresh and hardheads were arguing that silence on the issue was the best path forward. One of the first hurdles was to ignore some senior figures telling me that if I cared about climate change I would back off and leave the issue until Labor was in government.

LEAN wanted to do three things: put climate change back in the centre of Labor’s offering by winning policy change on renewable energy targets and economy-wide pollution targets; embed within the party the idea that near-complete decarbonisation of the economy was possible; and change the narrative so it wasn’t a greenie imperative but core Labor business.

That meeting of a scraggly bunch of Labor members developed a campaign that included arguments about why Labor needed to make climate change a conviction issue, not a tactical one. We were on strong ground in making the point that the electorate wanted to see Labor showing that it believed in something after the mess of the Rudd–Gillard years. We were careful to frame the imperative in terms of Labor’s key concerns: climate change is a threat to equity, safety and prosperity; and the solution is an opportunity for economic growth, innovation and job creation.

Our policy prescriptions were grounded in the work of ClimateWorks, a climate policy group at Monash University chaired by the former deputy Labor premier of Victoria, John Thwaites. “One of ours” is a powerful legitimacy enhancer in the Labor Party, especially when it comes to green issues. ClimateWorks had released a report in September 2014 modelling a path for the Australian economy to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The report provided a straightforward narrative about what it would take to deliver the changes needed. We pulled from it the timeline for deployment of renewable energy and established our central call for a transformation of the energy sector. To deliver this, we identified that Labor needed to create one ministry for climate change and energy to stop contradictions in the sphere, and a comprehensive approach to carbon sequestration through land use.

In the end, our campaign failed to solidly engage the party in the detail of paths to decarbonisation. Instead, the campaign coalesced around the two headline policy bids: a policy of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030; and adoption of the carbon pollution reduction targets proposed by the Climate Change Authority, which we short-handed to 50 per cent by 2030. The campaign was titled 50/50, and its target was the Labor national conference in July 2015. Held once every federal term of parliament, the national conference debates and establishes the party’s policy platform.

When it came to strategy, our path to influence was defined by our limited tools. LEAN is one of a number of internal Labor ginger groups, communities of interest around particular issues that seek to push for policy change. Other such groups, most notably Labor for Refugees and Rainbow Labor, were much better connected. They could rely on building a community of powerful figures who were prepared to stand up for the issue among the party’s traditional decision-making elites.

LEAN does not attract the ambitious or the powerful, or their acolytes. Our issue is too tricky and politically fraught – a wholesale restructure of the economy is not bite-sized. What’s more, it explicitly requires conflict with some of the party’s strongest vested interests.

As for the union leadership, most did not answer our calls. Those who did meet LEAN patted us on the head and sent us on our way. The union and party elite’s interest in groups of organised rank-and-file members is understandably small – a disempowered membership has fed the system for as long as anyone can remember. A survey of the tools at hand left us with a single path forward – talk to the membership!

We had no direct access to the membership, so the local Labor branches became our surrogate. Getting our hands on lists of local branch secretaries was our next great challenge. These had to be stolen or handed over – in the digital age version of a brown paper bag – by friendlies in state offices. We cobbled the money together to pay a freelance designer to design the materials: workers and wind turbines beneath the Southern Cross, all in the Labor colours of blue and red. Not a touch of green to be seen.

At state level, we held open meetings to kickstart LEAN. Small groups of people would turn up and form LEAN groups. From this, we built teams of volunteers who met and built connections and skills, and set about visiting the local branches of the Labor Party. LEAN volunteers would give a short presentation, often followed by long debates and lots of questions. When it came time to test the membership’s appetite for climate action by requesting support for our position, there was unequivocal enthusiasm.

Three hundred and seventy local branches passed motions in support of LEAN’s call for adoption of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 and credible carbon pollution reduction targets. For a party making much of the need to reform and to include its membership, this was a powerful demonstration of members’ commitment. I did very few of the on-ground meetings, mostly watching from my email account as the list of Labor branches rolled in: a catalogue of Australian places from Balranald, Geraldton and Townsville to Burnie, Mt Druitt and St Kilda. It was a testament to the broad, often slumbering, but still very much alive community of Labor true believers across the country.

As the national conference approached, dodgy photos taken at branch meetings in support of 50/50 tumbled across social media. We had more of these photos than we got around to posting. These images, often of groups of ancient stalwarts with a smiling, green-shirted young LEANer, created a testament to the diverse, ordinary, passionate people who make up the membership, not to mention a catalogue of all the plastic chairs on wooden floors in dark, echoing halls that are the architecture of meetings of the Labor faithful.

Over the next months, state conferences in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia supported the adoption of the Climate Change Authority’s pollution reduction targets. In New South Wales, LEAN had nothing to do with this; the local branches put it to the conference themselves. Because party conferences at the state and federal levels are the highest policy-making forums of the party, this theoretically meant that a large section of the party had already committed to the pollution reduction targets.

LEAN also engaged with the party’s official policy development process. The previous national conference had established the National Policy Forum with the intention of enriching and broadening the policy development discussion before the conference. The National Policy Forum was a group of sixty people, twenty each from the federal parliamentary party, affiliated unions and the party membership itself. Its members were charged with consulting across the party before meeting for two face-to-face seminars to formally propose policy changes and additions to the existing national policy platform.

LEAN had no representation on the Policy Forum but we started turning up anyway. We wrote a comprehensive submission on the environment and climate change policy as well as making suggestions to embed climate impacts and mitigation across portfolios. Many of our suggestions were adopted. We headed off some worrying proposed changes to Labor’s nuclear policy, strengthened the commitment to environmental law reform and included acknowledgement of the scientific consensus on the need for developed nations to deliver net zero emissions by mid century. Needless to say, the National Policy Forum didn’t support our proposal that our renewable energy target and specific pollution reduction targets be included in the national policy. It was, however, an important setting – with most of the party’s key players in the room – to prosecute our argument.

As the campaign strengthened in the branches, LEAN talked with people across the party. A number of trips to Canberra were arranged with fairly open invitations for anyone actively involved in LEAN to join us to visit Labor MPs. Democratising access is another of my passions, so the fact that ordinary members were allowed to front up to their politicians and talk to them about the campaign was a small victory. One evening, shadow climate change minister Mark Butler hosted LEAN drinks in Parliament House and an array of Labor MPs turned up. After leader Bill Shorten and I had spoken, Joel Fitzgibbon – not a natural ally of environmentalists – jumped up to assure us that he and Gary Gray were attending not as spies but as people who recognised we had to get along and sort out these issues cooperatively in the party.

Opposition from the powerful CFMEU was always a concern. Shifting energy generation away from coal-fired power to cleaner sources would have deep structural impacts on the union’s membership and the industries they work in. National president Tony Maher had nevertheless been remarkably progressive on the issue, recognising the inevitable threat to his members and trying to ensure workers were protected in the transition. The CFMEU had supported the climate package of the former Labor government and embedded themselves in the negotiations, ensuring their interests were well defended while also allowing the reforms to occur.

But a couple of months before the conference, the CFMEU responded to our campaign with an open letter to all federal Labor MPs and the union leadership expressing its opposition to our call for 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030. This was a moment when the campaign nearly derailed. We had no structural power; the CFMEU had loads. We wrote an open letter in reply, stating our opposing view on what costs the transition would impose on consumers and workers, as well as the larger imperative of modernising our energy system. We minnows had no choice but to remain determined. Luckily, we were backed by a huge swath of rank-and-file members and their branches.

At a meeting of the national Left a couple of weeks before the conference, I stood to outline LEAN’s proposal. As we were still negotiating with the CFMEU, no one was supporting us – overt opposition to the CFMEU is not a common habit on the Left of the Labor Party. As I was speaking I saw CFMEU national secretary Michael O’Connor raise his hand for the floor after me. When he rose, O’Connor said he wanted the room to be aware that the CFMEU knew climate change was happening and was committed to responding, and that it had some differences of view with LEAN that we were working to resolve. He thanked us for showing respect and not calling the union’s members rednecks.

Having come up against the CFMEU over decades in the forest debate, that exchange most powerfully illustrated the value of being “inside.” The ability to resolve the conflict came only because environmental concern was an organised and legitimate stakeholder within the party. In return for support of the 50 per cent aim, the CFMEU negotiated strong undertakings from the party to protect its members. The resolution on the floor of the conference that pledged Labor to 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 included a commitment to establish an agency to redeploy affected workers, implement structural adjustment strategies and invest in affected communities.

Resolution 214R was put to the conference by Bill Shorten and seconded by Tony Maher. It was passed unanimously.

And that’s the happy ending. At the 2015 National Conference in Melbourne in July, Bill Shorten proclaimed climate action a key differentiator between Labor and the Coalition, and the conference adopted a 50 per cent renewable energy target for 2030 a commitment to credible pollution reduction targets before the next election. As the Sydney Morning Herald put it, “The Shorten approach follows a strong and well-coordinated campaign inside the ALP by a group calling itself the Environment Action Network and backing a ‘50/50’ campaign in favour of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030.”

Newly elected national president Mark Butler, who was a consistent supporter of LEAN, generously acknowledged the campaign: “In my nearly thirty years in the party, I have not seen an organising effort on a policy issue like LEAN has delivered. It was phenomenal.” Shadow finance minister Tony Burke, a senior figure on the party’s right, said, “It’s the most effective grassroots effort I’ve seen within the ALP. The leadership consulted widely to work out what needed to be done and then campaigned relentlessly in every party unit to push Labor’s commitment as far as possible. They campaigned hard at the grassroots while also enhancing a strong relationship with the party’s leadership.”

In November 2015, just before the Paris climate conference, Bill Shorten formally delivered the second part of our campaign with a Labor commitment to delivering net zero emissions by 2050 and at least 45 per cent pollution reduction (on 2005 levels) by 2030. Climate change policy is now central to Labor’s differentiation from the Coalition. Shorten attended the Paris conference and consistently talks of climate action’s role in delivering economic opportunities and a modern, dynamic Australia.

LEAN demonstrated that the membership could be organised to force change on the parliamentary leadership. We proved, too, that the members care about the environment. But one good campaign does not a reformed party make. This is the bigger challenge. •

This is an edited extract from ’s contribution to How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green? edited by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer (Monash University Publishing).

• Andrew Giles MP (Labor) and Ellen Sandell MP (Greens) will speak at the launch of the book in Melbourne on 15 June.