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Labor’s biggest climate problem is itself

25 February 2020

… and an obsession with well-paid miners isn’t helping


Management issue: Labor leader Anthony Albanese. Glenn Hunt/AAP Image

Management issue: Labor leader Anthony Albanese. Glenn Hunt/AAP Image

Anthony Albanese doesn’t need to convince the majority of Australian voters to support his plan for net zero emissions by 2050. Let me say that again: Labor doesn’t need to “sell” its climate change policy. Instead, it’s an issue that needs to be managed.

The assumption that every prescription taken to an election must get majority support is just one of those fallacies of political analysis. As noted before, no one would seriously assert that Labor’s tenth-order campaign promise to “increase the numbers of doctors in remote, rural and regional Australia” got a thumbs down from the voters when they elected the Coalition in May last year. People voted primarily on other stuff. Not everything in a campaign is a vote decider; in fact, most of it isn’t.

It is revisionism of the highest order to describe climate policy as meaningfully responsible for Labor’s 2019 defeat. The fault for the loss of that winnable contest lies with the big juicy targets the party presented to the government, most importantly the thing the Coalition (and some in the media, helpfully) dubbed “the retirement tax,” along with the fictional “death tax” and the very real housing policy — probably in that order. Throw in Bill Shorten’s evasive demeanour and longer-term doubts about Labor and the economy (which both Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd also had to deal with to win office), and it was a perfect storm.

Climate change would have played into it a little. But it was a difficult issue for the Coalition as well — a fact that is also absent from the routine “winner did everything right” lens.

There’s another, related mindset in our political discourse: the belief that good, sound policy, in the national interest, should first be run past the voters, at an election, before being implemented. If not actually voted on, then popular approval must somehow be achieved first.

It’s often put as: hey, that’s a good idea, but how will you sell it?

Often these ruminations come with extravagant tales of those political greats of the past, men (all of them) with the courage, imagination and communication chops to bring the nation along with them. You know the drill: cite one or two giants from both sides of politics to give it bipartisan robustness and conclude that the pissants of today are unfit to lick their boots.

I’ve banged on a lot in places like this about the dodginess of these misty-eyed remembrances, and rather than do it again have collected a few snippets you can visit here. In summary: politically difficult policy, including most that is fondly remembered (the dollar float, financial deregulation, tariff reductions and so on), has rarely been popular in the electorate beforehand, let alone taken to an election first. It’s usually sprung on voters, and put in place, midterm.

An opposition doesn’t have that luxury, of course.

Sometimes, however, a policy becomes such a hot potato that political leaders feel the need to rule it out. After the Coalition disastrously promised a GST at the 1993 election (along with a collection of other unpalatable accessories, but also, we tend to forget, tax cuts, a big drop in petrol prices and some other popular promises), it became something that had to be sworn off, at least when in opposition. “We have no plans” or “not in the first term” was not enough; it had to be “never ever,” as John Howard put it in 1995.

Then the Coalition did it from government in 1998, and survived, just, with the lowest winning national vote in federal history. (For comparison, Labor won that year’s two-party-preferred vote by more than the Coalition topped it in the 2001 “landslide.”)

These days any increase in the GST is considered just as dangerous, requiring a ritualistic hand-on-heart denial from both sides. And now franking credits and negative gearing are destined to join the club: the country will have to get along without them. (Howard’s 1998 fright is enough to warn off all but the most adventurous.)

It all comes down to the fact that elections are mostly about two questions: are voters ready to give the incumbent the flick and, if they are, is the alternative acceptable? The 2019 election passed the first condition but not the second. Elections are a time for feel-good gimmicks and fluffy or emblematic promises, not serious, complicated policies. Don’t even talk about possible substantial plans in private, lest it gets out and you have to deny it.

Reducing our carbon emissions is not in the “rule-out” club. Most Australians want something done but are susceptible to hip-pocket campaigns. It’s not even clear that pricing carbon holds much scare potential: Australians experienced it from 2012 to 2014 and it turned out to be not nearly as bad as they had expected for the fifteen months after its announcement. When the Abbott government repealed it, the expected avalanche of public gratitude failed to materialise.

Labor’s climate problems — including its troubling obsession with well-paid miners — are mostly internal. (Advocates of extending coalmining forever don’t seem to grasp the fact that it won’t mostly be Australian policy that keeps the fossils in the ground but destination countries’ decisions to eliminate the greenhouse gasses emitted when they burn those exports.)

So Anthony Albanese has announced he’s retaining Bill Shorten’s zero-net-emissions-by-2050 policy but not his promise of a 45 per cent cut from 2005 levels by 2030. The first probably implies the second, but twenty-eight years from 2022 is a nice long way away. As we know, the 2050 goal is the policy of such radical outfits as the Business Council of Australia, the British Tory Party and seventy-odd other countries. And the government itself has promised more or less the same thing, which hasn’t stopped its MPs warning of Armageddon.

On Sunday’s ABC Insiders, the opposition leader left the carbon-pricing option open. One reason this was wise is that we don’t know what the rest of the world will do over the next two years. If a Democrat is elected American president this November (unlikely at the moment, with Bernie Sanders the firm frontrunner) that country might put in place a nationwide carbon price with border carbon adjustment, or BCA. The European Union is already talking about supplementing its emissions trading scheme with a BCA. Under these schemes, these entities would start pricing the carbon in the things they import from Australia (and other countries) if we don’t do it ourselves. That’s an incentive for us to price carbon, at least in our exports.

Which of our major parties would that advantage?

The politics of climate policy can be unpredictable. And we’ve still got two more Australian summers to go before the election. •

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