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What went wrong for Labor on climate



This was the climate change election — until, suddenly, it wasn't. Every study showed Australians cared keenly, almost desperately, about the environment. Yet, on polling day, the guy who famously capered around Parliament clutching a coal lump to his breast emerged, to the astonishment of almost everyone, triumphant.

Bob Brown speaks as part of the Stop Adani Convoy event on 18 April 2019 in Melbourne. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)The post-election consensus of most commentators insists the ALP went too far and too fast, that it presented the public with an idealistic program they weren't ready to accept.

As evidence, pundits adduce the results from Queensland, where the Coalition won substantial support by defending the Carmichael coal mine. In a typical piece, the ABC's Allyson Horn claims that, with his anti-Adani convoy, Bob Brown 'hammered a nail in Bill Shorten's electoral coffin'. Yet the argument — and the broader claim about Labor's project — misses a key dynamic in environmental politics today, one with which we're all just coming to terms.

A few weeks back, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services published an extraordinary document — jointly authored by some 500 scientists from across the world — laying out the extent of the current extinction crisis. The best estimate by the best experts puts something like a million species at imminent risk.

That document followed on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report from late 2018, which argued that, by 2030, global emissions must drop by 45 per cent from their 2010 levels, if we're to avoid exposing hundreds of millions of people to serious climate-related hazards.

Together the reports make entirely clear something that most Australians already intuitively know: namely, that addressing the international environmental catastrophe requires massive social and economic change. As a result, if you want the public to believe you're serious about climate, you have to spell out, in detail, your plan to transform the economy.

Furthermore, because most people now associate 'economic reform' with the neoliberal programs of the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments, you need to demonstrate that the burden won't fall primarily on society's poorest. If you don't do that, you're wide open to a conservative counterattack.


"The prevarication reinforced the longstanding and widespread sense of Shorten as an opportunist, a man who believed in nothing whatsoever."


Now, at first sight, it seems obvious from the final result that a stronger stance on Adani would have doomed Labor to an even more disastrous outcome. But, as Ira Gershwin said, it ain't necessarily so.

Had Labor flatly opposed Adani, it would have been better positioned to sell a different model for the creation of local jobs and security. Instead, the lack of clarity prevented the ALP from articulating a persuasive economic alternative to a mine it wouldn't say definitely was closing.

At the same time, the ambiguity undermined the urgency of Labor rhetoric about a 'climate emergency' to be countered by 'real action'. People aren't stupid. They heard Shorten use this sort of language and then, quite understandably, wondered why, if he thought the situation so dire, he wasn't standing against a mine threatening such dire consequences for the environment.

The prevarication reinforced the longstanding and widespread sense of Shorten as an opportunist, a man who believed in nothing whatsoever.

One of the few sweet moments for progressives on election night came when Tony Abbott, the leader of the Coalition's climate deniers, lost the seat of Warringah. But in his concession speech, he made an important point. 'Where climate change is a moral issue,' he said, 'we Liberals do it tough. Where climate change is an economic issue, as tonight shows, we do very, very well.'

Of course, since the vast bulk of emissions come from industry, climate change can't ever be other than an economic issue. But progressives haven't been very good at addressing that point.

It might be noted that, despite all the memes about the supposed backwardness of the Sunshine State, the Greens outpolled One Nation in the Senate there. In fact, as Jonathan Sri notes, after a five per cent swing to the party, the state now represents one the Greens' strongest constituencies, a fact that undercuts any idea that Queenslanders innately hate the environment.

Yet for a program of climate action to win mass support, it must address ordinary people's legitimate concerns about jobs and wages and conditions. That's the significance of the so-called Green New Deal being discussed in the United States: it links environmentalism to an explicit program of structural change. Without that, a climate program doesn't seem serious — and will struggle for traction.

The takeaway from the 2019 election shouldn't be a retreat to less ambitious goals. The lesson's quite the opposite — on climate, you go hard or you go home.



Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Main image: Bob Brown speaks as part of the Stop Adani Convoy event on 18 April 2019 in Melbourne. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, Election 2019, Labor Party, Bob Brown, climate change



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Existing comments

Thanks Jeff, a good point. Shorten's fence sitting diluted the message for both groups. The plan to hand ovet $1.5 billion to develop gas fields also cut across his message. Worth also mentioning "Just Transition" approach, which is actually included in the Paris Agreement. It's an alliance between unions and environment groups to ensure workers in affected communities can find other work. Environment Victoria campaigned for this when Hazelwood closed and the Vic government committed to a transition package worth hundreds of millions of dollars

Greg Foyster | 20 May 2019  

Nonsense - this was not "the climate change election". It was an election about who has the safest hands to manage our overall well being particularly our financial well being. People are scared for their jobs, scared of the banks, scared of the govt stealing their money. Sorry, the immediate reality is that any climate action by Australia is "feel good" but an empty gesture.

ANDREW LUKAS | 20 May 2019  

'The lesson's quite the opposite — on climate, you go hard or you go home'. There in lies the floor of your argument. This is not political reality at the best of times and is even more true in periods of great political instability. A big swing away from a carbon economy could have been a viable policy position this year if the consensus between the parties had actually been given a chance ten years ago. But then there was Abbott. As disappointed as I am about the result, having Abbott out of the parliament almost makes up for it, such was his destructive influence.

Faz | 20 May 2019  

Labor thought it was in the bag and were complaisant. Apart from that, they did not simplify their messages to cut through. There are those who did not understand that "grandfathering" negative gearing meant that existing arrangements would remain. Instead of calling franking credits "free money that you did not earn" they tried to explain it. Rather than frightening people with the climate disaster message, they should have said that we must redesign and rework the electricity grid to cater for solar energy generation and that this meant jobs. Labor needed to "war game" its policies to discover how to sell them and identify weaknesses. Advertiser Morrison knew how to craft his message.

Peter Horan | 20 May 2019  

People in my immediate family that had never in their life voted liberal told me they were going to do so on the policies announced by Bill and Bowen. "I am not rich they told me and he is going to take thousands and thousands out of my pocket every year".... hmmm, this could be interesting I thought. Bill was the most unpopular leader on almost every poll so labour chose an unpopular bloke to deliver unpopular policy and expected it to be a cake walk. The jesuit educated Bill mocked the beliefs of his opponent in the days leading up to the election. The foolishness of their approach is beyond belief. The icing was of course Bob Brown and his band of merry folks that chose to drive to Queensland and offend and entire state. The PM has four years to try and bring the country back together. I hope the ABC and the other networks give him a chance to lead a nation to progress without the class warfare.

Patrick | 20 May 2019  

Thankyou Jeff. I am relieved to hear the environment is cherished and heartened to hearGreens are finding support in Queensland. Yes, I think you are right- the takeaway - go hard or go home. Perhaps this election result is the catalyst we will have young and older people stirred to protest and stand up for issues . We are the ‘ lucky’ county and too often complacent about our beautiful environment . And People need jobs - that is the essential element , and as a core vslue Labour must protect workers. Ordinary workers are the mainstay of the economy , business relies on them. Clive Palmer should be prosecuted for $60 million advertising , that is corruption as mining and the big end of town call “miracles” we ordinary nurses and teachers call greed.

Catherine | 20 May 2019  

Bollocks! Climate is a scientific issue first and foremost. It becomes an economic issue when cost- benefit and risk analysis is applied to the likely results of global warming and to mitigation strategies. Climate activists, following Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," 2006, have made it a moral issue despite almost every one of Gore's predictions being wrong. Until climate activists become informed about climate science and data- the modest one degree C warming since the industrial revolution- they'll not be taken seriously by citizens who are informed by science. The good news is that global warming has not accelerated this century, as Gore and the activists have been predicting. The bad news is that the Paris Climate Accords are in shambles with the greens losing recent elections or policy decisions in Australia, France, Holland, Finland, USA, Germany, Canada, and elsewhere. Little productive policy has been accomplished to address the global warming concern. That is a direct result of the activists' hyperbole and fear mongering while at the same time opposing energy policy that could make a substantial reduction of CO2 emissions: fracking and nuclear. Climate activists have taken over the environmental movement and promoted the worst possible environmental policy - replacing tropical forests with the palm oil mono-culture and temperate forests and grasslands with the corn oil mono-culture. If reducing bio-diversity with programs that don't reduce CO2 emissions is the activists best effort, they deserve to loose credibility and support. Doug Allen Live long environmentalist, and instructor in climate science classes at OLLI, Furman University

Doug Allen | 20 May 2019  

Labor forgot that politics is the art of the possible.

John RD | 20 May 2019  

Thank goodness for the compulsory voting system - the best system in the democratic world. As a result, the Australian electorate has had a lot of practice and usually gets it right. This time around, the electorate booted Abbott out as it should have, not because of Zali's environmental aspirations but because he buggered up the parliamentary process in this country, offered nothing positive and identified himself with the retrogressive has been, Howard. Why on earth the Liberal Party doesn't leave Howard in his box where he belongs and hammer the lid down defies understanding. Apart from not booting Dutton out, the electorate got it right in Queensland by not promoting/advancing the extreme right self interests epitomised by Palmerism and Hansonism and rejecting the extreme left epitomised by the Greens and the non-representative union lackeys infesting the current Labor Party. The Labor Party trumpets its aspirations for equality of representation in the parliament while 2/3 of its parliamentary members are trade unionists representing a mere 8/100 Australians! The electorate is not stupid. Labor might as well spare itself the analyses and ask the electorate what their problems are. Maybe the many millionaires with their handout perks who inhabit the union executive positions and then progress to the Labor benches in the parliament have no idea what its like to be a worker doing an honest day's work. Thank God for the Australian democratic process - have to love it!

john frawley | 20 May 2019  

The Labor party lost the election because Scott Morrison was a more effective populist campaigner than Bill Shorten and the corporate Labor Party culture of neglecting the lives of people in various regions around the country. Notwithstanding that climate change should be a major issue, it does not affect the lives of most Australian people because of our mild climate and no extreme weather conditions plus relatively low pollution levels. Most Australian people are insecure because of lack of knowledge of the world. This lack of knowledge is the result of our garbage mainstream media which provides very little useful information and analysis of political, economic and social issues.

Mark Doyle | 20 May 2019  

The “doctors wives” in Warringah may have embraced climate alarmism, but “the mob will always work you out” said the ALP’s Graham Richardson. The workers did, and deserted Labor. Former UN climate czar, Christiana Figueres, intervened in Australia’s election to back Zali Steggall, Kerryn Phelps, Rebekha Sharkie and Julia Banks on climate action. It was Figueres who infamously stated that the goal of environmental activism was to end capitalism: "This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time, to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution." Climate expert, Ottmar Endenhofer, agreed it was all about “redistributing world wealth through climate policy. One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy.” Jeff Sparrow echoes these sentiments: “addressing the international environmental catastrophe requires massive social and economic change.” The Left incites climate alarmism for political power. Their claims go well beyond any consensus climate science. But with 100-year failures of communism/socialism, most recently Venezuela, it seems climate alarmism is their last hope, “you go hard or you go home.”

Ross Howard | 20 May 2019  

The big issue for voters was the request by Labor for a blank cheque for climate change. Prudent measures are the go for most Australians. I find it interesting that no forecasts by the experts have been true - a model is not fact - it is someone’s (or people) view of what might happen based on their assumptions. There is no point in Australia wrecking our economy if China, India and other countries are increasing their emissions by more than Australia’s emissions every year . Let us do the smart things but not kill our future for a crisis that is in the eye of the beholder. I have been involved with renewables since 1984 and they still cannot be regarded as base load to run a power system. There are too many exaggerations in the climate change industry/religion - we need to get back to facts.

Michael Gregg | 20 May 2019  

Exactly right. Shorten's loss is comparable with Hillary Clinton's loss in 2016. Both leaders had an instinct for compromise and targeting centrist swing voters. Both saw running on a bold and transformational agenda on the climate crisis more as a risk than as an opportunity. Both therefore failed to inspire and paid the price for it. If only Shorten had had the courage to realise he was going to lose North Queensland and to come out with a strong vision anyway, he would have won more votes in Victoria, NSW and possibly suburban Brisbane as well. He didn't. We need the Labor Party to understand that the lesson to learn from last night is not, as Barnaby Joyce said, that Labor needs to be less anti-coal, but that it needs to spell out a coherent plan to make sure coal communities prosper in the transition towards renewables. When framed as jobs-vs-the-environment, Labor goes gutless and the environment loses. We need to get Labor, the unions, and the climate movement together to create a really strong transition plan so that the next election is framed instead as the environment and the jobs of the future vs an old, dying, immoral industry.

Tejopala Rawls | 22 May 2019  

Perhaps the only way forward in building support for the transition out of coal is big bold private sector investment in renewable energy projects in Queensland. Big solar, wind and battery projects on the ground would show the economic opportunities that come with this transition. If Queenslanders started seeing their family members gaining employment in these renewable energy projects maybe they might start believing the claims that there are good alternatives to coal. They might even start to hear the warnings about the economic threats that climate change pose to other big industries like tourism and agriculture.

David Furphy | 22 May 2019  

Good article Jeff, having a bet each way in Queensland obviously has not paid off for the ALP and Joel Fitzgibbons renewed position on coal and coal jobs smells of political expediency and uninformed hypocrisy. Who do you want to believe the worlds best climate scientists on this topic or the right wing coal mining interests? Selling a new agenda is a tough job and Hawke and Keating managed this well, when a spade was a spade. Yet we are now in a digital world with fake news and misinformation requiring different strategies. This digital economy has a plus side for the future which needs to be sole. A few coal jobs are insignificant when AI will displace the entire economy and lead to a range of new jobs, which could be clean and green. Coal Miners need to pivot their efforts into higher value and less climate destructive pursuits. Currently in Northern Queensland there are 5000ha of lithium deposits identified and its only the beginning. We can be leaders in this lithium mining and valued added technology creating more export oriented jobs than an automated coal mine.

Bryce Bunny | 23 May 2019  

Excellent article. Thank-you Jeff. Of course people in the mining areas of both Queensland and the Hunter Valley are worried about their jobs and livelihood. The Labor Party needed to work with those communities on the ground, and lay out a clear plan for them, that would include a transition to a new green and renewable economy. And lay out the positives - clean air, clean water and other benefits of ditching a 19th century energy/technology. I agree with your analysis about Labor's two-way bet and prevarication about Adani and coal mining. He alienated people like me worried about the environment as well as the mining community. "Had Labor flatly opposed Adani, it would have been better positioned to sell a different model for the creation of local jobs and security. Instead, the lack of clarity prevented the ALP from articulating a persuasive economic alternative to a mine it wouldn't say definitely was closing." Exactly. And watching AOC in the USA Congress on the Green New Deal is inspiring. We need some radical women like her in Parliament. We need to go hard and in solidarity, rather than the bitter divisive hatred that still exists between the Greens and Labor. Penny Wong take note.

Maria Miranda | 24 May 2019  

You have totally ignored the obvious. The reason neither the ALP nor the Greens articulated a positive economic alternative is because they don’t have one. Not any. It’s worse than having schoolchildren chant “climate action now” when none of their fellow travellers have any idea of action which doesn’t steal the jobs from thousands of workers. I would believe a Bob Brown if he were prepared to gore go his income and give it holds bolus to three or four of those employed or expecting to be employed in North Queensland mining.

Peter Stokes | 24 May 2019  

Climate control is serious but very difficult to do. Australia under Morrison will achieve the Internationaly agreed standards. Jeff Sparrow ignores this point, Australia is not doing nothing.

Adrian Harris | 27 May 2019  

I wonder how many votes Labor lost in the twenty four hour period when the already unpopular Shorten labelled half the country 'dumb' and then, the next day, became even more pejorative branding that same significant part of the electorate as 'dishonest.' Our crime was asking the prospective Prime Minister to provide some type of cost estimate for his energy revolution.Not one member of the subservient media had the nous and /or courage to ask Mr Shorten why such questions were dumb and dishonest. After uttering the latter insult he looked so smug! He probably knew he was getting away with the most self indulgent piece of superficial thinking since Adam Bandt told a national TV audience that climate change was simple to understand.

Grebo | 12 June 2019  

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