The Australian Labor Party’s climate action platform for the May 2019 Federal Election was the most ambitious yet. Pre-election polls showed climate change was a high priority for voters.
The Liberal-National coalition was divided on climate action. Climate-change deniers controlled the party room, and had elected Scott Morrison as leader, an MP who had famously cradled a lump of coal in parliament to show his support for coal-fired power. Yet Labor lost the election.
Both major parties lost about 1% of their first-preference voters with minor parties, especially right-wing parties, picking up first preferences. The Greens (who usually swap preferences with Labor in Australia’s alternative-vote system) did poorly. The post-mortem on why and how Labor lost continues. Climate action was only one of several policy areas that are now being debated, amongst the Labor Party, the unions, the Greens, and the left.
Climate change policy was a central issue, but its impact on voting can only be understood in connection with employment and economic policy. The biggest swings against Labor were in coal-mining areas of North Queensland and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales.
In North Queeensland, Labor was caught between two poles of opinion. The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy union stoked misguided hopes that Adani, a huge new coal mine project, will provide jobs in a region where unemployment is over 8%. Climate activists, especially the Greens and striking school students, had “Stop Adani” as a central demand.
New coal mines make no sense when we need to reduce consumption of fossil fuels, not increase it. However, “jobs fear” is a ready weapon for the conservative side of politics. Neither Labor, union leaders, nor the Greens, had satisfactory or convincing answers for workers concerned for their livelihood.
Labor and the ACTU both adopted a “just transition” approach to phasing out coal-fired power stations, including a Labor commitment to funding an Energy Transition Authority. But the weaknesses of the Energy Transition Authority proposal were many. It was low-key, and not particularly highlighted. If it was developed with any consultation with communities based around coal-fired power stations, that was not apparent.
The rationale was a claim that coal-fired power was coming to an end anyway, because it is becoming unprofitable. Labor does not have a “just transition” policy for other climate-change implicated industries, including mining for export. It proposes no public employment programmes along the lines of a “Green New Deal”.
The shock of the Labor defeat, and the implications that the Australian government will fail to seriously curb carbon emissions for another three years, is generating debate on the way forward among supporters of climate action.
The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy union includes both supporters of Adani — in its mining division leadership — and opponents elsewhere in the union. Construction secretary of Queensland, Michael Ravbar, has expressed doubts about Adani. Queensland Maritime Secretary Bob Carnegie is the most outspoken union leader in the country to make the case against Adani. The National Union of Workers, after the election, issued a statement on secure jobs and safe climate which points in the right direction. They said “it’s time for our movement to think big and take a lead”.
Getting workers and job-hunters to support action on climate change needs unions to have out the debate on climate issues, to involve affected communities in developing concrete proposals for how they can transition to industries which do not continue to pump out atmospheric carbon. Where private enterprise does not do this, communities need to come up with their own ways to take the initiative. Only by involving workers and their communities will unions will be able to win workers from the right-wing parties that support the Adani coal mine. There’s plenty of debate about how to do this since the election, and prospects for developing a more positive approach look good.