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Environmental wins at the National Labor Conference

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LEAN members with Shadow Climate Change Minister Mark Butler (Photo via Facebook).

Stephen Williams questions national co-convenor Felicity Wade of the Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN) about new Labor policy.

Independent Australia: Can you briefly outline the policy shortcomings that LEAN has sought to address in recent years?

Felicity Wade: LEAN has existed on-and-off in the ALP since 2004, but its latest iteration was motivated by the crushing Federal Election loss in 2013 and the role of climate change policy in that. LEAN's rebirth came out of rank-and-file concern that the impact of Tony Abbott's anti-carbon price campaign would scare the party away from climate action.

Our argument was that the political costs associated with Labor's attempts at climate policy were largely of our own making; that Kevin Rudd's decision to drop climate policy was the first of many fatal mistakes that shifted climate change from a great moral challenge to a political football.

Our goal was to ensure climate action was no longer an issue to be used tactically, becoming instead an article of faith. We believe a deep-rooted response to the environmental challenges of the 21st Century is essential to the long-term survival of a modern social-democratic party. 

At the 2015 Labor National Conference, LEAN won the commitments to 50% renewable energy and 45% emission reductions by 2030. But it was just a few days ago, at the 2018 National Conference, that our real goal was won. Watching the debate on the floor, there was confidence and enthusiasm. Labor not only believes climate change is real, but that it is core business.

Party heavyweights lined up to affirm their commitment to turning around the “climate emergency”, as one of the motions described it. The continued challenge of the proposed Adani coal mine in Queensland is still outstanding. LEAN believes that while Labor will continue to support existing coal operations for some time, allowing a new, huge coal basin to be opened up is both risky and undermines perceptions of our commitment to climate change. 

LEAN's next task is to rebuild commitment to the natural environment in the same way. On issues of the natural environment, it is more about remembering something lost, rather than embracing something new. Visionary environmental policy has a Labor history and this week's commitment to a new environment Act and an independent Environment Protection Authority are the first steps in reclaiming this.  

The current environmental legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC), is from the Howard era. It is primarily a tool to facilitate development, not to protect the environment. What's more, it annoys business, and costs money by creating delays and confusion, little of which translates into good environmental outcomes. The only proactive aspects of the Act create lists of environmental threats with no power to protect anything or make a difference to real-world outcomes.

Since the EPBC Act was legislated in 1999, the number of threatened species and ecosystems has increased by 30%, with three animals going extinct. About 7.4 million hectares of threatened-species habitat (more than the size of Tasmania) has been cleared. Only 0.3% (21 of 6,100 developments assessed by the Act) have been rejected for unacceptable risks to the environment.

Australia has the highest rate of mammal extinctions in the world and is the only developed nation in the world’s top ten land-clearers. About 3,000 Australians die each year due to air pollution, plastics clog our waterways, while the community’s efforts to recycle are not matched by government-led national responses to ensure the waste is re-used.

We need more power at the federal level to stem these losses. 

IA: What process did LEAN go through to effect the policy changes?

FW: LEAN was re-born in 2013 with little more than a logo and an old database. We rebuilt from there. In 2015, when LEAN adopted the goals of 50% renewable energy by 2030 and adoption of the Climate Change Authority's proposed emission-reduction targets, we surveyed the tools we had at our disposal to deliver these policy aims. They were limited!

At that time, no senior political figures were wanting to talk about climate change; unions we contacted generally didn't answer our calls and those who did tended to smile benignly at a well-meaning bunch of rank-and-filers. So we pursued the only path we had: talk to the Party membership.

We developed materials over the summer of 2014-15, which included presentation notes, and a short flyer explaining the importance of climate action and why it was core Labor business. We trained volunteers in each state, they then went out branch by branch explaining our pitch and asking them to pass a motion in support of our campaign aims.

Labor's reputation in the community is much worse than what one sees inside if you take the time to visit the local branches. Labor still has between 700-900 local branches across the country: small groups of people who meet each month for no better reason than their commitment to making Australia a better place.

When asked by our campaigners how they felt about climate change policy, the message they sent back to the party was unequivocal: 370 local ALP branches endorsed our call for 50% renewables by 2030 and credible emission-reduction targets. 

Having achieved the policy outcome at the 2015 National Conference, we applied the same methodology to our call for a complete overhaul of Australia's environmental laws and institutions. And thanks to Bill Shorten, who personally advocated for the reforms, Labor committed to these outcomes at the 2018 National Conference.

IA:What was the administrative stuff-up that had to be overcome?

FW: In the lead-up to the Conference, there was a genuine mistake in the wording that ended up in the draft national platform. The platform is the document that outlines Labor's key policy commitments that are debated and adopted at the national conference. The mistake was that LEAN's preferred wording ended up in the platform when it had not been formally endorsed through the the policy process. 

From LEAN's point of view, it made little difference, as those words remained what we were advocating for on the floor of the conference.

IAWhat was the final outcome for Labor’s environment policy as a result of the conference?

FW: Bill Shorten's signature speech to open the Conference committed Labor to a new environment Act and an independent, Federal environment protection authority. It also reiterated Labor's commitment to climate targets and policy

But LEAN will continue to campaign on this issue. The commitments made at the conference are a great first step. But if new laws and institutions are to halt the environmental losss we are experiencing as a country, the party will need to more clearly commit to a total revamp and re-orientation of current laws.

IAWhat's next for LEAN?

FW: Working with the parliamentary party to ensure the terms of the environmental law and institutional reforms are robust enough to make the changes Australians want to see to ensure our unique natural environment is protected. 

Stephen Williams writes mostly about politics, economics and the environment.

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