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What's next for Labor on climate?

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With the media largely complicit in the Coalition's non-existent climate change policy, the Labor Party must find a palatable media approach for the next election (Image screenshot of January 2020 bushfires via greenpeace.org)

The Labor Party is now at a fork in the road with their energy and climate policy: an ambitious renewable energy policy platform, or, protecting jobs while seeing fossil fuel to its inevitable demise, writes Tim Cornwall

THERE IS no doubt that the next Federal election will be crucial for climate change. On this issue, we will choose between one of the worst governments on Earth or a party whose policies have lived and died on the alternative path. More specifically, however, the next election will likely be based on the plight of carbon workers.

The Coalition Government is sticking to its complete lack of energy policy. On the other side of the aisle, the Australian Labor Party has some key strategic decisions to make in this area.

The ALP’s biggest problem has always been the media oligopoly in Australia. They are attacked on one side by Nine, Seven and News Corp and on the other side by the ABC and others. Labor’s environmental platform has never been palatable to the big media players.

The carbon tax was a perfect example, where carbon workers were used to paint a distorted narrative. In the past, the renewable energy industry has required governments with strong climate policy. Labor has necessarily been the party to provide this and has paid a high political price in the media.

Nowadays, the fossil fuel industry is failing all on its own. After a decade of being propped up by backward governments, the gas industry is seeing mass bankruptcies throughout the United States and there are projections of a negative gas price given a massive oversupply in the market. The oil market saw negative prices earlier this year and the commodity is becoming less and less profitable as demand decreases. Coal mining projects are also being abandoned throughout the world, as economics continues to work against them.

With the renewable energy industry booming and the pandemic only making things worse for the fossil fuel industry, it can be argued that clean energy targets aren’t worth the political price in our oligarchic media landscape.

An important caveat is that a healthier, more independent media landscape would facilitate a far more reasonable debate. But it seems, for now, that independent media is not yet strong enough to assist the Labor Party.

Given these realities, there is now a fork in the road for the Labor Party.

One path is more visionary and would appeal to the environmental base. Labor could outline a platform which is frank with carbon workers. This would allow them to play their own brand of fear-mongering politics: Your industry is dying. The Liberals don’t have a plan to save your jobs. We will create jobs in greener sectors to offer you a path out. 

The risks are obvious — the mainstream media, as they have done previously, would take this narrative, easily distort it and spread doubt.

If the message was taken as it was intended, then there is evidence to suggest that carbon workers would get on board. A report from the Grattan Institute, Start with Steel, outlined how rather than voting against climate action, many carbon workers were simply voting to save their jobs. With a clearly outlined path of expanding steel production on the East coast of Australia, the narrative in these communities can shift.

There is also an argument that the recent horror bushfire season could push voters towards whichever party is stronger on climate. Scott Morrison’s reputation was damaged in this period, but with some Labor-inspired policy through the pandemic, the media seems to have done its job. Many voters seem to have forgiven and forgotten the bushfires, the Hawaii holiday and the forced handshakes.

This path would also offer the opportunity to outline a visionary policy platform akin to Ross Garnaut’s recent book Superpower. This is a potential Australia with a booming manufacturing sector based on our natural endowment of renewable energy. But could this vision of Australia be implemented in a different way, with less risk of the message being lost in the media?

The second path seems a compromise but would be arguably more effective. Labor could go soft on coal, akin to how Member for Hunter Joel Fitzgibbon handles the issue in the media. Fitzgibbon, head of the so-called “Labor Right” faction, seems to get far more airtime than most Labor members in the mainstream media. He would argue that this is exactly what Labor needs.

Instead of ambitious renewable energy targets, their campaigning would focus on jobs in the fossil fuel industry, taking the target off their back in the media. With a more palatable message for those with real power in this country, they might have a better chance of winning the next election. Both Queensland and Western Australian state Labor parties’ shift in this direction has proven effective. They will be key states for Labor in this Federal election given their high concentration of carbon workers.

Once in office, far from supporting the fossil fuel industry, the Labor Party could simply let the free market take hold. Without subsidies for projects like the Adani coal mine, they aren’t likely to go ahead. Rather than ruling these projects out and making themselves vulnerable in the media, they could stay ambivalent, knowing full well that the clean energy wave has arrived. In this way, the "superpower" vision could be implemented through a side-door called the free market.

This approach, of course, comes with its own risks. Disenfranchising environment-focused voters and having them offloaded to other parties like the Greens is one downside. Another risk is that of the media changing their narrative, being dynamic in their attacks of Labor, regardless. Sky News’ attacks on Fitzgibbon’s comments on China is one such example.

Whichever path the Labor Party chooses, there is always merit in being conscious of the options.

Tim Cornwall is a writer and video creator with interests in politics, media bias, technology and philosophy. You can follow Tim on Twitter @tijaco_.

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