In the past, The Greens have demonstrated they can work constructively with Labor on climate and have the momentum of bigger support than ever before to help them navigate the challenges of using influence wisely
By Rob Delves, Green Issue Co-editor
The recent federal election has delivered The Greens our strongest-ever representation in Parliament. This presents us with a tantalising array of opportunities to influence decisions. Climate change is almost certainly the number one issue and this is a shared priority with the six Teals in the Lower House. This was indeed a “Climate Election” and surveys show a clear majority want much stronger progress towards emissions reduction and the transition to a clean energy economy.
So, the times should suit us, but that doesn’t mean that our decision-making about the give and take of working with Labor on climate will be easy. What follows are my personal thoughts about the possibilities and challenges of influencing Labor towards much more effective climate action, based on what I’ve observed in our past attempts at cooperation and what I see as the major similarities and differences that Labor and The Greens presented in the election.
Lessons from the Past
We’ve been here before on climate.
The first example was voting against Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) in 2009. Rudd and Climate Minister Penny Wong negotiated with the Turnbull Coalition, especially over items such as more free permits for heavy polluters and compensation for coal power stations. However, they consistently refused to even talk to The Greens, who offered many suggestions to improve the weak 5% by 2020 reduction target. After Abbott rolled Turnbull and rejected any action on climate change, Rudd continued to refuse to even speak to The Greens about our amendments, such as adopting Ross Garnaut’s idea of beginning with a fixed price and then moving to a floating price on carbon.
At this late stage, with Labor aware that the CPRS would almost certainly fail, it was leaked to the press that they were going to defer the matter for three years. As several opinion writers pointed out, if Rudd was prepared to meekly abandon his commitment to addressing “the greatest moral challenge of our times” then what does he stand for? Yet Labor soon proceeded to fix the failure of the CPRS totally on The Greens, accusing us of “an unforgiveable act of bastardry… that put action on climate change back many, many years” (Greg Combet).
I regard this as a massive over-simplification. My favourite Democracy pundit, Judith Brett, wrote about this saga in an article whose title says it all – Kevin Rudd’s Narcissism. She barely mentions The Greens, except to note that “Rudd refused to meet with Greens Senate leaders Bob Brown and Christine Milne.” The best and most detailed analysis I could find was by Paddy Manning in his book Inside the Greens. He regards this relentless attack on The Greens as little more than “elaborate face-saving” on Labor’s part. However, he does acknowledge the dilemma articulated by Ross Garnaut early in proceedings: “a danger that the best could become the enemy of the good.”
Was this the first articulation of the criticism that is hurled at The Greens with ever increasing predictability whenever we oppose anything? In the case of the CPRS, The Greens faced an even greater dilemma because many believed that Rudd’s offering wasn’t a matter of “not good enough” but simply “not even good.” The Greens had strong legal advice that the bill would lock in failure in several ways. Interestingly, when Rudd dropped the CPRS (remember he could have used its defeat to trigger a double dissolution election), he decided to run instead with a timid Mining Resources Rent Tax, which Gillard further watered down when she replaced him. The Greens voted it through in the Senate, despite many misgivings, best summed up by Scott Ludlam: “It was a choice between a piss-weak mining tax or nothing at all.” Well said, but basically Scott was expressing the truth or dilemma of Ross Garnaut in more street-wise language. Maybe we fell in line this time because our MPs were worn down by all the conflict over the CPRS. However, I think it’s mainly our recognition that getting it right on climate change is uniquely important because it is an existential threat to life on our beautiful planet.
The second example is our cooperation with Gillard to produce the Carbon Package in 2011-12. This was a historic success story that the International Energy Agency hailed as “template legislation” for carbon pricing for other nations. Why the difference to the CPRS debacle? The first reason is that with Adam Bandt entering the Lower House and more Greens in the Senate, Labor lacked a majority in both houses and needed to reach agreement with The Greens to form government. The deal was that in return for guaranteeing supply and confidence, Gillard committed to a carbon package by July 2012, using a multi-party committee supported by eminent climate scientists and Ross Garnaut.
The second reason is that Gillard wasn’t Rudd, so Christine Milne’s negotiating skills were allowed to let rip. Thrashing out the details of the package involved months of furious disagreement over many things, for example the level of compensation for coal-fired power stations and the inclusion of petrol and diesel. I recall Scott Ludlam presenting the final results to a packed meeting at The Greens Office and responding to several people who were disappointed with several aspects, especially the exclusion of petrol and diesel.
Scott made it clear that this wasn’t a Greens package: to give just one example, the two rural Independent MPs wouldn’t budge on allowing petrol to be included. But it was still a very worthwhile, comprehensive set of Clean Energy Acts that went far beyond anything Australia had ever produced in climate and energy policy. Scott was fulsome in his praise for the persistence and skills of Julia Gillard and Christine Milne.
The process worked and the legislation resulted in historic emissions reductions. A small but moving end note was that on retirement both Gillard and Milne chose to mark their legacies by presenting a signed copy of the Clean Energy Acts to the Democracy Museum in Canberra.
What can we learn from these two examples?
We can work constructively with Labor to produce important progressive outcomes, especially in the contentious climate change area (we’ve also demonstrated this for years in the ACT government). It requires that Labor, as the more powerful partner, acts like Gillard and not like Rudd. Progress demands that both sides show an appreciation of where the other is coming from. Applying this to 2022, The Greens should acknowledge that Labor’s caution is borne out of the harsh experience of being hammered over nine long wilderness years for its “reckless climate ambition” – and before that Abbott’s and Murdoch’s relentless negativity about the Carbon Tax that would destroy household budgets. Equally, Labor must acknowledge The Greens and the Teals represent a large number of people demanding much more urgency – a supposedly “radical, unreasonable” position that just happens to be supported by the International Energy Agency, the secretary-general of the UN, the IPCC and virtually every climate science expert on the planet.
Albanese has made much of his desire to “end the climate wars.” This is admirable but also problematic if Albanese’s solution to ending the political bickering over climate policy is to accept far too much of the Coalition’s “just pretend to be doing something” approach. That consensus-seeking might indeed end the war over climate and energy policy, but the price we pay will be to lose the far more important war to stop global heating (let’s note in passing that the Coalition’s policies resulted in Australia’s emissions increasing by 1.8% last year).
In his opening address to the recent National Conference, Adam Bandt laid out The Greens climate change priorities:
“The biggest fight is going to be on the climate. This was the biggest issue for many this election. The Liberals and Nationals have wasted so much time on this critical issue. So let us be very clear. We will oppose every single one of the 114 new coal and gas projects. We will push as hard as we can for a more rapid transition to renewables. Coal and gas are dangerous, they’re lining the pockets of corporations and billionaires who don’t pay their fair share of tax, while sucking up billions in public money. And in October we will use our numbers in the Parliament to amend the Budget to stop the handouts to the fossil fuel industry.”
So, with that in mind, let’s begin with the positives, the best possibilities for consensus and cooperation.
Lest We Forget: Happy Days Really Are Here Again
In the last nine years, we’ve been in no position to influence decisions and the Coalition made it abundantly clear it had no interest in listening to us. Despite its timidity, this Labor government is more ambitious and committed to action than the Coalition. Let’s keep remembering our success in 2011-12 and its contrast to the disaster of the nine years after. Let’s remember that Albanese is more like Gillard than Rudd and he’s not Morrison – he won’t bring a lump of coal into Parliament (OK, maybe a Woodside gas bottle?). So, we can support some things.
I’d start with Labor’s two 2030 targets – 43% cut in emissions and 82% of electricity from renewable sources. I get that 43% is “not good enough” but it’s better than “not even good.” So we should support this target, though insist that it be seen as a floor and not a ceiling. We expect this minimum to be exceeded. Given the relentless and accelerating advance of the wind and solar revolution, especially rooftop solar, the combined efforts of private enterprise and most state governments should ensure we cruise past 43% before 2030 – with Greens prodding, maybe well past. Even without our prodding, Labor will be obliged to improve their own target, because the Paris Agreement demands that all countries come back in 2025 with much bolder targets towards 2035 goals.
Given the above, I don’t think we should expend much energy criticising the targets, other than insisting they must be seen as minimums. Instead our focus should be on actions rather than promises: holding Labor to account on the real emissions cuts achieved under its watch each year. A minimum of 43% over the remaining seven years to 2030 means cuts of at least 6% each year. The real cuts matter much more than the policy target.
We can also work with Labor’s early promising steps to improve relations with the Pacific Island nations We should strongly support Penny Wong’s statement at the recent Pacific Islands Forum: “I know the imperative we all share to take serious action to reduce emissions and transform our economies….Nothing is more central to the security and economies of the Pacific.” Applaud this early initiative, but keep reminding Labor that the very existence of these nations depends on keeping global heating well below two degrees. And finally, Labor should enjoy our support of its commitment of $20Bn for network upgrades to enable the renewables transition. Essential stuff.
All good so far, but what about the Negatives?
Adam Bandt’s address named two key points where Labor is not even close to good enough, is in fact just plain bad. The first is the excessive power of the Fossil Fuel Corporations. Labor, just like the Coalition, is compromised on climate action by the backing of fossil fuel donors. For example, the 2020 AEC returns showed that Labor and the Coalition received fairly equal shares of the $1,353, 202 from fossil fuel donors, which represented only a fraction of the total according to Market Forces.
Then there’s the massive influence of lobbyists and the infamous revolving door – these carefully cultivated links give fossil fuel corporations enormous power over both major parties. Their lobbying is relentless and intense. The frequency and ease with which the revolving door operates in both directions is an embarrassment and threat to democracy. Alexander (“Woodside”) Downer is a famous example, matched on the Labor side by Martin Ferguson, Resources Minister in the 2007-13 government, who promptly became a board member with a gas company and later with APPEA.
The Greens should be able to work closely with the Teals to reduce this excessive power, as both are committed to action on Integrity and Corruption. State Capture should be a high priority here.
The second is new fossil fuel projects: 114 and counting. Madeleine King appears to love those new fossil fuel projects with a passionate intensity equal to that of Angus Taylor. Almost her first words were to reassure the gas industry that it was part of the transition to net zero and its expansion plans were guaranteed. We can certainly argue that this vast expansion of coal and gas exports is incompatible with preserving the Great Barrier Reef, a safe climate for our children, and so on. However, in my opinion we should complement this with positive messaging around good global citizenship and the reality of our future economic opportunities. Bill Hare of Climate Analytics, implores Labor to:
“develop a new global climate strategy, away from the devotion to feeding our demand for fossil fuels – one that works with others to change the geopolitics of energy and quickly promote the development of Paris Agreement-aligned markets for renewable hydrogen, renewable ammonia, green steel. Australia is well-placed to pull this off. We have our own entrepreneurs in this space who have the energy, drive and capital to strongly initiate this.”
Decisions, tough decisions: when to rigidly oppose Labor, when to fully agree, and when to adopt positions in the myriad spaces between these extremes. However, I have faith in the new, enthusiastic Greens and Teals, who enter Parliament from all walks of life and have no allegiance to the fossil fuel industry.
Header photo: Climate activists outside the Fremantle Railway Station on 4th May.
[Opinions expressed are those of the author and not official policy of Greens WA]