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In an attempt to win back Queensland voters, Anthony Albanese expressed support for coal exports this week, confirming that Labor’s path back to government remains fraught. By Karen Middleton.

Labor changes message on coal

Queensland senator Murray Watt (left) and Labor leader Anthony Albanese in Brisbane on Tuesday.
Credit: AAP Image / Albert Perez

In late April, as Bob Brown’s Stop Adani convoy reached the Queensland mining town of Clermont, the Labor Party’s tracking polling left little doubt as to what the locals thought – and that they lumped Labor in with it.

Conducted across 20 marginal seats in Queensland, urban and rural, the polling showed, according to party sources, a five-percentage-point plunge in Labor’s primary vote in just a few days.

It was three weeks before the May 18 federal election.

Senior Labor figures now acknowledge their party’s position on coalmining was not the only issue turning Queenslanders against them. In city seats and the coastal retirement belt, in particular, their tax policies were also biting badly in the election lead-up.

In week-by-week election tracking polling, numbers rarely moved more than one or two percentage points in a single mid-campaign week, so a shift of that magnitude was stark.

At the time, some party insiders – and others later, with hindsight – deemed the convoy responsible.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese’s own overland voyage through central Queensland this week began a bid to win back support in the Sunshine – and key coal-exporting – State.

It also signalled a contentious change in Labor’s messaging on coal and climate change, which risks eroding its support elsewhere.

One senior Labor figure described it as not a policy shift but a shift away from prevarication.

Under former leader Bill Shorten, Labor was accused of trying to say different things in different parts of the country. Albanese is seeking to knit back together those unravelled strands of Labor constituencies – the inner-city environmental activists and the regional workers whose livelihoods depend directly on the land, especially what lies beneath it.

The new Labor leader argues that debate on coalmining was previously reduced to a false choice between jobs and action on climate change.

“It’s got to be jobs and climate change – talking about the opportunity that’s there,” Albanese told The Saturday Paper this week. “… We need to be truthful with people and we need to have strong [emissions reduction] targets and I believe we need at least as strong action on climate change as we’ve had. I’ve been committed for a very long time. I’ve been active in the space.”

He continues to oppose opening new coalmines, arguing the economics don’t stack up.

But the way he’s now talking about existing mining, prior approvals and exports has shocked and angered those who believe his plain speaking should instead be focused on ending the coal industry in Australia.

“If Australia stopped exporting coal tomorrow it would not reduce … emissions and what we need to do is work towards change that reduces emissions domestically and globally,” Albanese told The Saturday Paper, arguing that coal from other countries would fill the void left by Australian exports.

“That’s the challenge … What we need to do is reduce our own domestic emissions, but we also need to work within international agreements to try to strengthen them,” he said.

The changed language, launched on a four-day swing through central Queensland – which involved more than a dozen local media interviews, several national interviews and seven news conferences – reflects the findings of Labor’s recently published election review.

Labor’s “ambiguous language” on the Adani Carmichael mine proposal in Queensland’s Galilee Basin in the lead-up to the election, the review said, contributed significantly to its disastrous result – not only in Queensland but also in the New South Wales coalmining seat of Hunter.

“It sent a message to voters in parts of regional Queensland and in the Hunter Valley that Labor did not value them or the work they do,” the review said, adding that the convoy magnified the problem.

“A perception that Labor was not supportive of the mining industry may have also hurt the party across the rest of Queensland,” the review continued. “Labor should recognise coalmining will be an Australian industry into the foreseeable future and develop regional jobs plans based on the competitive strengths of different regions.”

The review also said Labor should “focus on renewable energy and the jobs it creates, link its renewable energy policies to lower electricity prices and emphasise the important role government should play in assuring this essential service”.

It said the party should increase awareness of the cost of climate inaction.

The left-wing Labor leader’s politically challenging repositioning on coal is driven by the evidence that his party cannot win government with mixed messages. It also can’t win without increasing its numbers in Queensland well beyond the six out of 30 seats it now holds.

As another Labor figure told The Saturday Paper: “We do actually have to try to be in government to bring about change.”

 

The new Labor leadership believes it does not need to convince coalminers and farmers that climate change is a problem because they already know that.

Instead, they say the shift is about respecting these constituents who don’t want their families and communities written off as collateral damage on the way to addressing climate change, as Labor’s pre-election double-dealing convinced them they could be.

The party’s new focus is on handling the transition to a phase-out of fossil fuels – the speed and the nature of it.

“The lesson of the last decade is that you need to bring people with you and you need to build a broader constituency for action on climate change, because we’ve seen the gains made under the former Labor government, under both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, swept away,” Albanese told The Saturday Paper.

He said the government had “no renewable energy target beyond 2020” and was relying on an accountancy trick involving “carryover credits” – on-paper credits accumulated through exceeding the low reduction targets from former commitments – to justify lessening future efforts.

“We have no accountability, no credibility on the international stage and no energy policy to drive the transition through the national economy,” Albanese said. “The idea that Australia, by itself, can create a different framework is just not the case … I want to work with people of goodwill, but you can’t work with people and build strong action on climate change by just yelling at people.”

Now some Labor supporters are yelling at him, accusing him of merely adopting the language of conservative opponents of climate action, including former prime minister Tony Abbott.

Celebrated Tasmanian-based writer Richard Flanagan gave voice to that frustration in what he labelled the speech Albanese should have given this week.

“I am announcing that our policy of appeasement of the coal industry ends here and now,” says Flanagan’s mock-Albanese dissertation, published by Guardian Australia.

“Today I say to the fossil fuel industry this: we will no longer gift you endless billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money in subsidies and tax breaks, only in order to see the Australian people’s gift repaid as more fire, worse drought, rising seas, more floods, increased cyclones, soot in our lungs and despair in our souls.”

The fury on the left has further ignited some on the party’s right.

Labor’s national president and former treasurer and Queensland MP Wayne Swan has lashed those attacking Albanese’s stance.

“I take great offence to being lectured by people who were missing in action in 2011, 2012 and 2013 when we were being vilified [for introducing a carbon price],” Swan told The Saturday Paper.

“The hypocrisy of that is galling.”

He said some supporters of action on climate change had focused their attention on just one coalmine – Adani’s Carmichael mine – instead of taking a broader approach.

“They ought to train their guns on the people who are responsible for this, and they are the people who got rid of the carbon price,” Swan said.

“Yes, we should substantially reduce our dependence on fossil fuels … but it’s simply wrong and ineffective to think that knocking off one or two Australian coal exporters will have any impact on the international architecture required to substantially reduce emissions. That is simply not so.”

A spokesperson for activist group Frontline Action on Coal condemned Labor’s shift in emphasis. The group has led Queensland protests against Adani, which obtained its final federal government approvals just before the election.

“It’s very disappointing that at a time when we’re seeing Australians all around this country express a desire for more action on climate change and linking fires to climate change that Labor are quite clearly playing political games, factoring in what is going to win them an election,” spokesperson Andy Paine told The Saturday Paper.

Paine said Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government had lacked leadership and this was an opportunity for Labor to step up the pressure.

“Instead, they seem to be more concerned about the semantics of how to appeal to Queensland voters,” Paine said.

As Albanese began his Queensland tour, Resources Minister Matt Canavan accused him of still being tricky.

“I haven’t heard Anthony Albanese say three simple words: ‘I support Adani’,” Canavan told Sky News. “… Can he say ‘I support Adani’? Because if he supports the export of coal as he is saying … and he supports coal jobs, what would he have against opening up a new coalmine in the Galilee Basin?”

Some of Albanese’s own right-wing colleagues would like him to say it, too. He won’t.

“Look, Adani has been approved – it’s been approved,” Albanese said when Canavan’s challenge was put to him during a radio interview in Rockhampton on Wednesday. “… The question is, for Adani actually, why hasn’t it met its own deadlines? It should get on with it. People want to see jobs created.”

The credibility problem is not Labor’s alone.

As Albanese embraces coal exports, Morrison and his colleagues are scrambling to respond to the visceral anger – especially in the prime minister’s home state of NSW – at perceived unresponsiveness on both climate change and on fire relief while the state literally burns.

Having said previously that firefighters had enough resources, on Thursday the government announced another $11 million to boost aerial firefighting capacity. Morrison also responded to questions linking the fires with climate change.

“We will continue to work to reduce our emissions, as we should,” Morrison said. “… I’m a Sydneysider and I know how unusual it is to see that haze across my city and I know how distressing that has been, particularly for young people, who wouldn’t have seen that before. And so that is why, I think, it is important to have a sense of calm about these matters and calm on the basis of information, which says Australia is reducing our emissions, Australia is taking action, Australia is getting results.”

That’s two leaders, both downplaying the role of Australia’s coal exports in achieving global emissions reductions, and both focused on results – the results of the last election and of the next one.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 14, 2019 as "Coal custody". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.