Opinion

As things stand, a reform-minded federal Labor government could, with strong policies and political will, lead the effort to arrest this tidal wave of decline. By Peter Garrett.

Peter Garrett
Why the ALP must focus its policy on the environment

Politics in 2016 is shrinking. It is hollowing out and spiralling in weird directions that are hard to discern, especially through the din of the internet echo chamber.

The government is beset from within by fractious elements, and from without by a rebellious senate replete with cranks and bottom-feeding minor parties. 

A compelling narrative, the Holy Grail so beloved of political strategists, is absent. Issues that are pressing and once made headlines have all but disappeared from view.

That is certainly true of my love and former portfolio, the environment. Throughout the mid-to-late 1980s, the environment consistently rated highly as an issue of concern for voters.

In the early 2000s, with a long drought hammering the eastern states, climate change, or global warming as it was more commonly described, emerged as a leading issue, but by then environment had moved down the list of topics that agitated the electorate.

The irony here is that greenhouse gas emissions were heading off the graph, and, as charted in successive “State of the Environment” reports, on most indices the environmental health of Australia was going backwards. 

The Howard government refused to accept that dangerous climate change would threaten Australia. For many conservatives, it simply didn’t exist, despite significant and growing consensus from climate scientists.

One of the main motivations for me to enter the parliament in 2004 was the lack of action on what a Labor prime minister would later call “the great moral challenge of our generation”. Kevin Rudd’s subsequent retreat, along with the Greens’ refusal to support a scheme they believed was less than perfect, set back climate change reform several years, but did not diminish its importance.

The Gillard government eventually legislated for a price on carbon, and the sky didn’t fall in. It was a genuinely historic moment, even if the eyes of the media were fixed at the time on more sensational diversions, such as leadership tensions. 

In the midst of the current craziness of the “alt right” – both here and abroad – I believe Labor has a unique opportunity to cement its position as the “true party of protecting our natural environment”, as the shadow environment minister, Mark Butler, has put it.

Labor has always been the party of environmental reform. The Whitlam government blocked oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef, created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and established the first national environmental protection legislation. 

The Hawke government stopped the Franklin Dam, established Landcare, and secured protection of the Antarctic and Kakadu. 

More recently, including during my time as environment minister, the Rudd and Gillard governments legislated a price on carbon pollution, established a world-class series of marine reserves, and took the fight up to the Japanese over their sham whaling “science” like never before. 

Today, with Labor again a heartbeat away from government, I believe federal Labor’s increasingly low primary vote could be arrested if it unequivocally put environment at the centre of its policy and political focus.

In a way, this would be to simply make explicit what is usually the case – namely that steps to protect and conserve the environment are mostly the work of reforming Labor governments. 

Climate change is the obvious game changer, as much an economic as an environment issue.

In one corner stand the dinosaur coal economies. Their “dark satanic mills” continuing to pump ever increasing volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, compromising national economies with the risk of stranded assets in the short term, and life on Earth in the long term. 

In the opposite corner stand the new low-carbon economies, with revitalised manufacturing industries and increasing employment courtesy of a plethora of renewable and energy-efficient technologies on the go.

I know which corner I would want my country to be in. And given two million renewable jobs were added to the world economy over a two-year period, and the estimated growth in global investment in renewables from about $400 billion today to $2.5 trillion by 2035, the date by which temperatures need to stabilise at no more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, I know what corner Labor needs to stand in.

There’s a reason we are seeing more intense cyclones, why we are seeing the fate of the Great Barrier Reef hanging in the balance with recent severe coral bleaching, six years of continual drought in California costing billions, Pacific Island states leading the push to reduce emissions worldwide. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “It’s climate change, stupid.”

As things stand, a reform-minded federal Labor government could, with strong policies and political will, lead the effort to arrest this tidal wave of decline.

Scoffers beware. Consider that from the introduction of a price on carbon in 2011, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, previously on an upward trajectory, were reduced by some 40,000 tonnes.

Partnering this success came hundreds of millions of dollars recycled into renewable initiatives and research. It was a scheme that worked – a perfect circle, albeit a small one.

For an all-too-brief period, this scheme put paid to two insidious notions. The first was that governments can’t get anything right; the second, that the economic system would fall over if there was an impost on carbon pollution.

History records that Tony Abbott’s subsequent dismantling of a scheme he claimed would wreak unimaginable havoc on Australian communities – wiping the town of Whyalla off the map, for instance – was a successful political tactic for the Coalition.

Yet Abbott was wrong on every count, as the economy chugged along and emissions began to taper.

Abbott put a wrecking ball through the new economy that was meeting the climate change challenge, and the country was poorer for his success. National environment and climate policy have been in the doldrums ever since.

The crisis of faith in our institutions, including political parties, arises in part from the understandable view that the only reason these institutions exist is to channel and formalise the pursuit of power.

But this is selling the democratic experience short. It’s a kind of cynicism that disempowers those who might want to contribute, and it reduces any analysis of political action into a “what’s in it for him or her?” charade.

Such a mean-spirited view flies in the face of history, the great teacher, that shows time and again progressive governments, pushed by political activists, empowered by their citizens, supported by their members, are always needed to deliver big changes.

It is on this question of empowerment that I want to conclude.

In the run-up to the 2016 election, a cross-factional grouping, known as LEAN (the Labor Environment Action Network), with support from many Labor branches, actively sought to improve Labor’s policy in the area of renewable energy.

They organised, lobbied, discussed, worked with unions and the party leadership, and ultimately helped secure significant policy improvements of a 50 per cent renewable energy target, and strong emission reduction targets in the national platform.

They recognised that for a party founded on the principle of fairness, failing to act resolutely on climate change was nothing less than a betrayal of history. 

It is this capacity to organise, to have faith that imperfect institutions can change, to recognise that real reform is hard work but being a part of a political party enables that effort, that created this achievement. 

What would a road map to a low-carbon economy with a healthy environment look like?

First, it would have strong national leadership and strong environment laws to protect our natural treasures, and ensure healthy productive landscapes.

Second, substantial emissions reduction targets, a price on pollution and focused investment to accelerate the shift from coal to renewable energy.

Third, a reconfigured tax system to encourage the move away from fossil fuels into renewables and energy efficiency.

Fourth, co-ordinated long-overdue national investment in infrastructure to make our cities healthier, easier places in which to live and work. 

Finally, international co-operation and action on climate change, as a leader not a laggard, delivering real reductions on greenhouse pollution, aiming to exceed our promises under the recently signed Paris agreement.

Many of these initiatives are already in policy. Many have their supporters both inside and outside Labor. A whole-of-party embrace gets them over the line.

This is an edited extract of the J. K. McDougall Lecture.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 29, 2016 as "Environmental pressure". Subscribe here.

Peter Garrett
was the federal Labor member for Kingsford Smith from 2004-13.