The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast

What does Australia's new Labor government mean for climate politics?

August 04, 2022 Economy Land & Climate Insight Team
The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast
What does Australia's new Labor government mean for climate politics?
Show Notes Transcript

On 23 May 2022, the Australian Labor Party entered government for the first time since 2013, under the leadership of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Alasdair spoke to Dr. Marija Taflaga, Director of the Australian National University's Center for the Study of Australian Politics, to talk about shifting climate politics in the county, and what the new government could mean for the green transition.

Further reading: 

  • 'The frontline: Inside Australia's climate emergency' in The Guardian. Read here
  • Superpower: Australia's Low-Carbon Opportunity by Ross Garnaut. Read more and purchase here
  • How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference by Rebecca Huntley. Read more and purchase here
  • The Carbon Club: How a network of influential climate sceptics, politicians and business leaders fought to control Australia's climate policy by Marian Wilkinson, Allen and Unwin, 2020
Alasdair:

Hello, and welcome to the Economy, Land and Climate Podcast. My name is Alasdair MacEwen and in this episode I spoke to Dr. Marija Taflaga, Director of the Center for Study of Australian politics at the Australian National University in Canberra. I spoke to her about the recent change of government in Australia and the implications for climate policy.

Marija:

The sad reality is the coalition is still in that frame of you know, delay is the new denial, it's still not necessarily really willing to imagine what a green energy Australia looks like. The problem for them, though, is that this is the worst election result since they were thrown out of office in the '40s.

Alasdair:

I began by asking Marija for her take on how the change in government had come about, and the extent to which the impacts of climate change have influenced Australian voters.

Marija:

I think for anyone who probably has like a passing interest in Australian politics, you would know that we have something called the climate wars, which a lot of other countries have thankfully been spared. And what this essentially amounts to is it boils down to the fact that in our country, we dig up a lot of minerals, including coal, gas, fossil fuels, and we ship them. And that is how we make money in this country. And we also have a lot of cows. And you know, we send that stuff overseas, too. So the emissions and emission intense resources are an enormous and important part of the Australian economy. Even if we were to look at it relative to other parts of the economy, emotionally as well, fossil fuels, agriculture, are really big core components of the Australian polity. And the way the Australian electorate is organised means that these interests are actually really well represented in parliament. So the National Party, which is actually our sort of farmers party, has increasingly become a miner's party. This has been like a core reason why we have sort of seen climate action in Australia contested. There's been like progress, and then literally the repeal of mechanisms to reduce carbon in this country. So you know, it's often sort of referred to as the carbon club. And I guess what this election has shown, and this new government being elected, it's sort of I think, finally, is the back of the carbon club has been broken. And that is because Llabor hasn't really won, you know, like a thumping majority in its own right, what has actually sort of happened is that a segment of the sort of centre right voting bloc has actually broken away and voted for a collection of what we would call teal independents, i.e. blue and green, progressive, cosmopolitan, wealthy, high value wealth, climate concerned voters, and they've essentially abandoned the Liberal National Coalition, and voted for this new voting bloc. And then we've also seen our Green Party do really well in Queensland where these kinds of teal candidates didn't appear. So Llabor actually just scraped through on one vote. And there is this big block of sort of grayish candidates. And so this has been a long time in the making.

Alasdair:

It's actually a kind of shift in the right that you're talking about, in the sense that there's been a shift in how a part of the right has viewed climate change in a sense. Is that something that's fair to say?

Marija:

Yeah! The centre right coalition in Australia has lost its core heartland, right? Like these are these are the parts of the country that are some of the wealthiest seats in the country, and that have voted centre right for whichever centre right party has existed since the country began. So it's a really big and shocking development. What is not really clear, I guess, is like, you know, once we kind of move through to some sort of action on climate change whether or not these voters return to the coalition fold, or whether or not this is the beginning of something kind of new, or potentially, like some new form of centre right coalition that might emerge out of the wreckage. It is a really big deal, and it sort of makes the politics of climate continue to sort of be kind of complex, you know, and that's because there's lots of jobs and interests involved and they are actually really clearly pitted against each other and they are cutting across traditional left right cleavages. So the centre right parties have been going for traditional coal mining Labor seats in the hopes of sort of winning these voters and in some cases, they have kind of succeeded in doing that. In parts of Queensland they are picking up mining seats. But you know, they have now actually kind of lost their traditional funding base. So what they choose to do now is as a matter of internal debate, but the irony I guess is that the losses have been so devastating that the party is now dominated by its Queensland branch, which doesn't seem to be that concerned. They're not talking about winning back these voters, they're basically saying these voters are too privileged, they're too wealthy, they're not worrying about the cost of living, and that's why they can afford to worry about the environment. And I guess for those constituencies that have abandoned the coalition, you know, well, they see it as an existential life or death thing. And, I mean, we've experienced the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, like every year since 2019, it was fire, then we had a mouse plague, which is also related to climate change. Then we had COVID. So we had plague, and then we had floods, right? Like, I mean, there are there are literally people whose houses have been flooded three times since the beginning of this year, like 11 meter high water rises, like crazy stuff,

Alasdair:

Is it fair to say that there'll be some kind of moderate climate policy changes in the near future?

Marija:

So to give your listeners some context, the previous government promised a reduction of 26% on 2005 levels, right, which is practically nothing, and which is why they were always going to say we're going to meet and beat our targets, right? Because they set the bar so low that of course, they could easily just slide over the top of it. And Australia has a habit of that. Actually, we continuously do that. I mean, I think the reason why we were able to meet our Kyoto targets was because we basically said we'd stop land clearing. So what this government is proposing to do is to reduce carbon emissions by 43% by 2030. So in the 2009 election, they promised to reduce it by 44% by 2030. But they have essentially said, 'well, this is the best we can do given we have eight years to do it, or really seven years to do it'. And they are proposing to legislate this, essentially to bind future governments, though, of course, we had a carbon tax, right? It was unwound by a future parliament. So there are no guarantees. But the rhetoric around this has sort of shifted that, you know, 43% be a floor rather than a ceiling. And there are sort of simultaneous kind of other kinds of conversations going on, like one relates to the fact that, well, there'll be another COP meeting and we'll have to set a 2035 target and Labor is already sort of signaling that this will be more ambitious, the fact that they want 43% to be a floor rather than a ceiling suggests that they will, you know, they'll do whatever they can to sort of, I guess, promote a sort of speedier transition. And importantly, there is a lot of discussion around changing conservation laws, and environmental protection laws. This is really important in the Australian context, right? Like land clearing is a major contributor to climate change, or climate emissions in Australia. We recently I think, last week, had the state of the environment report released and this report is absolutely devastating. It has revealed that Australia has cleaved I think in the last decade or 15 years, land the size of Scotland. And a bunch of - pretty much nearly every single Australian iconic animal is now on, you know, like, on a sort of like, 'you should be alert and alarmed' kind of list. And some are seriously endangered. Nearly every single biome we have is currently, you know, is under pressure, except for I think a lot of our marine environments, excluding the Great Barrier Reef, of course. All of these predictions about the kind of catastrophic fires and floods. Policymakers have known about this and predicted these things, you know, more than like 15 years ago, and they have have kind of come to pass, you know, Australia was always because it is such a land of extremes, like, you know, it was always going to be a canary in the coal mine. Unfortunately, that future has kind of come to pass. And it's crazy when parts of your largest city are repeatedly being inundated by once in a 500 year events.

Alasdair:

You've talked a little bit about the new parliament and the makeup of the new parliament. I mean, I wondered if you could go into a little bit more detail about that, because I think that's really interesting for listeners to kind of understand how that interaction will work in terms of making legislation. The other part which is also around just the the Australian civil service, for example, and how government, you know, government officials may be working on this and in many European countries, the issues have been around the economic ministries and finance ministries and so on. I just wondered if you had a view on how the Treasury thinking, the Australian Treasury thinking, might be positive or negative on this and how that might change. And then finally, how the lobbies are going to be working. And particularly, as you've mentioned, already, the fairly large fossil fuel lobby, as you know, Australia being the third third largest exporter of fossil fuels globally, and also, perhaps something about the unions. So I'm trying to get you to cover just about everything. That'd be great. Thanks.

Marija:

So let's start with parliament. So Labor has a bare majority in the lower house. So the teal independents as it were, like, if Labor wants to ignore them, they can. But you know, the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, he's been there since 1996. And he is someone who actually has also been the leader of the house. So the guy that basically runs tactics, and he's done that job for a really long time, when Labor was in government, he's done it in opposition, you know, he really does understand the chamber. And he's been around long enough to kind of know that it can't hurt him actually, to give the teals enough wins that, you know, previous Liberal Party voters will keep voting for them, right? And stop the coalition from being able to come back into government. And that's really crucial for Labor because they only have a one seat majority, you know, their primary vote was one third, right, which in Australian terms, where we have compulsory voting like this is mind blowing to us that a party would form a government with just one third of the vote, whereas of course, that's quite common in the UK. But in the Senate, right, it's an entirely don't have different dynamic, the government doesn't have a majority. Governments tend not to, in essence, they can pass pretty much anything if the Greens agree to it. The Greens are interesting, in Australia, in the sense that, I guess they're a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde kind of party. Like, they're sort of the fusion of green activists, traditional green activists, and old left Trotskyites. And I think over time, green activists are winning out. So it has sort of pulled the Greens into, I guess, two different directions. One being, I guess, more like a German style Greens Party that is very focused and disciplined in grinding out legislative parliamentary outcomes that, you know, over 30 years, they can point to the shutting down of the nuclear industry, for example. And then I guess, the kind of like, ideologically pure, 'it's important to never like, you know, betray our values' bloc. So that's sort of where the Greens find themselves now, like the current leader is, I think, quite pragmatic. And then there is a debate within the Greens about, you know, managing this, but yes, it will shape how they try to, I guess, extract concessions out of Labor to pass this legislation in the Senate, because of course, if it doesn't get passed in the Senate, it doesn't really matter how many times it's approved in the lower house, without like, getting into like double disillusion triggers and things like that. The Greens have sort of moderated their position a bit from, you know, essentially really sort of sabre rattling, saying this 43% is not enough to a new position saying they want no new coal mines, because, of course, I think, as they like to say, you know, you can't put the fire out if you're pouring petrol onto it. And this demand for no new coal mines really kind of actually highlights why climate policy is so difficult in Australia, like, not only are Australians like per capita, some of the worst emitters, right, because they drive a lot, have air conditioning, and all of that, but our emissions doesn't even count like all the stuff we dig up and send overseas, right? And that 43% reduction, like makes no reference to all the stuff we will dig up and send overseas. So this is sort of why the Greens have kind of moved to this new position. And Labor has been pretty blunt, but they're not going to go for that. And for lots of reasons like one, the budget balance sheets are in terrible shape like a lot of countries, but two, like it goes against core parts of their voting bloc's interests, and three, I mean, you know, if they cave to the Greens on that the coalition will say that they are, the Greens are the tail that wags the dog. I can't remember the phrase but you know, the Greens are controlling the Labor Party, which is something that Labor is terrified of and also Labor hates the Greens like they just hate them. Labor and the Greens, they loathe each other because they're competing for the same group of votes. And I think lots of Labor people feel frustrated by the Greens because the Greens kind of get to be all ideologically pure. And the Labor Party has to actually build a coalition to govern and actually hold government. Having said all that, this debate around changing the conservation laws and the environmental laws, these are the kinds of things where changes to these laws could have really big material effects on whether or not projects are given the green light to go ahead, you know, looking at that detail of how those laws are changed, I think that will give us an indication of how ambitious or not Labor is and what kinds of pressures they are facing from the unions, from lobby groups. I don't think any of their direct rhetoric will tell us much, but yeah, those changes to law will tell us a lot. I guess in terms of the civil service, there is still quite a lot of capacity to think along these lines. It's not as if the Australian civil service hasn't been thinking about climate mechanisms and how to design them. I mean, the Environment Minister tried to introduce a carbon pricing mechanism back in 2004 which was rejected by the then Howard government or Howard as Prime Minister. But of course, Howard promised to introduce a carbon pricing mechanism in 2007. And ironically, had he won that election we probably would be pricing carbon in Australia right now, which sort of goes to show how these things work out. In the case of the unions, they will seek to represent the best interests of their members. And I guess it will boil down to you know, how effective they are at extracting a meaningful transition program, right? Because if you look at the the decline of the auto industry in Australia, well, that was just disastrous, you know, we had the 1990s recession, a whole bunch of manufacturing went to the wall, those people never worked again, you know, is a similar story to what you saw in the industrial heartlands of the United Kingdom. But that is not Are we past the age of climate denial in Australia? And within a big part of the Australian debate, like the Australian debate, led by the unions at the moment is really centered around inflation, and cost of living. And this will be a major that context, you know, we have global economic gloom in a challenge for the government to balance right, the fact that you have this immediate term problem of having to deal with the cost of living, and then having to weight it against these medium sense. And to what extent that really will impact? I think term problems, though, in Australia, you know, floods and fires are pretty front of mind. But yes, even so, like, there's always that temptation to deal with today's problem, which is, you've you've partly answered that. So you don't actually I guess why some of the government is returning a bunch of statutory authorities, I forgotten the precise name of them now, that's escoping me. But they essentially will report think that it's at all realistic, that there will be on the state of the climate every year and give politicians advice. I think it will be really interesting to see whether or not in Australia and other countries, we start to any kind of longer term form of decision making in the sense treat climate targets like we treat interest rates i.e. something that politicians should not be in charge of, that should be done by like outside third party independent experts. that you've talked about, you know, in the sense of having Australia is nowhere near this stage. having institutions which take decisions, which are independent in the sense of policymakers or politicians, that's not at all realistic. For now, I think you're saying? Yeah, I think that's a really great question. Okay. So I'll answer your first bit first. So, yes, the age of denial is over Is it perhaps just that also because of the framing of the in Australia, but it has actually been for a while. But as we like to say here, 'delay, delay is the new denial'. And so that has been the discourse and delay - that is still well and truly alive. I think of potentially very potent set of political arguments that can be mobilised. And the cost of living crisis, the inflation crisis, makes these delay arguments extremely attractive, you know. I mean, maybe Tony Abbott is probably still talking the language of denial. Even the Scott Morrison government or, you know, the sort of Angus Taylor our energy minister is using the language of delay, and that that hasn't gone away at all. For those of you worried about climate change in Australia, like Labor kind of knows that it's existential, and that they need to do something about it. But that is why they want to be cautious and be seen to be cautious and judicious because that is still really potent. conversations around climate? Because they had been so confrontational that there there really just wasn't the space to then get into narratives or debates about developing a kind of green economy, etc. Oh, yeah. Okay, yes, you've hit the nail right on the head there. The coalition it to put it bluntly has been playing a dead bat for 15 years. And you can't have a debate. You just keep having 'no, no, no', you know, so the debate, it's never a discussion. One side says something and the other says 'you're going to destroy the economy'. And that's not a conversation, and Australia hasn't had a conversation. And the sad reality is that the coalition is still in that frame of, you know, delay is the new denial, they're still not necessarily really willing to imagine what a green energy Australia looks like. The problem for them though, is that this is their worst election result since they were thrown out of office in the '40s. Like it's a bad result for them. And there is this new sort of parliamentary green force, which no one knows what it's going to do. Noone knows if it's going to coalesce into a proper party, or what will happen, but you know, it might just be a blip, or it might be a realignment and if it's a realignment, then the coalition will adapt or die. And realistically, if it doesn't adapt, this new green block will either form like a party in its own right becoming like a Liberal Party, like you see in European systems and we'll have a conservative party and they might form coalitions, you know, to form government, like but the right is not going away in Australia like it just might not be a single party.

Alasdair:

Australia's international relationships. And for example, with China, even actually with with New Zealand, do Australian politicians kind of look to New Zealand, for example, in its path on climate change, and kind of pay any attention to that?

Marija:

Okay, that's a great question. So, in general, I don't really know why. But Australians tend to ignore New Zealand, which I think is chauvinistic, right? Like, we're just like, 'ah, yeah, you know, there our tiny little brother, we don't care about them'. And I think that's actually really interesting, because they definitely pay more attention to us. But New Zealand has done lots of really interesting and progressive things that I think Australia could do well to observe. But on to in terms of climate change. Like I think Australians are somewhat aware that action is taking place. But I think the number one thing people probably know is that New Zealand has carved out agriculture, there is a really complicated debate here. And the National Party itself is shifting on this, right, because there's a recognition that, you know, properly managing or integrating climate, and carbon into the economy actually provides opportunities for farmers to make money by looking after their land, through, you know, carbon sequestration, or simply planting more trees or not cutting down stuff, right? And shifting those incentive structures to give farmers income for when the times are bad, right, which is increasingly important as the climate is getting more and more variable and rainfall is getting more and more variable. We do pay an awful lot of attention to Chinese climate policy, like far more than what is going on in New Zealand for several reasons, like you know, largest trading partner, giant economic superpower. And also there's this new added dimension, right, which is sort of competition in the Pacific, which has dominated Australia's foreign policy outlook in the last sort of year or so. I mean, I think Australia has kind of really been neglectful of and has taken the Pacific for granted. And the Pacific has been saying, for 15 years, like with a megaphone, you need to do something about your climate stance, because this is actually like our major economic and security risk, like the sea is lapping at our feet. And in China, which is, you know, obviously like an enormous polluter, but which, in many ways has a bit of story to tell that Australia has been able to kind of make, like a lot of progress in the region. And so that is like a major focus now of the current government and our Foreign Minister has pretty much been traveling on non stop in the region since May, trying to sort of make the point that the government has changed the posture of Australia has changed.

Alasdair:

Thanks to Marija for her time. On our podcast blurb you can also find links to some of her suggested reading on Australian politics. Do also take a look at the ELCI website (www.elc-insight.org) where there are plenty of new analyses of climate related topics, and we'll now be taking a break from much of August and we'll be back with more climate related interviews in September. Thanks for listening!