Surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest most Australians see climate change as an emergency requiring society-wide action, yet many are confused about which political party has a better climate policy. With this post I aim to clear up some of that confusion.
This article won’t tell you exactly who to vote for, but I will explain why both major parties are definitely enemies of the planet, so you should be looking to either the Greens or another climate-friendly minor party. (You can also see my previous post for a straightforward ranking of the parties’ climate policies.)
Yes, we must kick out the conservative government
I should briefly reiterate that I utterly oppose the Morrison Liberal government and its dismal record of climate inaction. Elected six years ago on a promise to repeal a Labor-Greens carbon tax, they have kept that promise and gone beyond, cutting almost every climate policy and institution. Prime Minister Scott Morrison even brought a lump of coal into Parliament.
The government’s own climate policy has gone through a confusing series of incarnations – from an “Emissions Reduction Fund”, to an “Emissions Intensity Scheme”, to a “Clean Energy Target”, to a “National Energy Guarantee”, to a “Climate Solutions Fund” which is a rebrand of the Emissions Reduction Fund. Each has been a different variant of slush fund for big polluters (funny how the Liberals’ “free market” principle doesn’t apply to big business).
The current Climate Solutions Fund will spend only $2 billion over 15 years. It is based around the principle of funding polluting companies who cut their emissions below their business-as-usual growth. Only companies whose emissions grow more than expected are penalized under the related “Safeguard Mechanism”. The penalty is a requirement to buy offsets.
And if you look beyond this fig-leaf of a climate policy, the government’s true energy policy is clear. They rubber-stamp approvals for new fossil fuel mines, most recently the Adani coal mine – not that the environmental approval process includes climate impacts anyway, but they ignored expert advice on water impacts. They have even proposed funding Adani. They’ve allocated 25 times more funding for luxury cars than for electric vehicles. Their Underwriting New Generation Investment program has even sought to fund new coal-fired power plants (and though their own recent shortlist did not find any new coal projects to be even economically viable, it did include several gas projects and a coal upgrade).
The government has slashed subsidies for renewable energy, and reduced the Renewable Energy Target when the Senate refused to abolish it outright. Together with the media, the Liberals have run a scare campaign falsely blaming renewable energy for electricity prices and blackouts, in order to present their policies as a “compromise” between competing principles. In reality, many renewable energy technologies are now cheaper than fossil fuels and getting cheaper still, and the main barrier to their deployment is that this anti-renewables government has slashed renewable energy subsidies. In contrast, fossil fuels will continue get ever more expensive as the fuels become more difficult to cheaply extract from the Earth.
Finally, this government has repeatedly tried to censor climate change information. They have cut funding for CSIRO, tried to get the Great Barrier Reef removed from a UN report about World Heritage sites, stacked climate advisory boards, used discredited accounting methods to measure Australia’s emissions, and delayed publication of emissions data until just before Christmas.
Even the government’s most meagre climate policies have faced opposition from far-right forces inside and outside the party. Ironically, they have become so needlessly extreme they have undermined the prospect of investment certainty for the fossil fuel industry they are tripping over each other to defend.
Labor’s also in bed with fossil fuel industries
But none of that means we should be uncritical of the possible next government, the Australian Labor Party led by Bill Shorten.
Despite their name, I consider Labor to be a party of the centre rather than the left. They are not a real opposition party, as they actually agree with the Liberal government on a great deal. Both parties support fossil fuel industries; give a privileged advisory role to business lobbyists; aim to deliver emissions cuts at the lowest possible cost to polluting companies; and generally prioritize economic growth.
Labor are still promoting natural gas as a “cleaner” fuel that can be used in the transition away from coal. (That would disastrously lock in new polluting gas infrastructure, and the issue of methane leaks means gas is not really cleaner anyway.) Their energy policy involves new gas pipelines to “build a sustainable gas industry, including an export industry”, though they have tried to placate climate activists by saying those pipelines could also be used for hydrogen. During the campaign they announced a $1.5 billion subsidy for fracking in northern Australia, an announcement that blindsided some climate activists reassured by Labor’s recent climate-friendly rhetoric. And even their climate spokesperson Mark Butler was unable to name any plan to reduce residential gas use.
Even on the dirtiest fossil fuel, coal, the party is at best divided. Although some Melbourne candidates have signed a climate activist pledge to treat climate change as an emergency and at least one candidate explicitly opposes new coal mines in Queensland, some Queensland candidates have signed a mining union pledge to immediately open those same mines. Shorten is refusing to rule out approving the Adani coal mine and rail line that threatens to open up the region, and has said Labor MPs are “free to speak” on the issue.
But is there a real debate within the party, or is the party just telling everyone what they want to hear? Many Labor candidates, when asked about Adani, deflect by saying it’s not the only proposed coal mine and they support coal mines in general. My local Labor candidate was very dismissive when I raised the issue. Pro-coal faction leaders are describing the issue as a “fake coal war” that is “blown out of proportion”, repeating the same line that Labor supports coal mines in general.
Labor have indicated a possible way they could stop Adani. They promise to expand environmental approval laws to include a climate trigger, and have criticized the Liberal government for neglecting to apply the existing water trigger. The question is whether Labor will actually use these laws to stop coal mines, or if that implication is merely an empty promise to win green votes. Concerningly, their environmental law reform also aims to reduce “inefficiencies, delays and hurdles” to “give business more certainty”.
When recently asked about climate change on Q&A, Shorten spouted a lot of good rhetoric about the importance of acting, but then claimed the notion of phasing out fossil fuels is a government scare campaign:
We know the government’s going to run a scare campaign… They’re going to somehow say that if we want to act on climate change, there’ll never be any fossil fuels. There still will be fossil fuels in this country. The point about it is what I learned out of 2009. You can stand for something or fall for everything, and we’re going to stand and fight on climate change. We’re not retreating.
Astoundingly, some in the audience applauded for this deeply contradictory statement! The next question asked more directly whether Shorten would unequivocally denounce the Adani coal mine. He replied:
No. What I’m going to do is adhere to the science, adhere to the law, I’m going to make sure that we don’t have sovereign risk…
At the end of the day, we have to have a framework of laws, we have to have a framework for investment. So as much as some people would like me to just say “Just stop it,” I’m not going to say that, because we’ve got to have a system so we don’t incur sovereign risk…
What I can’t say to you is that we’re going to stop using fossil fuels in our energy mix. And I’m certainly not going to say that we’re going to stop exporting, because that’s not a realistic promise…
This government says, somehow, that unless you support every mining project without checking it out, without doing the science, that you’re anti-miner. I’ve represented more miners than this government ever will.
In reality, the environment movement has nothing against workers. We want the government to assist workers in fossil fuel industries to transition to something new. This principle of just transition is mentioned in the policies of the Greens and other minor parties. Indeed Labor mentions it in regard to closing coal-fired power plants (though it seemed to totally slip their minds during the carbon tax debacle when they were formerly in government). Furthermore, the same corporations trying to legitimize themselves as “creating jobs” are in reality increasingly automating their mining operations – they are not genuinely motivated by the interests of workers.
“Sovereign risk” is just a propaganda phrase to bamboozle the public into thinking corporate-friendly policies are somehow the only legitimate course of action. The term originally referred to an unpaid debt owed by a government, and was used to portray poor countries as untrustworthy because they couldn’t afford to pay. This is obviously not at stake with environmental approvals. More recently, politicians have informally expanded the definition to include any government policy change that results in lost profits, or as Shorten puts it, “changing existing contracts”. As The Conversation rightly says: “This is a narrow focus on the perceived costs to commercial interests of government actions, rather than the question of appropriate policy.” Governments frequently flout signed agreements with impunity, except for trade agreements and military alliances, which tells you a lot about the actual priorities of these supposedly trustworthy governments.
The aforementioned coal and gas mines are Australia’s largest contribution to global warming (we are one of the world’s top coal exporters). But because the fuels are mostly exported and burned in Asia, they are largely ignored by the official numbers on Australian emissions. Labor’s policies on domestic emissions appear to have improved a bit since they were in government, but even they remain inadequate in scale and sketchy in detail.
Their central policy is to extend the government’s Safeguard Mechanism, but add stricter targets that would truly force high-polluting companies to buy carbon offsets, turning it into a baseline-and-credit emissions trading scheme. Like all emissions trading schemes, its complexity makes it difficult to evaluate its effectiveness. Details as important as emissions target baselines remain to be determined by consulting polluters, after the election. I haven’t forgotten the former Labor government’s emissions trading scheme looked okay when they were elected in 2007, but was then sabotaged by fossil fuel lobbyists putting the devil in the detail. They are already promising special treatment to protect the competitiveness of “emission-intensive trade-exposed industries”.
Baseline-and-credit schemes have long been a “moderate compromise” policy dreamed of by the greener sectors of the business press, and centrists on both “sides” of mainstream Australian politics. These centrists see forcing polluters to buy offsets as a clever “stealth carbon tax”, but I fear it is a scam of a policy. I just do not trust emissions trading schemes in general, or baseline-and-credit schemes in particular – their complexity can be used as cover for all kinds of shenanigans. For example, in 2017 when the Turnbull government proposed a baseline-and-credit scheme limited to the electricity industry, RenewEconomy pointed out it would effectively result in coal-fired generators paying gas-fired generators for their supposedly “cleaner” energy.
The big problem with baselines is if the baseline is wrong, then the purchased “emissions reductions” might be something that would have happened anyway. Labor rightly promises to improve the accounting rules of the Carbon Farming Initiative, and removing carbon from the atmosphere is necessary if we are to have any hope of cooling the planet, but I’m not convinced it should be sold as an offset for ongoing industrial pollution. Labor will also make it easier for polluters to buy offsets from other countries, which means much of Australia’s supposed emissions reductions will not occur in Australia and will not contribute to the necessary transformation of the Australian economy. Furthermore, international offsets will have different accounting rules to Australian ones, so it will be even more unclear whether they represent real action.
Labor also proposes various other positive measures which I listed in my previous post. Chief among them are gradual closures of coal power plants, targets for electric cars and vehicle emissions, doubling investment in the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and a Renewable Energy Target of 50% by 2030. (The latter pales in comparison to the Greens target of 100% by 2030.)
Labor fails to address the climate emergency
Still, Labor must be feeling some pressure from the climate movement because they have strengthened their climate rhetoric as the campaign has gone on. As already mentioned, some federal Labor candidates have signed the climate emergency pledge. ACT’s Labor-Greens government has passed a climate emergency motion. Former Environment Minister Peter Garrett has called on the party to launch a “war cabinet” to fight climate change. Even Shorten recently even said the phrase “climate emergency”, words I never thought I would hear from a major party leader.
But without policies to back them up, they are just words. Do Labor politicians really understand what is meant by “climate emergency”?
Eminent climatologists Hans Schellnhuber and Will Steffen warn there is a serious possibility that we are already in the process of triggering a runaway “hothouse Earth”. The climate system appears to be teetering on the edge of several destabilizing tipping points, which could trigger a cascade of feedbacks amplifying global warming to catastrophic levels that threaten mass starvation. According to Steffen (who the former Labor government appointed as a climate advisor):
The obvious thing we have to do is to get greenhouse gas emissions down as fast as we can. That means that has to be the primary target of policy and economics. You have got to get away from the so-called neoliberal economics…
Absolutely no new fossil fuel developments. None. That means no new coal mines, no new oil wells, no new gas fields, no new unconventional gas fracking. Nothing new. Second, you need to have a rapid phase-out plan for existing fossil fuels.
Contrast that with this recent report from Climate Action Moreland:
At the Wills Climate forum held on Monday April 29, Peter Khalil MP revealed that he supports new fossil fuel infrastructure, despite his earlier calls for strong immediate action to slash carbon emissions.
Khalil was speaking in support of the Labor Party’s announcement of a $1.5 billion subsidy for a northern Australia gas pipeline network that would allow development of the Beetaloo and Galilee basin gasfields.
Peter Khalil signed the climate emergency declaration in December 2016.
Labor does deserve some credit for having come around to a pro-renewables policy, unlike the Liberals who have done everything they can to sabotage renewable energy. The trouble is that Labor is also pro-fossil-fuels, and is definitely still in the pocket of the gas industry, if not also the coal industry. It’s as if Labor has become the new party of business, promoting profits wherever they may lie, while the Liberals promote established industries losing profitability. It is now in the interests of most businesses to rhetorically acknowledge climate change, and support moderate policies which open up new investment opportunities in renewable energy, carbon trading, and gas. In particular, the increasing wealth and power of renewable energy corporations has helped push reluctant politicians toward better renewables policies.
But a real effort to drastically reduce emissions is still not in the interests of any business invested in fossil fuels, which requires phasing out fossil fuel burning. Nor, to a lesser extent, is it truly in the interests of any business – not even the renewable energy ones – because all businesses seek to grow, a goal fundamentally at odds with reducing their environmental footprint. We cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. And both major parties clearly represent the interests of business, so neither is going to save us from the climate crisis.
The major parties don’t represent the interests of the majority, so why do they continue to receive the votes of the majority? It is high time for major party voters to wake up and realize they are being had.
And don’t fall for the major parties’ claim that you’d be “wasting your vote”. In Australia’s electoral system you cannot waste your vote, as explained (again) by Honest Government Ads:
Some minor parties oppose climate action
Voters are presented with a bewildering array of alternatives to the mainstream parties. Which ones deserve our support?
Generally minor parties do appear to be much less corrupt than major parties, so there is a nonzero possibility that even the bad ones might someday come around on climate, they probably have a point on some other issues, and if nothing else they inject an element of chaos into the political landscape that might ultimately deliver a better outcome than bipartisan rule.
Still, it is very clear that the right-wing minor parties (eg. One Nation) are no friends of the environment. These parties represent mostly older voters who are rightly questioning the mainstream propaganda of today, but have fallen for the dubious solution of returning to mid-20th-century policies, because they still believe the propaganda of that era. They generally reject the scientific consensus that human activity is causing global warming and are ideologically opposed to pretty much any climate action. I do agree with their concern about erosion of sovereignty, but they are wrong to blame unenforceable UN agreements giving lip service to the environment, rather than the stronger forces of global trade and American empire. On the other hand, a few right-wing parties oppose fracking on farmland. See the bottom half of my voting guide for more information on right-wing parties.
One party you absolutely shouldn’t vote for is the United Australia Party, whose ads you’ve probably seen everywhere. They are run by mining magnate Clive Palmer, who has a history of supporting his own coal mining interests over environmental considerations, no matter what he publicly claims to be doing. Though he claims to have saved particular climate policies, he actually helped weaken them, and he also brags about having helped abolish carbon and mining taxes. Anyone who wants climate action would be mad to vote for this conman.
Weighing up the climate-friendly parties
The Greens are the only climate-friendly party running in every lower house seat, and they are light-years ahead of the other major parties. In the Senate, and some lower house seats, there are other climate-friendly parties to choose from. Most of those parties are unlikely to win seats anyway, so you’ll probably want to direct your preference back to the Greens and then perhaps Labor. Still, a first preference vote does have an impact because it gives that party extra funding.
Other climate-friendly parties running in the Victorian Senate include: Independents for Climate Action Now, Animal Justice Party, Australian Workers Party, Robert Whitehill, Pirate Party Australia, Sustainable Australia, Secular Party of Australia, Health Australia, and Socialist Equality Party. (See the top half of my voting guide for more information on their climate policies.)
In some lower house seats, climate-friendly independents stand the best chance of unseating the government member. They include Zali Steggall in Warringah, Rob Oakeshott in Cowper, Helen Haines in Indi, Kerryn Phelps in Wentworth, Julia Banks in Flinders, and Oliver Yates in Kooyong.
Which of the above alternatives is the best? It’s ultimately a judgement call, depending partly on how you evaluate the credibility of their environment policies, and partly on how much weight you give to other issues where you may have an opinion one way or another. The following are my personal thoughts based on my own priorities, and you may choose differently.
Based on stated climate policies alone, I rank the Greens first, since they are putting forward the most detailed climate policies of all parties (for the details, see my earlier post and/or the Greens website). I will vote Greens in the lower house and place them way ahead of the major parties in the Senate. But I haven’t yet decided who to vote for in the Senate, as I do have some misgivings about the Greens.
Firstly, despite the detail in the Greens’ policies, part of me worries they could prove more compromising than some of the other similar parties. In the past, the Greens have pushed for compromises with Labor rather than their own stated policies. During the Gillard Labor government, the Greens arguably compromised more than they should have considering the leverage they could have wielded in the hung parliament. The compromises they made then delivered mixed results which drew weak support and strong opposition. Of course, if enough people decide to vote Greens this should not be a problem. But it would also help to have other climate-friendly parties and independents on the crossbench, so the Greens would not be the only parliamentarians pushing for greater action.
Secondly, in recent years I have become dissatisfied with Greens policy in some areas. They have quietly moderated their positions on a range of left-wing issues, including their support for Julian Assange and criticism of foreign policy generally (I suspect this may be related to Scott Ludlam having been kicked out for supposed foreign interests). On some other issues, they have become more politically-correct, such as advocating censorship to stop “hate speech”. Nowadays some see censorship as left-wing and free speech as right-wing, but that is not true: we’ve seen plenty of censorship coming from Australia’s right-wing government, and there are still a few brave left-wing voices who actively oppose censorship. The Pirate Party and the Socialist Equality Party are strong supporters of Assange and free speech generally. (Both are also explicitly anti-racist and anti-fascist, proving that being anti-censorship does not mean one is racist or fascist.)
Personally, censorship is probably my second top issue after climate change. I’m torn because on the one hand, if we don’t solve the climate crisis, none of the other issues will matter anyway. But on the other hand, if we let political correctness lead us down a primrose path to censorship, we could end up lacking the free speech required to challenge power and solve any issue. So I may decide to take a chance on the Pirate Party or the Socialist Equality Party.
I expect you are similarly weighing up possibilities depending on whatever issues you care about. I won’t tell you exactly which party to put first. But I will tell you, if you want climate action, vote for a climate-friendly minor party.
I implore you, don’t vote Labor. They have already had too many chances to be a real alternative, and they have failed again and again. So this election, vote for a real opposition party that might actually do something about climate change.