Someone’s been busy.

While the conservative forces inside the Coalition government continue business as usual, to keep a lid on climate action, the Labor Party has been formulating a raft of policies in an entirely opposite direction and much of it right down this industry’s alley.

The Climate Change Action Plan released on Wednesday is gutsy and surprisingly bold.

In addition to a strong focus on renewable energy, energy efficiency and an emissions trading scheme on electricity, there are chunks devoted to better planning, better infrastructure that must meet sustainability and “smart” hurdles before getting funded and better designed buildings. Importantly too it’s called for an end to vandalising land clearing, rampant in Queensland and NSW.

  • UPDATE: By Friday morning the Turnbull government had launched its own salvo right back at Labor with a raft of policies on the politically safer zone of cities offering a Smart Cities policy including 30 year bonds for targeted infrastructure, something we’ve noted the cleverer thinkers have been pushing. The sustainable built environment/property industry will find it hard to contain its pleasure with so much wooing going on. More on this to come.

Most energy and environmental advocacy groups came out in support of the plan, including the Property Council. Even the Business Council of Australia gave it a tick for bi-partisanship appeal (we’ll see how that works out).

To show it’s not pulled its ideas out of a hat Labor’s policy cites COAG’s Energy Council’s National Energy Productivity Plan 2015- 2030 and the work of local governments, the Green Building Council, the 2XEP Alliance which includes business groups such as BCA, ACCI and AIG and The Wilderness Society.

But given the bold nature of the plan, the big question is why? What gives Labor the confidence to risk a re-run of one of the scariest and most erratic period in political history that spun around climate action and an emissions trading scheme by treading exactly (or almost exactly) the very same ground?

Could it be that the voters’ mood has changed?

There’s no better place to start looking for answers than people whose life blood depends on knowing intimately the heart beat of the nation, the pollsters and political advisers.

But first we need to state the obvious. Climate change is becoming obvious: record global temperatures, warming oceans and the sudden death of the Great Barrier Reef. At the speech delivered by Bill McKibben, 350.Org founder, at Paddington Town Hall in Sydney last Thursday, there was a great deal of “telling it like it is”. McKibben said it took just 10 days to wipe out half the reef. His sorrow, like that of people around the world, has been palpable and emotional. The sense of common loss is vast and frightening.

Globally the impacts are starting to hit wealthy – and that means influential – people such as the residents of Florida who are experiencing salination of their water supply and forcing even the Republican Party there to pay attention.

The Northland Floods Of 2012 in the Florida Panhandle

The title of this recent article in Scientific American tells the story,  Florida Republicans Demand Climate Change Solutions

Here’s an excerpt:

Already, the city of Miami Beach is pouring money into elevated roadways and pumping systems that keep high tides from flooding city streets, just the beginning of pricey plans to protect the city’s $30 billion tax base.

The article notes 81 per cent of people want action on climate.

Even Republican senator Marco Rubio said this on the issue of flooding:

[it] is caused by two things. No 1, South Florida is largely built on land that was once a swamp. And No 2, if there is higher sea levels, or whatever it is that may be happening, we need to deal with that through [damage] mitigation

And then this almost funny remark if it weren’t so serious:

And I have long supported mitigation efforts. But as far as a law that we can pass in Washington to change the weather, there’s no such thing.

Many would disagree; we’ve already changed the weather; and we can make laws to stop changing it further.

So let’s ask about local politics in that global context and how Australian might or might not back the Labor Party’s stance on these issues.

Bruce Hawker is a good place to start. We know Hawker from his attendance at our Political Salon in 2013 when we tried to find out why the political battle for climate was being lost.

According to Hawker the world has changed since 2007 when Labor under Kevin Rudd wanted to introduce an ETS and was “ultimately thwarted by the Greens” and by an opportunistic Tony Abbott.

Australia then, he says, was leading the world on climate change. Today it’s trailing.

“The US is much more committed to understanding the importance of climate change and a lot of the hard work that’s gone on in the past six or seven years is now paying off.”

More importantly the economic environment is different too. “It’s much more stable than in the aftermath of the GFC when there were few governments prepared to put extra pressure on people’s lives in any way.

“Now it’s changed. Countries have started to pick up; the US has lower unemployment than Australia; that’s changed the political dynamic”.

And Australia is now lagging rather leading.

Does Hawker think Labor has a chance to win?

“Oh yeah, it does. I don’t know if I would have said that when Turnbull was elected.

“Right now he looks weak because he can’t control his own party.

“I think Labor can win but I still think it’s going to be a big ask. No first term government federally has been defeated at the federal level since 1931 so history is against it.”

Within the Libs, Hawker thinks there is a battle for control between the more progressive people who back Turnbull and those who like Abbott and might prefer to see the party loose the election under Turnbull and afterwards ease back to a more conservative side.

Hawker thinks that most Libs though will fall behind Turnbull in the election campaign, particularly members of Parliament worried about their jobs.

The rage against change

On the other hand people like Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt are still grieving over the loss of Abbott, Hawker says. Their agenda is to be socially conservative and there is a part of climate action that directly challenges that.

“They don’t want to deal with the reality of how society has to function; they’re used to the old days where you could keep digging coal out of the ground and burning it in a generator that spewed it into the atmosphere.”

“It’s a rage against change and how you go about your daily lives.”

The Labor Party, he says, is more stable than in 2010 to 2013 when it was “terribly unstable and that led to defeat in 2013 and near defeat in 2010.”

Hawker says he’s not close enough to policy now to get a strong view of what’s happened inside the party but from his perspective it seems it’s managed to steal the march on the Libs.

“People thought Turnbull would come out with a swag of policies and transform the country. People were sick of Abbott, especially for being too socially conservative.” The disappointment is the power play within the Libs has clearly forced Turnbull to look weak and indecisive.

“It’s a big price to pay for having the support of colleagues who never really wanted him there. It’s destablising.”

The scare campaign won’t resonate

Hawker thinks the Libs will run a scare campaign on the ETS but that it won’t resonate so well as it did last time. “Their Direct Action costs a fortune anyway,” he says.

And it’s also going to be a bit harder to maintain an attack line with a Coalition led by Turnbull because Turnbull has expressed support for exactly that model in the past.

This was made clear on Thursday when Danny Price, the chief executive of Frontier Economics, told Guardian Australia “the emissions intensity part of Labor’s plan appears to be exactly what we were proposing for Malcolm Turnbull and Nick Xenophon in 2009”.

Simon Banks

Simon Banks, managing director at Hawker’s old firm, Hawker Britton, which is still closely aligned with Labor, says there’s definitely a softening mood among voters that has made way for Labor’s strong climate and environmental agenda, but this might not help.

“No-one pretends this will be anything but a tough election,” he says.

“The polls are 50:50 and the odds are on the incumbent government to win. On the other hand Australians have become increasingly disillusioned and that will be one of the cornerstone issues for the next couple of months. People see Turnbull as Tony Abbott in a top hat.”

The reality shows up in the decline that’s taken place in polling as voters witness contradictions and confusion.

Banks agrees with the view that it will be hard for the Coalition to mount the same kind of scare campaign over the ETS V2 because it so closely resembles what the federal government has proposed for the transition of Direct Action at its review period in 2017.

He also points to the Business Council of Australia’s support for the ALP policy as another sign of change.

Regardless, Banks thinks the enduring opposition to climate action comes from a core within the Liberal Party that simply disbelieves climate change regardless of the highest global temperatures in recorded history.

Just last week Attorney-General George Brandis and deputy leader of the Nationals Fiona Nash declared the science was not settled, Banks points out.

By contrast the Australian population, he says, has a range of views on climate with passionate people at both ends of the spectrum but most “the vast majority” want to see moderate sensible action. “With Australia playing a lead”.

Even Tony Abbott felt he had to embark on Direct Action to gain credence.

So where does Banks feel climate action will rank in the list of agenda items for the elction?

It will be in the mix, he says, but not ahead of taxes, schools and hospitals. It could be in the top five or six issues.

“We’ll find out on election day.” But he warns, “Those who are passionate and committed need to get active now.”

Another view of voter sentiment and support for climate action comes from IPSOS which conducts polls and research for a number of clients, mostly government.

Research director Stuart Clark is about to complete analysis on the company’s yearly report on climate sentiment on surveys undertaken late last year.

There won’t be much change, he tips. Most of the change – the spike in support for climate action – happened when Abbott was in power and dismantling environmental programs.

“It’s what happens when you get a change of government from Labor to the Coalition. You see bigger changes. If you look at the last report [voters] start to rate the environment as much more important. Under a Labor government they felt more comfortable about government direction.” So it was not a priority for concern.

The implication, he says, is that when Abbott came to power people started to take the view that the government was dismantling some of the protections put in place under the previous government.

“Broadly speaking”, he says, “I can say people are certainly positive about measure that help the environment.”

In cases where that rubs up against personal freedoms or other priorities in their lives then that broader support for environmental action does take hit.”

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