How Climate Change Could Become A Vote Winner For Labor Again


Labor’s announcement that it will back a policy which would see half of large-scale electricity drawn from renewable sources within 15 years could make climate change a winning issue at the next election.

Until recently that would have been unthinkable, but the Abbott government has dug itself a deep and coal-filled hole by waging war on clean energy and failing to act on the great moral issue of our time.

The public is not stupid. It has at least a vague understanding of the depths of our impending ecological catastrophe, and with this crafty new policy Labor can dodge the ‘carbon tax’ bullet that’s struck them so painfully before, while simultaneously capitalising on public support for renewable energy.

An Essential Poll published this week found that exactly half the population believes the government should prioritise support for renewable energy over coal while just under half, at 49 per cent, believes it has been doing the opposite.

Just six per cent believed the government should prioritise coal over renewables, suggesting the Abbott government’s campaign against clean energy – to slash the Renewable Energy Target and abolish or gut the Clean Energy Finance Corporation – might backfire spectacularly.

In a tactical leak ahead of the ALP National Conference this weekend, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Labor’s plan to renew the debate around climate change through a massive escalation in support for clean energy.

It followed a News Corp splash last week – in the Daily Telegraph – which revived the spectre of the Gillard government’s ill-fated carbon tax and said Labor was planning to bring it back.

That, for the Labor faithful, must have been a petrifying reminder of the Murdoch media’s vitriolic campaign to ‘axe the tax’. It may have been canvassed at some level as an option but, as if it was really necessary, yesterday’s announcement makes it clear Labor had kind of the opposite in mind.

By aligning their climate policy with the popularity of renewables – an industry which has ironically spent the last year honing its lobbying skills in the face of Abbott’s attacks – Labor has left itself a window to introduce a potentially very mild emissions trading scheme.

The upshot being that the worn but effective slogans demonising a ‘great big new tax on everything’ will be harder to sell, although the mining lobby’s cries of ‘jobs, investment and progress!’ will obviously hit hysteria in pretty sharp order.

With an ambitious green energy goal, presumably one that would be achieved by increasing the Renewable Energy Target or initiating a similar scheme, the competitive edge of coal can be displaced by flooding the market with cheap, subsidised, renewables.

Image: Flickr / Emilian Robert Vicol

In an ideal world – and clearly we’ll have to wait and see the flesh of Shorten’s manoeuvre before giving it much credence – the billions of dollars given away to fossil fuel companies could also be curtailed to rebalance the artificial edge coal companies have long enjoyed.

And for Labor, playing off the Abbott government’s love of coal and brazenly declared hatred for renewable energy is a double edged sword, given it could also result in a snatch of swinging voters who might have gone to the Greens in the absence of a strong climate policy.

As you might expect, the Essential Poll suggests an overwhelming number of Greens voters don’t think the government is doing enough to support renewables, but there’s also a lot of people who are unsure if the government is prioritising coal.

In fact, 27 per cent are unsure whether the government prioritises coal or renewables, or treats them equally, and they come with a reasonable spread of political allegiances.

Whether this is an issue that will shift votes is hard to say, but the figures suggest a receptive electorate if Labor decides to fight the election on this issue.

And it’s a battle they can fight with years of stored armaments.

Australia has slipped from being the fourth most attractive place to invest in renewables to the tenth under Abbott, and investment in the clean energy sector plunged by nearly 90 per cent last year alone.

The Prime Minister’s personally picked top business advisor, Maurice Newman, believes climate change is the lynchpin of a United Nations plot to take over the world. And the Liberal party only narrowly evaded taking on a cabal of climate deniers at its federal council meeting last month shortly before an election.

Positions like these remain prominent within the parliamentary Liberal party, but they’re totally untenable to the broader public. Even an uninspired Labor push should stand a good chance of being able to neuter Abbott’s famously successful scare campaigns.

Labor’s domestic opportunities in this space, of course, can only be amplified by the nation’s alarming drift from the international climate consensus, and surging global action, as world governments shoot for an ambitious and binding climate deal at the UN climate talks in Paris later this year.

Australia was once regarded as a world leader on climate change but is now being openly derided by people like Kofi Annan, a former United Nations Secretary General, as an embarrassing “climate free-rider” not pulling its weight.

If Shorten can coax Labor into embracing climate as a campaign issue, and produce a genuine policy to take us to 50 per cent renewable energy within 15 years, that would well and truly return Australia’s international credibility.

It’s worth noting, too, that Labor state governments in the ACT, Queensland and South Australia have been busy laying the groundwork for a rapid increase in renewables deployment through burgeoning sub-national schemes.

More than 55 per cent of respondents to the Essential Poll said the government was not giving enough support to wind farms, large-scale solar, and rooftop solar, and 20 per cent didn’t know.

Convincing the electorate to increase the support for clean energy to the level required for Shorten’s plan will be a challenge, but in the notoriously fraught and toxic debate around climate change it looks like a bloody smart move.

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.