Time for a “Green New Deal” in Australia?

Is the current political economic situation an opportunity for some progressive policies?  ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ is a theme more familiar on the political right, but a “Green New Deal” could play well for the left – or just for common sense.

Drearily predictable calls are currently being made for the government to bring forward its proposed income tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the rich, and to initiate more ‘industrial relations reform’ (code for renewed assaults on organised labour rights). What about countering these with some more progressive policies, aiming to create a more equitable and sustainable economy and society? What about  a Green New Deal?

This idea of a Green New Deal (GND) has been around for a long time. Historically, its origins are in the policies enacted by US President F.D. Roosevelt in the 1930s during the Great Depression. FDR’s policies created millions of jobs, some with significant environmental characteristics, such as planting millions of tres as wind-breaks in ‘dustbowl’ areas. Bernie Sanders pushed a modern equivalent, with a strong emphasis on climate change action, during his ultimately unsuccessful bid to become the Democratic Party’s candidate in the forthcoming US Presidential election.

Now, with unemployment soaring here in Australia and no effective climate change policy in sight, a Green New Deal has evident local relevance as a means of tackling both jobs and the environment

It is the job-creating aspects of a GND that are its greatest potential appeal to the labour movement, of course, and to all who are worried about the consequences of prolonged economic stagnation, growing unemployment and welfare state cutbacks.

But a GND cannot be just a crisis-driven re-embrace of Keynesian stimulus policies. The jobs growth must come through restructuring the economy on a more ecologically sustainable basis.

Indeed, there is plenty of current potential for that – in energy production, transport policies, waste-management, water infrastructure, agriculture, building design and retrofitting, urban planning, and much else besides. A GND must include detailed plans for creation of green jobs across the full array of industries and workers’ skills. This requires a comprehensive policy for industry and trade.

The Coronavirus pandemic has shown that heavy economic reliance on international trade, based on purely ‘comparative advantage’ principles, makes national economies more vulnerable to crises transmitted from elsewhere. Emphasising, wherever possible, ‘local production for local consumption’, would reduce vulnerability and increase resilience. It would also reduce the resources used in transport and the  size of ‘ecological footprints’.

This does not mean stopping  trade, of course, but it does pose a direct challenge to the ‘free trade’ ideals that are currently accepted across much of mainstream politics. Whenever rival principles operate – such as self-reliance and specialisation – some careful balance must be struck. An active industry and trade policy needs to plan for transition, particularly by fostering the diversification of local production that would make reduced trade dependency possible.

A GND also has to include policies to help workers shift from unsustainable ‘old economy’ jobs like coal mining to the newly created green jobs. This key requirement for ‘just transition’ puts the spotlight on education and training.

Extending this concern with equity, comprehensive tax and welfare reform is also essential to maintaining widespread public support for a GND. Public provision of basic income could have a prominent place on this agenda, because of its capacity to reduce poverty, expand citizens’ options and create a buffer against future recessions.

Beyond economic redistribution, the pursuit of equity requires a politics of recognition too. Direct involvement of First Nations peoples is crucial in this respect.  As the custodians of the land for upwards of 60,000 years, the sustainability credentials of Indigenous Australians, as effective stewards of a common natural heritage, are second to none! Indigenous Voice can also be potentially valuable on  a wide range of GND concerns, such as managing the commons and developing cooperative enterprises.

In summary, a Green New Deal offers distinctive strategies and policies for job-creation, restructuring the economy on a more ecologically sustainable basis, reducing dependence on trade, creating greater equity and engaging with First Nations peoples.

Of course, strong opposition to a GND would come from climate-change deniers, especially those with influential positions in the Liberal and National parties and from the sections of the mainstream media that routinely back reactionary positions. Similarly strong resistance could be expected from the mining companies, banks and other capitalist institutions that have a direct stake in perpetuating environmentally degrading industries.

Facing these obstacles, the political support and momentum for a GND would have to be broadly-based. Moreover, comprehensive change of this character cannot happen overnight, nor even in a few years: it has to proceed step-by-step. The triple imperative is to get started, have a vision for the future and a strategy for getting there. While the current crisis provides the context, it is effort and struggle that would have to provide the impetus.

The Greens are already strongly on board. The ALP is currently trying to play both sides of the street by supporting coal mining exports and the Adani mine, while ramping up the rhetoric on climate change action. It would also find it hard to formally adopt anything with a Green title, given the inter-party rivalries – but it is the contents, not the label, that ultimately matter. The ALP’s need for a coherent alternative to the Coalition will become increasingly evident as the next federal election approaches with the economic effects of the Coronavirus crisis still lingering.

A political program offering jobs, greater economic security, a more equitable society and real action on climate change is potentially inspiring in this context. This is not to say that it is free of tensions – what ever is? – but, faced with the choice between a conservative Coalition promising an elusive ‘return to normal’ and an Opposition united in offering a Green New Deal (appropriately re-named, if necessary), we could see the ousting of the Coalition at long last.

To make it happen, the development of a broad, popular movement for change – and plenty of local action – would be necessary. Regarded in this way, a Green New Deal strategy – for jobs and the environment – is a potential game-changer.

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Frank Stilwell is Professor Emeritus in Political Economy in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney, where he began teaching in 1970. He is a well-known critic of conventional economics, and an advocate of alternative economic strategies for social justice and ecological sustainability. He has written a dozen books on political economic issues and co-edited half a dozen others. His latest book is The Political Economy of Inequality (Polity Press, 2019). He is also the coordinating editor of the Journal of Australian Political Economy, Vice President of the Evatt Foundation, an executive member of the Council for Peace with Justice and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

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