Given the centrality of the problem of an emerging climate catastrophe in the consciousness of many Australians now, it is timely to canvas the progress of the two main parties in conceptualizing and dealing with climate change. Not just because of what they might or might not have done in the past, but because of what their activity or inactivity portends for the future.
The second week of November 2019 has unequivocally brought forth the main stream media’s awareness of the real and present dangers of anthropogenic climate change, perhaps also reflecting how much the general public is now beginning to realize what is actually happening. In large measure this realization has occurred because what has happened is visible, untimely and ongoing, and feeds into deep anxieties Australians have about bush fires.
The ongoing fires in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia may now be forcing the two main political parties to confront climate change as the extremely serious issue that it is, though mostly a blame game has continued to be played. Possibly some kind of climax has been reached which will require positions to be clearly stated, either ongoing denial of the type constantly practised by the LNP or some kind of collaborative plan to confront the problem, ideally involving cooperation between the ALP and the Greens. It is likely of course that the LNP will sit on the fence whilst spouting a rhetoric that it is reaching the requirements of the Paris agreement–now insufficient to prevent dangerous global warming. Above all it will preach that it is sustaining energy security, which in its view is what the mainstream want.
Because the problem of climate change has been so politicized–really since 2007–the political theatre surrounding it should be separated from the actual threat to the environment and human societies that it is now bringing forth. The latter rests on careful scientific analysis, above all operating within a long-term perspective, whereas the former is about power, individual ambition and short-term gain. It is likely that the gap this creates feeds on the acceptance of scientific knowledge by a certain section of the population and a skepticism–or feeling of helplessness–represented by the majority, a skepticism now disappearing or being translated into extreme apocalyptic beliefs of a certain religious type.
It has often been remarked that the Greens stand on one side of the political chasm about climate change, with One Nation standing on the other side. In the middle are the two major parties representing the ‘quiet Australian’ and potentially possessing the power to legislate to mitigate the effects of climate change. There are two possible ways to assess how they intend–I say intend because only the ALP has hitherto been active on this front–to move in regard to the problem. The first involves comparison of the policy statements, and, the second, asking what the parties have actually done in addressing the problem, to the extent that they define it as a problem pertaining to the total environment or simply one of energy security and price.
In the first place it should be noted that, despite Kevin Rudd’s prognosis more than twelve years ago about climate change being “the great moral challenge of our generation,” both major parties still only conceive it as one problem amongst others facing the country, not as the problem. Above all the LNP grudgingly regards the climate as a single problem, and prefers to pigeon hole it away from–what for it are–much more important issues such as Jobsun Growth and national security. The ongoing stoking of fear amongst the general public about national security is what drives the LNP’s propaganda efforts and allows them to distract attention from their lack of an holistic narrative of what the country–as opposed to the individual–stands for.
In the last federal election the ALP brought together a set of policies based on a comprehensive view of what the country–in terms of society, economy and environment-should be and where it might be in a decade’s time. But since the election there has been backsliding by the leadership of the ALP, to a point where it sublimates questions of climate change to economic growth and job security, assuming they operate in two completely different spheres.
The ALP’s policy statement is 17 pages and is quite comprehensive. The LP’s statement is 3 pages and basically says nothing, as does the National Party’s 3 page statement, of which two pages are pictures. The Greens covers 46 pages and is much more comprehensive than the other three, though the ALP’s statement also includes a large percentage of what is found in the Greens statement, without going as far in terms of emissions reductions and phasing out of fossil fuel production.
Irrespective of the policies and performances of the two major parties regarding climate change, anecdotal evidence I have heard suggests that the rank and file of both parties are much more concerned about the need to mitigate its effects than are the parliamentary branches of their parties. This is simply a further expression of the gap between parliamentary politics and the larger rank and file, let alone of the general populous.
Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University. Formerly Reader in Sanskrit. He is a member of the Greens.