‘Great Men’ Not Enough To Meet Climate Challenge


Mark Latham is not popular, but he was right when he stated in his last quarterly essay: ‘for the remainder of this century and beyond, global warming will be the key transformative issue for left-of-centre politics.’

The ALP must respond confidently to this crisis or wither slowly, flailing, jammed between competing interests.

We have a proud history on environmental reform. Labor saved the Franklin, the Daintree and Kakadu. Labor introduced environmental impact assessments. Labor in NSW put environmental considerations in the mix of all planning and land use decisions. 

But global warming demands a response of a different order. People of good heart and significant personal power within the Party have acted to protect iconic places. However only deep and systemic change will stop our planet warming between four and six degrees over the next 80 years. This is not fear mongering. The World Bank predicts this calamity unless we fundamentally change direction.

We need to transform the electricity sector, shift rapidly away from fossil fuel, defeat the vested interests of modern capital and deliver a fair society. That’s a massive, unprecedented task. As Latham noted, Labor must make this part of its historic mission. But does the Party possess the intellectual, institutional and cultural infrastructure to meet the challenge?

My experience as an environmental advocate over the past 20 years is that Labor’s environmental legacy has been delivered by ‘the great men of history’ model.  Outcomes have relied on powerful individuals within the parliamentary Party spending personal political capital. Neville Wran protected the rainforests, Bob Hawke protected the Franklin, Tony Burke delivered the world’s largest marine park system. 

The Bob Carr/Bob Debus duo is another good example. As key players in the NSW Cabinet they achieved great results. But after their exit from Parliament, there was no continuity embedded in cabinet or caucus.

At this crucial point in history, the economic and social imperative of a functioning ecosystem has no institutional champions. We must build these champions.

I see no evidence that any faction prioritises action on the environment. There are passionate individuals. Their advocacy is often powerful and effective.  But the environmental imperative presents real challenges to blue collar unions. Labor has been unable to resolve these tensions to smoothly deliver new industries, new jobs, a new political economy.

Labor’s carbon package was an important first step, but the mess that surrounded it illustrates my point. The Government was perceived as insincere. This fuelled a collapse of confidence from the Australian people. Rudd’s dumping of climate action was the beginning of the end. Gillard’s perceived lie, a public deal with the Greens and a textbook anti-new tax campaign from Abbott left the policy and the Government bloodied and doomed.

Our commitment to action must have deep roots across the Party as well as impassioned champions. To shift an economy against the wishes of some of the world’s largest vested interests requires considerable political leadership. As 2007 showed, the public are on side, but they need to know they will be guided safely through the challenge by sincere leaders.

The vested interests are increasingly desperate. The Whitlam Institute’s Perspective Paper by Kevin Taft describes the scale of the their fightback. For Labor to resist and defend the public interest we need to be much stronger and clearer, with our response embedded in the value systems of the Party.

These things don’t just happen. The Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN) is a vibrant and growing non-factional entity. LEAN has limited institutional power. But it has the support of members.

LEAN is integrally involved in the policy development and adoption phase now underway in the federal sphere. Join us and be part of modernising the Labor Party toward a future where equity, growth and good jobs are fuelled by an economy delivering a 21st century clean future.



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