Labor abandons the climate policy debate

Thirteen mostly unlucky years after Kevin Rudd described climate change as “the great moral challenge of our generation” Labor has finally abandoned the national climate policy debate. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The white flag went up last week at the National Press Club when Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese announced under the veneer of bipartisanism that Labor would no longer propose its own alternative climate policy design. Remarkably, from now on it would leave this job to the Coalition.

Albanese reserved the right to commit to different emissions targets, but otherwise offered to  constructively discuss the merits of any new climate policy ideas being floated around by the Government. Albanese insisted he wouldn’t be a push-over: nuclear energy was a no, carbon capture and storage was a yes.

Labor’s revised climate platform now has no policy, just headline targets and a grab bag of key messages: net zero by 2050, Australia can be a renewable energy superpower (whatever this means), climate change can create jobs when combined with science, technology and innovation to deliver new hydrogen exports, new manufacturing industries and new jobs in renewables. Ambition without substance. All feathers, no meat.

It is a remarkable, if not predictable, tactical retreat for a party which over-reached on climate policy in 2007 and has endured constant political damage on the issue since it helped deliver the sugar hit of that first sweeping election victory.

The global peloton of co-ordinated climate action collapsed with the global financial crisis in 2008, leaving Labor’s hastily constructed and ambitious policy platform exposed to an electorate more worried about jobs and growth than long-term environmental crisis.

Subsequent Labor governments struggled to match the limitless ambitions of inner-urban hipsters while managing the growing anxiety of suburban and regional voters exposed more directly to the risks created by sustained decarbonisation of the economy.

Julia Gillard was dragged back to hardcore climate policy in 2010 when forced to implement a carbon tax in a coalition government with the Greens and independents. The Coalition won the 2014 election campaigning against the carbon tax and has remained in government since then.

As evidenced by the last decade, Labor would like to end the climate wars because they hurt and divide Labor more than the Coalition (at least so long as the Coalition has a conservative leader). The Greens have been siphoning once-traditional Labor voters from the inner city with impossible climate promises and targets.

The problem with the strategy is self-evident: the Coalition is not interested in implementing national climate policy, preferring to continue with the existing patchwork of programs, schemes and funds but consciously avoiding anything that even looks like some kind of legislative constraint, or price, on emissions.

By exiting the climate policy debate, Labor may minimise the political damage it has caused, and by doing so return to the climate pragmatism of the Keating era. The job of providing alternative ideas, like most future emissions reductions, will be voluntary and led by business and other stakeholders.