Labor’s climate policies are ‘unshakeable’ despite election loss, Mark Butler says | Australia news
Mark Butler wants to make one thing clear: the shadow minister for climate change and energy is not for turning. It wasn’t a mistake to pursue an ambitious climate policy in the 2019 election and “we are not going to change our position to get to a level of profound irresponsibility [on policy], like the government”, he tells Guardian Australia’s politics podcast.
“Our position on climate is unshakeable.”
This declaration might seem hard to square with Butler’s swingeing self-assessment of just over a week ago. The shadow minister, a leftwing powerbroker and close ally of Anthony Albanese, used a speech at a book launch in Canberra to send a message to colleagues that there can be no sugarcoating Labor’s election loss, and all policies, including the ones for which he had direct portfolio responsibility, needed to be subjected to a “ruthless and unsparing” review.
Butler says that ruthless and unsparing inquisition is already in train, with campaign reviewers Jay Weatherill (a long-time friend and factional ally) and Craig Emerson considering the impact of various policies on the May result, including his in climate and energy. But he insists the scope of the official reflection is policy detail, not core principle. “Our principles on climate change are utterly clear and unshakeable.”
He’s not yet sure which specific election commitments survive the cull, and which don’t, but Labor, he says, will implement the Paris agreement, look for policies that will keep warming below 2C, move to net zero emissions by 2050 and set medium-term emissions reduction targets “that are consistent with these principles and guided by the best available scientific and economic advice”.
As well as looking at how to recalibrate the policy offering within those fixed parameters, Butler says Labor is also looking at its messaging. He says Labor has not been clear enough in the past that the transition in coal communities that will happen as a result of decarbonisation is more a function of decisions being made by trading partners in Australia’s major export markets than of domestic climate regulation.
He says it is hard to separate out what is happening globally from what is happening locally and communicate that comprehensively when Labor is being wedged on both the right and the left, but he says “that is the challenge, to try and make those things a little clearer”.
Butler says working on the interface between Labor’s climate policies and the viability of coal communities in regional Queensland and the Hunter Valley is “something we are going to have to work hard on dealing with over the next couple of years”.
“Decisions taken by our trading partners have a very real impact on regional communities … I understand why people feel so passionately about this, and want to have some agency in it, but it is our responsibility as politicians to speak truth. What happens to mines, whether they can wash their face, is not going to be determined at all by what happens in [Canberra] – it’s a direct function of the export market.”
He says while Labor understands the backlash in coal communities that has prompted fellow frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon, who represents an electorate in the Hunter, to speak out more assertively and positively about coal – he argues there is no substantial internal dissent about climate ambition. He says the new Labor MPs who have entered parliament post-election have made it clear they believe climate action is a core part of the social democratic project in 2019.
But he says the political environment, for Labor, remains fraught. The Greens, with crossbench backing, are proposing to bring forward a parliamentary motion declaring a climate emergency. Butler says it is abundantly clear there is a climate emergency. “I’ve said so in the parliament on a number of occasions.” But he says there is also zero prospect of that motion getting up in the current parliament, and he’s “not sure it is realistic to have a debate”.
He says some in the Coalition are also emboldened by the May victory, and as a consequence of the voter affirmation, there will be a centre of gravity in the centre right that wants to keep weaponising climate change as an issue. Butler says the past decade in Australian politics has demonstrated there is a “business model” in division, and Labor has washed up consistently since the Rudd period on the wrong side of bursts hyper-partisanship on the left and the right.
While he has concern about some in the government digging in and declaring climate change “always has to be weaponised” – he also thinks it is possible Scott Morrison will shift on climate during the coming term, particularly if the Australian community remains vocal on the issue, and business also continues to demand policy certainty to allow it to deal with carbon risk. He says for people who want practical climate action, as opposed to rhetoric, bipartisanship remains “the holy grail”.
Butler says Morrison is not Malcolm Turnbull on climate, and not Tony Abbott, but somewhere in the middle. He suspects the prime minister has no “deep beliefs” on the issue, but that could enable him to pivot to a more plausible policy position in the event he makes a judgment that climate change is harming the electoral prospects of the Coalition. Perhaps Morrison, he says, can take “some baby steps to break down the culture war”.
He says while there is a significant risk climate change will become even more polarised in Australia as citizens become more frustrated and angry with the lack of policy action, and elements of the Coalition seek to weaponise the issue against progressive parties in contests in the coal basins – community organisation and action is very important over the coming parliamentary term. “It is really valuable to have the community put pressure on this building,” he says.
Butler says all the survey evidence he has seen indicates Australian voters are alarmed by the lack of policy action on climate change, and the issue rates second behind concerns about cost of living pressure. He says he is “utterly convinced” that public opinion in favour of action is “broad, deep and growing”.
Politicians, he says, need to be particularly aware that young people are hugely motivated on climate change. Butler has teenaged children and meets regularly with young activists.
“I can see it in their eyes,” he says. “They think our generation is from a different planet.” He says there is a risk of climate change widening the generation gap, which is more substantial now, he thinks, than at any time since the 1960s, “and we know what happened out of that” – good things, he says, “but a lot of turmoil”.
He says the challenge of the term will be to try and keep moving forward and to build a constituency for change. “We can’t continue in the next decade to have the wars we’ve had in the last decade. The last decade was supposed to be the critical decade. I don’t know what beyond critical is.
“If we get to 2030 with the level of inertia we’ve had over the last decade, then we have profoundly let down our children and grandchildren”.