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How We Can Settle the Culture War on Climate

Our mighty, broad and diverse movement has suffered through a decade long contest - the climate culture war.

The frame of this contest didn’t arise from the floor of strong union workplaces, or active local branches- it was set for us by the other side of politics.

Every party member, activist or parliamentarian has their own story of the way their community or constituency has been let down and divided by the climate culture wars.

As a movement, we have allowed ourselves to be captured by a false contest that we can only serve and represent either- people who care about the environment, or blue collar workers who have built careers in fossil fuel and resource centres.

This has been framed as a zero-sum game for our members and electorally- and it’s not sustainable. Whether it’s progressive communities demanding real action on climate change, industrial communities anxious about their future, or suburban families looking for relief on their energy prices, everyone has a role to play and everyone is fatigued.

Our policy in this space addresses many of the concerns of all three of these constituencies.

While I believe there is more capacity for ambition in a number of policy areas, I believe the core of our problem in resolving this, is organising and communicating in local communities in a more nuanced, thoughtful and honest way.

If we get our messaging right, our energy policy will not only help to win the election, but also eventually be remembered as a watershed labor reform in years to come.

I can’t pretend I am an expert on communicating with young environmental activists, or have the answers to settle suburban parents’ financial anxieties, but I am a fitter-machinist by trade, and was born, raised and politicised in coal country- the Hunter Valley.

I don’t only empathise with workers’ in fossil fuel exposed regions, I know them well. My immediate and extended family, my friends and the people I did my apprenticeship with all have some serious skin in the game of this debate.

Since the last federal election, I have shifted a significant part of our unions’ resources in the Hunter Valley to building consensus, with a motivation to act on a worker led discussion about climate change and energy.

Despite what Matt Canavan and others might say, fossils fuel workers, for the most part, are not beating their chests talking about how coal will never phase out.

Almost all of the workers’ I have spoken to in our energy transition organising programme want two very simple things. For those in power to be honest about what’s happening. For those in power to hear, and act upon, the expansive collective knowledge workers’ have about their local industrial capacity.

AMWU delegates and members walked away from the last election feeling like there was nobody being honest with them about their future and nobody had their backs. While we know our platform did absolutely advocate for their future, this discussion is not something you can cover off in a news grab or a savvy Facebook post - it is a tough, long and slow conversation that is, understandably, quite emotional for these workers.

Last time, that work had not been done. And it’s still got a way to go. Together, AMWU members have come to the conclusion - regardless of all of the political noise, there is one thing we all know.

Capital will always act in their own interests, and it’s becoming increasingly clear their future interests do not sit with fossil fuels, or in looking after the workers who have delivered their substantial profits for generations.

When we start from that proposition, the noisy politics fade away, and we’re left with the important job of ensuring that workers’ in these industries are treated with the dignity they deserve, and that we are talking and acting with purpose on the future of these regions.

This issue must be treated by us with the same profound emotional investment, hard work and ability to find common group that we know so well amongst our base. While many will be pleased and some may be disappointed with the platform around climate and energy out of this conference, it is incumbent on all of us to organise our communities around it in a way that rebukes the conservative siloing of our diverse movement.

We can have both climate action and job creation.

Steve Murphy is the National Secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union


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