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The Three Big Questions for Any Australian Green New Deal

Osmond Chiu

Since the beginning of this year, COVID-19 has understandably dominated domestic and global political conversations. It has, however, not reduced the necessity to act on climate change. March was Australia’s hottest on record, at two degrees above average.

As we begin to think about a post-COVID Australia, the decarbonisation of industry sectors and reconstruction of local economies need to be on the agenda. A Green New Deal must be the framework to guide that post-carbon reconstruction.

Why a Green New Deal?

A Green New Deal aims to combine addressing climate change and economic inequality to deliver climate justice.

While the Australian Greens have attempted to claim the Green New Deal label through a repackaging of existing policies, it is a concept that goes beyond any narrow partisan claim of ownership.

We need huge transformations in energy, land and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems. The recent report from ClimateWorks shows this is technically feasible to keep temperature rises to around 1.5 degrees. An expanded role for the state will be central to making this change.

There is also a political element. A Green New Deal is the only politically achievable route for emissions reduction of about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching 'net zero' around 2050.

The 2019 Australian Election Study data found that while one in five said the environment and climate change were the most important issue, the highest ever, it did not shift enough votes.

People accept the need for climate change but are concerned about their living standards and livelihoods. A technocratic message of individual scarcity will not convince people. We need to offer a better future if we want to win and be able to do what is necessary. Individual actions will not deliver the change we need. A focus on taxing pollution or an emphasis on a future of scarcity or degrowth is politically a dead end for progressives.

A Green New Deal is about a better future that combines decarbonisation with economic justice. A transformative vision of a better future where decent work is guaranteed for all and there is access to quality public services and the necessities of daily life.

There will be trade-offs such less carbon intensive production and consumption but there is a focus on a better quality of life by providing a freedom that is not centred on consumption but recognises the value of care and stewardship. That provides us with more time, liberation from debt and access to collective luxury.

An Australian Green New Deal

The symbolic power of a Green New Deal in America has been its resonance to the mobilisation during the Great Depression. It has less of a resonance in Australia except for those who are politically engaged without going into the partisan debate about using the word “Green”. There’s a reason why British Labour, despite having a Labour for a Green New Deal pressure group, called their policy the Green Industrial Revolution.

Some are attracted to the concept of a Green Accord but beyond parts of the trade union movement and the Labor base, there is limited affection. While not perfect, a better parallel might be that of post-war reconstruction in the 1940s. Australia was transformed in a decade from a country ravaged by the Great Depression to one where there was full employment. A narrative of Australian nation building does still resonate.

The Commonwealth Government will need to play a large mission oriented role in any Green New Deal with a focus on tackling the interconnected crises of climate, inequality and democracy.

We have seen proposals of Just Transition Authorities to assist in regions but if we truly want big changes such as a job guarantee or expanded public services, it requires reversing the privatisation of Commonwealth funded responsibilities like employment services and rebuilding the capacity of the public sector in science, service delivery, policy and regulation. The capacity of the state will be essential if we want to drive the systemic, mission oriented change we need that is self-perpetuating.

As a federal nation-state, we also have to grapple with constitutional impediments on the power of the Commonwealth and the implications of federalism. While there is scope for financing a Green New Deal and some form of federally funded job guarantee, the Australian Constitution can be a constraint on what the Commonwealth Government is legally allowed to do.

The legacy of the school chaplains High Court case limits the ability of the Commonwealth to fund except to those initiatives consistent with the legislative powers listed in Section 51 of the Constitution except if it goes via states. Key responsibilities for health, education, transport, infrastructure, housing, land are all controlled by the states.

We also need to think about how we manage vertical fiscal imbalance with hostile governments if we want another tier of government to adopt a Green New Deal.

It means we have to be creative. For example, there may be constitutional impediments for nationalisation but not the establishment of new public enterprises. We also need to think about how a Green New Deal equivalent looks at each level of government, not just the Commonwealth. We have to talk about not a singular Green New Deal but rather multiple ones.

Multiple deals are also necessary to show ambitious actions to achieve climate justice are possible. One of the many lessons of the British election was that people simply did not believe Labour’s policies were possible or believable. In recent memory, people here will cite National Broadband Network or pink batts/school halls as examples of failed government planning. We need to demonstrate scaleable change is possible and it will work by constructing the building blocks for change right now.

There are, in particular, three key questions we will need to think about as we pursue Green New Deals. There are no easy answers but we need to think about it because it is easy to get swept up in grand visions. We need utopianism to inspire us but we also need to be prepared for these challenges.

1. Is the Green New Deal a policy or process?

While many have spoken about a Green New Deal, the actual details remain light on, just as with the original New Deal when Franklin Delano Roosevelt first spoke of it. Ask different people and it means different things. When Malcolm Turnbull is referring to a Green New Deal, it highlights that the term is being used as a shorthand by some for “not carbon pricing”.

In determining whether it is a policy or process, we will be deciding what is the role of expertise versus the democratic will. This dichotomy will be a tension that needs to be managed, as the Green New Deal is a contested orientation.

We also need to be wary of simply putting forward a shopping list of policies we already wanted. There are plenty of things we must do like upgrade and decarbonise electricity grids, build new infrastructure, retrofit houses, transform our transportation system and expand leisure time. But while policy wonks love detail, a harsh lesson from the 2019 Australian federal election is that policy detail does not win over swinging voters in marginal seats.

This lack of consensus comes from a second issue.

2. Climate or Capitalism?

There are ecosocialists who are pushing a strongly anti-capitalist element to the Green New Deal, focused on the four Ds of decommodification, democratisation, decarbonisation, decolonisation. There are also suggestions of a “Red Deal” that puts decolonisation and ecosocialism at the centre.

But time is of the essence. With only a decade, do we work with sections of organised capital that are decoupling from carbon intensive and extractive capital? Australia’s political economy means we face a fight against large, influential resource extractive and carbon intensive companies who will stop at nothing to avoid stranded assets.

The most prominent progressive orientation of a Green New Deal does not eliminate profit or the role of markets even if there is a push for a steady state of growth. It is a rejection of the stark utopia of neoliberalism for a democratic mixed economy.

A Green New Deal as our moonshot, the framing that Alexandria Ocasio Cortez uses, comes from economist Marianna Mazzucato.

Mazzucato gives this example of how the US government in the 1960s created systems and incentives to encourage the public and private sector to develop the technology for a moon landing. They set an outcome of landing on the moon by the end of the decade but they did not prescribe the method.

A climate moonshot means the outcomes are not to be determined by finance and market forces. While profit incentives are tapped into, there is a bigger role for the state in economic planning and co-ordination.

Undoubtedly, there is an anti-capitalist logic within a Green New Deal as there is in both social democratic and democratic socialist thinking. American academic Erik Olin Wright outlined four logics of anti-capitalism: taming capitalism, smashing capitalism, escaping capitalism and eroding capitalism.

Erik Olin Wright argued that we need to tame capitalism in ways that make it more erodible, and erode capitalism in ways that make it more tameable” and part of the Green New Deal requires the social democratic taming of capitalism and its erosion through the expansion of decommodified public services.

But how do we relate to the role of consumer capitalism as a driver of carbon emissions and ecological crisis? Is the Green New Deal about taming and eroding capitalism to enable alternatives to exist that we encourage and defend and hopefully displace its dominance? How does that mesh with a temporary popular front with sections of organised capital?

3. How do we decide between hard choices?

We need to think about what to do when it is a zero sum game and not everyone in our traditional alliance will be materially better off. Systemic change is hard and that is what is necessary.

A just transition and climate justice is spoken about but it is easier said than done. The fact is we do not have a successful model where communities are better off or just as well off.

The LaTrobe Valley and the automotive industry in South Australia provide lessons for economic transitions but there are still massive problems. An Australian Manufacturing Workers Union survey found that of former Holden workers in South Australia, less than 5% had a job with the same or better working conditions. Are we surprised that people are sceptical if the high profile examples are not fantastic?

Analysis from the Per Capita thinktank found that if coal mining was shut down overnight, $3.45 billion annually in wages would be taken out of Mackay, Central Queensland and the Hunter. What happens if we cannot have an equivalent “decent job” that people want to do in these resource dependent communities?

Those who suggest that people who work in forestry can just go work in ecotourism in Tasmania are rightly mocked. The idea that someone in mining can easily just go work or would want to work in tourism services is equally ludicrous, even more so after this pandemic. Is our plan, therefore, for the public to pay to maintain their salary levels or underwrite other industries in particular locations?

If we combine that with the scale of what needs to be done and the time we have, does it mean we have to override local communities? What if it is a case of the experts knowing best? Do need to shut down industries now rather than a gradual transition? What is the acceptable social and economic price?

If we are serious, we have to think about these issues, especially in an Australian context that is different to the United States or Europe. Even if we do not have the answers to these tough questions right now, we cannot let a failure to think through these big challenges be what stops a push for a Green New Deal at every level of government.

With a decade to make the changes we need and outline concrete demands that resonate with Australians, we cannot afford to wonder if we should have fought for something more to achieve climate justice, we need to do it.

Osmond Chiu is the editor of Challenge. He is Senior Policy and Research Officer at the CPSU (Community and Public Sector Union) and a Research Fellow at Per Capita. He is also a rank and file member of the NSW Labor Policy Forum. Twitter Facebook


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