There isn’t much hope that the Liberal Party of Australia will steer away from the hothouse-earth dystopia they seem hell-bent on driving us into. State governments, however, have all set targets of net zero by 2050. Out of seven states and two territories, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) holds government in five; they’re in a position to fill much of the yawning climate-policy vacuum, yet there’s not a state Labor government on track to meet its own targets.
It’s not just a question of lethargy. Victorian premier Daniel Andrews is from the left of the ALP and is sometimes hailed as Australia’s most progressive state leader. He is also one of the most popular premiers in the country, his already impressive lead bolstered by his government’s decisive response to the pandemic. Despite abundant political capital, for every step taken to mitigate climate collapse, he has taken two steps backward. Analysis in 2019 showed that under Victoria’s existing trajectory, it won’t reach net zero until 2062.
Worse, under the cover of COVID-19, Andrews has expanded logging and lifted the moratorium on new onshore gas exploration. These moves risk locking Victoria into fossil-fuel dependency for decades to come.
Gas advocates, who have long marketed gas as a “transition fuel,” are now using the COVID-19 crisis to call for gas expansion as a job creator. Australian Workers’ Union Victorian branch secretary Ben Davis echoed this several months ago, criticizing the now-lifted moratorium, saying that new gas projects would help boost employment.
However, even if something comes of this new gas exploration, it is unlikely to generate significant employment. According to Climate Council senior researcher Tim Baxter, linking jobs with fossil fuel expansion is a standard marketing spin:
On basically every fossil fuel project that I am aware of, when someone has paid attention to the jobs numbers and started to interrogate them, they’ve been shown to be incredibly heroic . . . and arguments based on heroism and nonsense don’t fly.
This is especially true in the heavily mechanized gas sector.
The premier’s own press release bought into the spin, promising that new gas projects could create 6,400 jobs. But on closer inspection, it’s more heroic nonsense. The report that forms the basis for his claim refers to 6,400 “job years” – that is, ten years of full-time work for 640 people, a far cry from 6,400 lifetime jobs.
Unlike the Labor Right or the Liberal Party, the ALP left genuflects to environmentalism. Pressured by environmentalists, Andrews has outlined plans to phase out native-forest logging by 2030. Yet Labor’s recent decisions show how beholden it is to the powerful forestry industry and the conservative forestry wing of the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU).
In addition to guaranteeing development of renewables, this could also fatally undermine the job-creation arguments used by fossil fuel advocates. For example, fixing grid connection difficulties, which are a significant contributor to the recent woes of the solar and wind industry, could also contribute powerfully to solving the unemployment crisis. According to Victorian Trades Hall just transitions organizer Colin Long, “There’s years of work in the grid infrastructure work that we need to do to get the grid ready for 100 percent or 200 percent renewables,” Long says, adding that such work is labor-intensive and can’t be offshored in any way.
However, more government and union involvement in the sector is needed to address the ‘“wild west” labour culture in alternative energy that the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) has been fighting for years. Because renewable energy projects are “reverse-auctioned” to the private sector, winning companies minimize labor costs wherever they can, such as hiring unlicensed backpackers to carry out electrical work.
The ETU has shown there is an alternative. Last year, the union demanded that Queensland put off all large-scale renewable energy projects until it had put together a just transition plan that provided a “responsible, diversified public-owned renewable energy sector that provides jobs and job security.” The ongoing fight led to the launch of the publicly owned renewable energy developer CleanCo, which will start work on the first state-owned wind farm later this year.
As a first step, this could be replicated in other states. After all, the economic and political conditions of 2020 are better suited to ambitious democratic-socialist environmental policy than any in recent history. The response to COVID-19 has shown that governments remain powerful actors, not merely impotent managers of the flows of global capital.
Yet taking advantage of this historic opportunity calls for a government with both the concrete vision and courage to swim against the neoliberal tide. Daniel Andrews and his Labor left state government may be reluctant participants in the death march to climate collapse. But without a sharp and decisive break from neoliberal, market-oriented policies, the march will continue apace.