To Take Real Action on Climate Change, Australia Must Rebuild Its Public Sector

In 2014, Australian Labor PM Julia Gillard’s Clean Energy Act tried to use market mechanisms to take climate action. Its failure underscores the fact that only public investment in climate action will do.

Australian opposition leader Anthony Albanese addresses Labor supporters following the general election, May 21, 2022. (Wendell Teodoro / AFP via Getty Images)

In June 2011, the minority Labor government led by Julia Gillard introduced world-leading climate policy. Known as the Clean Energy Act, by 2014 the policy was dead thanks to Labor’s 2013 loss to the Liberal Party’s Tony Abbott. It was the beginning of a long nine years in opposition for the Australian Labor Party (ALP), during which Australia’s emissions increased as climate disasters become more frequent and severe.

The results of the 2022 federal election in part reflect the increased importance and urgency of taking real action on climate change. Although Anthony Albanese’s Labor government has a slim majority in the lower house, the wave of support for “teal,” pro-climate independents as well as the Greens signals an electorate hungry for climate reform. Having increased their senate representation from nine to twelve, the Greens hold the balance of power in the upper house.

Despite this, moments after Albanese was sworn in as PM, his climate minister, Chris Bowen, dismissed Greens’ demands to increase the pace of decarbonizing the economy. It’s not just that Labor’s policy is unequal to the challenge facing the planet. In the context of an ongoing health crisis, rising costs of living, and increasing insecurity in jobs and housing, Labor’s refusal to back serious climate action will make the party vulnerable to the same kind of right-wing attacks that brought down the Clean Energy Act in the early 2010s.

The Ill-Fated Clean Energy Act

When Julia Gillard assumed ALP leadership in 2010, she quickly abandoned Kevin Rudd’s emission trading policy and struck a deal with mining executives to water down his proposed tax on mining industry superprofits. Gillard instead proposed a citizens’ assembly to develop climate policy, which was widely criticized as a delay tactic.

After the 2010 election, however, without a lower house majority, Gillard needed the support of the Greens and a number of rural independents to form a government and pass legislation. While negotiating for this support, Gillard dropped the citizens’ assembly and instead assembled the parliamentary Climate Change Committee to expedite the process of developing emissions reduction reform.

The committee included representatives from Labor, the Greens, and the independents, and after consulting with climate and policy experts, it quickly reached a consensus policy position. When Gillard’s government announced the Clean Energy Act, it was heralded as world-leading. When it became law in June 2011, it was widely celebrated by the climate movement.

However, by 2013, a tenacious and disciplined campaign led by Liberal opposition leader Tony Abbott had decimated Gillard’s personal popularity. Seizing on Gillard’s preelection commitment that there would “be no carbon tax under the government I lead,” he branded her “Ju-Liar” — a label that stuck. Abbott described the Clean Energy Act as “a great big tax on everything” and focused his campaign on rising power prices and cost of living pressures. Although the Clean Energy Act included rebates for low-income earners, Labor’s argument that households were better off under the policy failed to resonate with voters. Abbott easily won the 2013 election and quickly wound back almost all of the gains won under the Gillard government.

This defeat cast a long shadow on climate policy in Australia. The Labor Party regularly cites their fear at another successful scare campaign like Abbott’s as part of the reason why they have repeatedly wound back their climate policy despite increasingly urgent warnings from climate scientists.

The Right-Wing Playbook for Destroying Climate Policy

During the Rudd-Gillard years, Labor sought to take climate action by creating market mechanisms and signals. These included a price on carbon, renewable energy targets, and financing clean energy. By outsourcing these decisions to the market, it appears as though Labor was hoping to take credit for reducing emissions while simultaneously deflecting blame over job losses in emissions-intensive industries.

Emission reduction policies that rely on market mechanisms, targets, and caps are difficult to defend. They are easily misrepresented as taxes or as responsible for increasing prices, while their benefits are slower, less tangible, and more difficult to explain. Tony Abbott demonstrated this by blaming cost of living pressures and job losses on a carbon tax. The fossil fuel lobby and their political allies will doubtlessly deploy similar tactics against any new proposal that would effectively reduce emissions.

While action on climate change remains popular, there is much less support for a carbon price. And as we saw during the Gillard years, a carbon price is vulnerable to attacks from the right. The Coalition knows that climate action is a fracture point, both inside the Labor Party and between the ALP and its base. Regardless of what Albanese does, we can expect them to pursue a wedge strategy similar to the one they successfully deployed under Abbott.

Indeed, as the cost of living rises and employment pressures worsen, attempts to place the blame on climate action may gain traction. Make no mistake: Peter Dutton’s coalition will blame everything on climate policy, from increasing energy prices to job losses. Meanwhile, the Right will use their Murdoch media culture-war machine to pit a mythical inner-city elite against suburban and rural workers. The more technocratic or impenetrable the climate policy, the more vulnerable it will be to these kinds of attacks.

Climate policy can be inspiring, popular, and transformational, but that requires some honest conversations. The future of humanity depends on all remaining fossil fuels being left in the ground. This necessarily means that jobs in coal, gas, and oil industries must cease to exist. It means that regional economies that have relied on these industries will have to change. If Labor tries to skirt around these conversations — as they did during Bill Shorten’s failed 2019 election bid — they play right into the divide-and-conquer strategy that the fossil fuel industry has relied on for years.

Expanding climate policy is just as important as winning it and defending. And the first step is to realize that market solutions are dead in the water. The scale of change required to reduce emissions to zero and build resilience to climate disasters will require more than one piece of legislation. Energy, transport, housing, city planning, food production, and supply chains are all going to need to be transformed to handle a warming world. This is a decades-long governing project requiring reforms at every level of government. This project needs to start now and it needs to demonstrate immediate benefits to working people, especially those who are on the front lines of the economic change required.

Building a Working-Class Climate Constituency

Labor has secured government with the lowest primary vote of any government in postwar Australia. Their support is shallow and unstable, and this is not just a result of the small-target strategy deployed in this election but a decades-long trend. While the path back to power for the Liberal-National Coalition looks difficult, politics is becoming more volatile and elections harder to predict. The Coalition has already shown itself capable of whipping up a backlash against climate reforms, and the fossil fuel lobby has deep pockets to fund these campaigns. Labor underestimated Tony Abbott and they would be wise not to do the same with Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton.

To defend against the inevitable attacks that the Right will deploy, Labor needs to pursue a strategy that ties decarbonization directly to tangible improvements in people’s lives. There is no shortage of work to do, and much of it will provide immediate material benefits to working-class lives. From building a million energy-efficient homes to rebuilding public services and investing in the health care system, the benefits of taking this kind of climate action would be immediately felt.

In government, Labor has the opportunity to build a stable, long-term political base that ties its fortunes to decarbonization projects. One of the most promising proposals is a Climate Jobs Guarantee. Rather than obscuring emission reduction behind market incentives, Labor could guarantee a good job to everyone who wants one, undertaking the meaningful and dignified work of decarbonizing our economy and preparing for worsening climate impacts. By delivering real, material gains in the form of good jobs and benefits to the community as a whole, Labor could construct a political base that has a deep commitment to decarbonization.

William Lawrence from the Sunrise Movement in the United States made a similar case for making a Civilian Climate Corps (CCC) one of the first steps in implementing a Green New Deal:

Imagine 1.5 million young people connecting with their communities and their environment through a shared experience of dignified public employment. Imagine these 1.5 million getting a taste of actually building sustainability and resilience in their hometowns. Imagine friends and neighbors envying CCC workers for the opportunity to work and serve, and wanting it for themselves. In this world, climate change is more than something to fear or ignore; it’s an invitation to act together for the common good.

A Historic Opportunity

Labor must change the way it views climate action. Instead of seeing it as a risk to be managed, the ALP needs to think of climate action as an opportunity to build a stable, long-term governing coalition.

By returning to a policy of full employment and tying it explicitly to decarbonization efforts, Labor could make it self-evident that climate action tangibly and materially benefits working-class people right now. To develop the infrastructure for a climate job guarantee, Labor could look to the old Commonwealth Employment Service for inspiration and renationalize existing job service providers, which currently do little more than harass the unemployed on the public dollar. Instead of forcing workers into precarious, low-paid jobs entirely in the private sector, we could offer people meaningful work contributing to their community. Australians have never been fans of privatization, and rebuilding the public sector has always enjoyed wide political support.

By guaranteeing dignified work in a rebuilt public sector that’s tackling the climate crisis, Labor could place itself on solid political ground to weather any attack the fossil fuel lobby throws at it. The alternative — ineffectual, market-based technocratic moderation — failed badly under Gillard. Instead, Labor’s weak primary vote — and the insurgent Green vote — should send Albanese’s government a message. Now is the time to put Australia to work to solve the climate crisis and the cost of living crisis at the same time, under a rebuilt public service.