OPINION

Albanese is running out of time to solve Labor's climate crisis. He needs a plan that works for two Australias

The heat is on Anthony Albanese over Labor's stance on emissions reduction. Picture: Getty Images
The heat is on Anthony Albanese over Labor's stance on emissions reduction. Picture: Getty Images

The recent "crass course" in presidential absurdity made Australians conversant with arcane features like the electoral college, the oddly pivotal role of the TV networks, and the brash taxonomy of voters by race, gender, and "college" education.

But surely the most eye-catching graphics during the painfully ad hoc count were the individual state tallies, which showed that even when states appeared as overwhelmingly Republican red on a county-by-county basis, some still flipped to the Democrats on the strength of a smaller number of blue squares.

The trick? These azure islands denoted population clusters in cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Phoenix.

The left-right difference between urbanised Americans and the more sparsely distributed rural-regional ones was starkly displayed in primary colours.

Not that the division itself was new, nor especially American.

British Labour's Eurocentric cosmopolitanism cut little ice across England's industrial north during the Brexit referendum in 2016, the same year once-rusted-on working-class Democrats first broke for Donald Trump.

And of course in Australia, this trend of capital cities versus the rest is also well established.

Indeed, Coalition majorities have long been built on the need for niche messaging, in which Liberals garner the city vote and leave the Nationals to reinterpret the conservative brand for bush ears.

As a one-message-fits-all party the ALP has long struggled with this, and as the two Australias become more distinct, bridging the divide is becoming all but impossible.

Some MPs in coal-mining electorates feel a deal with the Greens would sink any chance Labor has of returning to government. Picture: Shutterstock

Some MPs in coal-mining electorates feel a deal with the Greens would sink any chance Labor has of returning to government. Picture: Shutterstock

Natonally, Labor's primary vote is stuck in the low-to-mid 30 per cent range, and in the big resources states it sits even lower.

Even with Greens preferences that's insufficient to secure a majority, prompting some in Labor to suggest a Liberal/National-style partnership with the more left-wing party.

But it is far from clear how this would maximise the combined lower house seat haul, given both parties currently court the same inner-city electors.

More likely is that a heavily urban-reliant Labor-Greens ticket would accelerate the disenchantment of blue-collar conservatives in industrially centred regional seats.

This is already happening.

According to Joel Fitzgibbon, who resigned recently from the frontbench, Labor's ambitious 45 per cent 2030 emissions reduction promise at the last election was "crazy".

Pushed to preferences following a 14 per cent primary vote slump, Fitzgibbon believes the proposed cut was kryptonite in his coal-dominated seat, and in regional communities up and down the eastern seaboard.

The Hunter Valley-based MP and others in the Right faction argue such communities feel abandoned by a party beholden to inner-city progressives.

While Labor MPs are increasingly pessimistic over their electoral prospects, some on the right insist the party is doomed unless it actively reconnects with its industrial roots.

That means dropping the climate change focus.

"We have to speak to, and be a voice for, all those who we seek to represent, whether they be in Surry Hills or Rockhampton. And that's a difficult balance," Fitzgibbon told reporters, announcing his resignation from the frontbench.

For Anthony Albanese, a difficult equation is becoming diabolical.

He needs to both outflank the Greens on his capacity to deliver, and outperform the Coalition on commitment, while also now putting down a rebellion inside his caucus wanting him to raise the white flag.

Right-aligned MPs, buttressed by powerful unions, argue that steering closer to the Coalition than the Greens is the only way to secure government.

But Labor's paid-up membership and a clear majority of its MPs favour a clear acknowledgment of the scientific evidence - evidence which calls unambiguously for the phasing out of fossil fuels in the next decade or two.

In a sign of things to come, the blaze of publicity surrounding Fitzgibbon's resignation completely derailed Labor's attempt to highlight how the new Biden White House had left the Morrison government exposed as the only serious economy explicitly not committed to a net-zero timeline.

But Fitzgibbon, who says support for his position in caucus is substantial, wants Labor to simply tuck in behind the Morrison government's 26 per cent by 2030 target and allow it to take any opprobrium for climate failure.

Yet this too would be politically calamitous.

With an election possible within 12 months, time to reconcile these oil-and-water imperatives is fast running out.

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It is a perfect storm. On the one hand, rising pessimism over Labor's ability to compete with the Morrison government - especially during a pandemic. On the other, rising community impatience for decisive climate action.

That the opposition has not yet named interim emissions-reduction targets for 2030 and 2035, despite parading its commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050, speaks to its nervousness. Its rhetoric stresses urgency, its actual policy, something closer to hesitation.

Insiders know any repeat of its 2019 each-way bet on the Adani coal mine will be a gift to the Greens.

As a policy showdown looms, so too does the ever-present danger to Albanese of it morphing into a leadership stoush.

The Left's Tanya Plibersek and the Right's Jim Chalmers are regarded as the most credible alternatives.

While only capitulation would satisfy right-wing malcontents, another school of thought favours a doubling down, based on the simple arithmetic that a dozen-plus Coalition seats are held by margins of under 5 per cent. Wins in the cities could compensate for the loss of regional electorates.

Perhaps Labor's only hope of keeping both sides in the tent is to propose a bold, generously funded and forward-leaning transition fund, which doesn't just talk about green jobs and retraining but actually pays displaced workers in advance for everything from the loss of income to the loss of businesses, house values, and full family relocation costs.

Taking advantage of the low cost of borrowing, this multibillion-dollar brown-to-green transition fund could guarantee that workers in phased-out sectors would not be asked to carry the costs of what is in any event a nationwide priority and a national economic reconfiguration.

Could this be Labor's new "4 Rs" formula? Representation, reparation, reform and renewal?

It's hard to imagine that anything less would change the game for Labor.

  • Mark Kenny is a professor at ANU's Australian Studies Institute and hosts the politics podcast Democracy Sausage. This article first appeared on The Conversation.
This story Albanese is running out of time to solve Labor's climate crisis first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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