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A Story For A Nation: Capturing Climate Change For Social Democrats

In the first think-piece for 2012, Christian Downie has written about the opportunities that arise for social democrats when tackling the seemingly vexed issue of climate change.

One of the arts of politics is storytelling, establishing a narrative that people can engage with. It is why politicians often talk about great teachers when explaining education reform, cancer patients when supporting healthcare funding, or the hardships of carers when advocating a disability insurance scheme.

It is no surprise then, that Tony Abbott is so keen to link the recent accounts of workers who could lose their jobs in the manufacturing sector to the introduction of a carbon tax. Of course, it would help if there was some truth in it, but he’s is trying to tell a story.

But what should the narrative of the Federal Labor Government be as it seeks to address the problem of climate change while keeping the focus on the economy?

This is not an easy question to answer. For social-democratic parties, like the Australian Labor Party, the politics of climate change are unenviable.

Attacked from the Left for shirking responsibility to take action commensurate with the scale of the problem of climate change, and from the Right for extreme policies that threaten economic growth and living standards in pursuit of an invisible problem; social-democratic parties around the world have struggled to establish an overarching narrative.

Yet if they are to muster the broad political support necessary for government and address the problem of climate change, they need to articulate a vision for the future that is coherent and inspires. Past visions of socialism and class solidarity worked because they met both criteria, but the societies they appealed to no longer exist. Society is more fragmented and the political challenges that follow mean that the Labor Party needs to offer more than simply “action on climate change”.

What is required is a vision that transcends the issue of climate change as an environmental issue and instead engages all Australians. A vision that provides an overarching narrative that can incorporate social, economic and environmental reforms.

Some have argued for a “cosmopolitan social democracy” that goes beyond national governments and national interest. This is appealing given that many of the most important issues that social democratic parties grapple with in the 21st Century – war, poverty and climate change – are global issues that require global solutions.

Yet in the current political setting, it is hard to envisage how such cosmopolitan appeals will address the political challenge faced by labour parties. It may appeal to progressive urban professional, but not to other constituencies that social democratic parties need for support.

At the same time, nation states remain the most powerful actors in the international sphere, and their actions will be crucial for global action. The result of the United Nations climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009 reinforces this point. The negotiations in the Danish capital did not falter because of a failure of international negotiations, they failed because many national governments did not have sufficient domestic support to commit to the actions that were necessary.

Despite the era of globalisation in which we live, the power to resolve critical international issues still resides in nation states. This is not to say that global problems should be ignored by national governments, it is simply to recognise that support for such actions in democratic countries begins at home.

The Federal Labor Government therefore needs a national narrative couched in national terms. A narrative that incorporates social policies as well as environment policies, energy policies as well as agricultural policies. Instead of trying to win one issue at a time, a national narrative would be overarching. It should speak of nation building, new institutions and investment in future technologies.

For the Labor Party, such a narrative would provide the political space to talk about big ideas without being wedged on single issues. The institutions to underpin a “clean energy future” would fit well into this narrative. These are not environmental policies or social policies, they are nation building policies. As a result, they are much harder to attack from the left or the right and they are much easier to explain if they form part of a coherent story.

Structural reforms to address climate change will struggle to attract sufficient support whenever they are seen as special interests issues. The Greens may raise awareness about climate change, but they will never be in a position to address the problem while they are defined by it.

To inspire the necessary support to tackle a problem of the scale of climate change will require a vision that is commensurate in scale. A social democratic vision that envisages a better society built on better institutions.

This approach also has the benefit of positing grand solutions that not only inspire but that enable the Labor Party to reach out to the competing constituencies required to form government.

For Labor`s industrial base a nation building narrative speaks about jobs in new and revitalised industries with the infrastructure to match. For progressive urban professional it speaks of grand aspirations to invest in the future and establish the institutions to confront some of the most critical national and international issues from climate change to poverty. For business it holds out the prospect of an economic environment that is modelled to lead the world in the industries of the future, underpinned by a world class education system and a highly skilled workforce.

This is not a policy agenda for a three year election cycle but it is a vision which competing constituencies can buy into to achieve electoral success. It also provides a framework in which more specific policies can be contextualised with coherence.

Until the Federal Government begins to speak in these terms it will continue to fight one issue at a time, fending off attacks from the left and the right. And until it does so, it will find it much more difficult to inspire a generation of activists that will be needed to transform a story into a reality.

Indeed, the social democratic programs that we remember today were successful because they put forward a transformative vision of society, which could inspire a nation. When Prime Minister Ben Chifley spoke of “the light on the hill”, he spoke of working for “the betterment of mankind”. When President Franklin Roosevelt spoke of a “New Deal”, in the midst of the Great Depression, he spoke of a “march along the path of real progress, of real justice, of real equality for all of our citizens, great and small”. Great challenges require great visions that inspire hope and precipitate action.

Christian Downie is a political scientist in the Regulatory Institutions Network at the Australian National University. 

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Chifley Research Centre

The Chifley Research Centre is the Labor Party’s official think tank, committed to the advancement of public policy debate and progressive thinking in Australia.

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