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Reclaiming The Environment For The Labour Movement

This is the first in our Young Progressive Leaders series, we will be posting blog entries from those who participated in the inaugural Young Progressive Leaders Program.

Anyone who’s been following the carbon tax debate recently (and really, who can avoid it) may have had cause to wonder, why is the Labor Party pinning so much on climate change?

There must be some who resent the environment being such a dominant issue. Why can’t Labor just talk about health, or education, or industrial relations? Why not leave the environment stuff to the Greens?

The reality, though, is that environment protection must be at the very centre of what Labor stands for. The Labor Party and the labour movement have to reclaim the environment as their issue not just because they can’t avoid it, but because it’s inextricably linked to everything that they already stand for.

Environment protection is about social justice. Environmental problems are invariably created by the rich and powerful, and suffered by the poor and vulnerable. Environment protection is all about the fair distribution of environmental costs and benefits. It’s a classic labour issue.

Environment protection is about human beings, not just trees and animals. Climate change means more bushfires, more floods, and more droughts, all of which spell disaster for vulnerable people, especially rural communities.

It is working people who will suffer if the companies who employ them can’t adjust to a low-carbon economy. It is the poor and underprivileged who are least able to adapt to climate change and its impacts. It is developing nations who will be underwater first. Clearly, protecting these people is core business for Labor.

It’s not just climate change, either. Human beings benefit from ‘ecosystem services’ provided by many parts of the environment. A healthy Murray-Darling rivers system, for example, is essential to sustaining the regional economy and regional communities.

Environment protection is about economic prosperity. The Labor Party has always stood for tough economic reforms that guaranteed our long-term prosperity. The need to shift our economy to a model that our planet can sustain will be one of the biggest and toughest economic transformations we’ve seen yet.

Even if it weren’t such a classic progressive issue, Labor simply doesn’t have a choice. A strong environment policy is increasingly becoming a political necessity for a progressive party.

Labor has already lost a large chunk of its base over its weak approach to the environment – particularly the decision to dump the CPRS. The electoral cost of a weak environment policy will only grow over time, as the environment challenge grows more and more urgent.

The fact that Labor is losing these voters to the Greens is no consolation. Although Greens preferences generally flow to Labor anyway, Labor needs its progressive base for more than just votes. It needs engaged, inspired, committed activists to drive its values and policies (not to mention political candidates).

Labor is perilously close to losing a generation of progressive activists to the Greens. It needs to reclaim the 66,000 young people who have flocked to the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, who spend election day wearing ‘Vote Climate’ T-shirts and handing out how-to-vote cards that preference the Greens.

Besides, imagine if Labor could make the environment a political strength? Imagine if it could overcome this perennial weakness, by ditching the middle-of-the-road policies that open it to attack from the Coalition and the Greens, and fighting from a strong progressive position?

It’s unlikely that Labor will ever be green enough to win back all the voters who have left it for the Greens. But it can certainly win back most of them. It can convince a critical mass of progressive Australians that Labor is unambiguously pro-environment, but better at implementing its policies than a minor party.

After all, that’s the way it used to be. The ALP has a proud history of environment protection. It was Bob Brown who protested the Franklin Dam, but it was Bob Hawke who made sure it wasn’t built. It was Hawke who defied the international community and protected Antarctica from mining. It was Whitlam who introduced Australia’s first environmental impact assessment laws. Let’s face it – Labor was green before it was cool.

If it is serious about winning the fight for progressive Australia, it needs to be green again. So long as the progressive movement in Australia remains split into two parts – red and green – it will lose. The labour movement needs to make peace with the green movement, and bring them back into the fold.

The only way to do that is to get serious about environment protection. Labor needs a Murray-Darling Basin Plan that will actually sustain the Murray-Darling Basin. It needs to be honest and tough about the environmental risks that coal mining and coal-seam gas extraction pose. It needs to get much more serious about sustaining biodiversity. And it needs a strong commitment to climate change, which recognises that a carbon price is just the first step.

It’s been a long, hard fight over the carbon price, no doubt about it. But unless Labor puts the environment at the very front and centre of its values and policies, and rebuilds a single progressive movement that combines the red and greens wings into a winning coalition, it won’t get any easier.

Mick Power is Victorian Co-convenor of the Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN). He works at the Environment Defenders Office (Victoria), a public interest environment law NGO. Follow him on twitter at @mick_power.

This article first appeared on the Progressive Australia website

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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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