At first glance, the federal election outcome is a disaster for the campaign against Adani and the broader environment movement. In the face of the scientific consensus about the need for drastic cuts to emissions, a government stacked with coal fondlers and climate change deniers has been returned.
Australia was already among the world’s biggest climate criminals. And now the same gang is back in charge – locking in, it seems, at least three more years of climate vandalism at a time when there needs to be a sharp turn in the other direction.
Three more years in which record quantities of coal will continue to be shovelled onto global markets, and three more years of roadblocks in the path of renewable energy. This will all but sound the death knell of the Great Barrier Reef and propel us further towards a scorched-earth Australia ravaged by increasingly destructive droughts, fires, cyclones and floods, and threatened by coastal inundation and the widespread collapse of ecosystems.
For the fossil fuel barons, it’s Christmas. The mining boom, which has brought them riches beyond imagination, can go on unencumbered by any responsibility for the future of the planet. They can rest assured that, with the Team A of Australian big business still in the saddle, the billions in public subsidies will continue and any threat to their interests – from unionists, environmentalists, Indigenous activists or anyone else – will be dealt with harshly.
Adding to the gloom is the fact that the Labor Party “opposition” appear to have drawn the lesson that they should drop even the pretence of a commitment to transitioning away from fossil fuels. In the aftermath of the election, they’ve fallen over themselves to reassure the mining barons that, whatever unfortunate statements the party may have made previously, Labor loves coal just as much as the other side.
For anyone who cares about the natural world, or our human society that depends on it, this situation is a disaster. The outlook was gloomy no matter what happened in this election. But in the long march towards a new dark age of destructive capitalist irrationalism, it feels like another light has just gone out.
Understandably perhaps, some in the environment movement have drawn pessimistic conclusions about the future of climate action in Australia. At the sharp edge of this is the debate about the role of Bob Brown’s stop-Adani convoy in Labor’s defeat.
According to the ABC’s Allyson Horn, “When Bob Brown’s anti-Adani convoy rolled through the Sunshine State demanding voters shun coal, he hammered a nail in Bill Shorten’s electoral coffin”. What Queensland voters cared about most, argued Horn, was jobs. In their eyes, the convoy posed a direct threat to the “jobs bonanza” promised by supporters of the Adani mine. This drove them into the arms of the Coalition.
Other commentators have applied the same line of thinking to environmental protest more generally. Writing in the Age on 24 May, in an article titled “I doubt I’ll bother attending another climate rally”, Nicola Philp drew some pretty bleak conclusions from her attendance at that day’s big Extinction Rebellion protest in Melbourne.
Philp was concerned about the element of disruption involved in the protest – the blocking of traffic and inconveniencing of pedestrians attempting just to go about their business. “In the age of social media and very busy lives”, she argued, “such disruption to passers-by may actually be detrimental to the cause and serve to tick people off more than engage them with the issue of the protest”.
“The disruption”, she went on, “relegates the protesters immediately into the left-wing nutter category who have less than nothing to do and whose message isn’t worth listening to”.
Philp doesn’t offer any insight into what environmentalists should be doing instead. Her only concern is that, whatever it is, it shouldn’t be disruptive. The clear implication is that we should limit ourselves to the kind of respectable “behind the scenes” lobbying, letter writing, PR campaigns and so on that have been the stock in trade of the mainstream environment movement for decades.
Why we should expect a better outcome from such activities now, when they have achieved so little in the past, is left unclear.
Did the stop-Adani convoy cost Labor the election?
On the face of it, the theory may seem to hold some water. The biggest swings towards the Coalition all happened in rural and regional Queensland seats surrounding the proposed mine site. Human slug George Christensen gained a two party preferred swing of 11.5 percent in his seat of Dawson. Similar big swings were gained by Michelle Landry in Capricornia (11.5 percent), and Ken O’Dowd in Flynn (7.1 percent).
Labor lost two seats in Queensland – Herbert, with a swing against them of 8.2 percent, and Longman, with a swing of 4.2 percent. The party now holds just five of the state’s 30 seats.
Based on the raw data alone, it’s clear something went very wrong for Labor in these areas. Even taking into account that much of the swing to the Coalition is explained by preference flows from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party, the reality is that Labor was very much on the nose.
And it’s reasonable to suggest that the campaign against Adani in general, and Bob Brown’s convoy in particular, may not have gone down very well with locals fed up with the lack of jobs in northern Queensland and hopeful that the Carmichael mine might turn things around.
But the fact that the right could so effectively weaponise the stop-Adani convoy – using it to present Labor’s equivocal position on the issue as siding with inner-city elites against ordinary workers in Queensland – is something for which Labor itself, and its allies in the unions, have only themselves to blame.
This culture war narrative could get traction only because of the inability, and at times unwillingness, of Labor and the unions, over many years, to offer anything resembling a political alternative to the right’s belligerent invocation of jobs to bludgeon environmentalists.
In the lead-up to the election, the mining division of the Queensland construction and maritime union, the CFMMEU, called on Labor candidates to sign a pledge stating, “I support coal mining jobs and recognise their value to our communities [and] … I support approval of coal mining developments that meet regulatory requirements”.
Unionists from the CFMMEU were prominent at the “Start Adani” counter-protests that greeted Bob Brown’s convoy as it travelled towards the proposed mine site. According to an account by Lucy Stone in the Brisbane Times, at one rally in the town of Clermont, “pro-Adani politicians including Clive Palmer and Pauline Hanson spoke … confirming their support for the controversial mine to the joy of locals and unions alike”.
It didn’t have be like this. Imagine the difference it would have made if, instead of cheering on the likes of Palmer and Hanson, the unions had instead joined the campaign against Adani, and used their industrial muscle to force real government action on jobs for mining workers and others who might be impacted by the transition away from fossil fuels. In short, imagine their position had been “jobs and sustainability” rather than “jobs or sustainability”.
This might sound far-fetched. But you don’t have to look far to see examples of unions taking exactly this approach. Today’s CFMMEU is a descendent of the militant Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), which in the 1970s famously implemented a series of “green bans” that saved areas of natural and cultural significance threatened by development in cities around Australia.
More development would have meant more jobs for BLF members. But the leadership of the BLF had a broader political world view – they were socialists – that led them to refuse the right-wing counterposition of jobs and sustainability.
As then secretary of the NSW BLF Jack Mundey put it: “Though we want all our members employed, we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment. More and more, we are going to determine which buildings we will build”.
There’s no reason why the Queensland CFMMEU, and its mining division in particular, couldn’t have taken a similar approach to the issue of climate change. That they didn’t reflects the degeneration of union culture in Australia over the past few decades, a degeneration led from the top by a Labor Party that’s collaborated with the bosses and the Coalition in stifling union militancy and rank and file organising at every turn.
In addition to these reflections on the situation in Queensland, we also have to consider what happened in the rest of Australia. When you broaden the picture in this way, it becomes even clearer that pointing the figure at Bob Brown’s convoy is just a convenient way for Labor to avoid facing up to the real reasons for its defeat.
Outside regional Queensland, stopping Adani, with or without a plan for jobs, should have been a very popular proposition. The vast majority of Australians oppose the mine. Based on a representative sample of 119,682 people who completed the ABC’s Vote Compass survey, 61 percent of Australians either “strongly disagree” or “somewhat disagree” with the statement that “the Adani coal mine should be built”. Only 20 percent thought the mine should go ahead.
In most of Australia, Labor’s equivocal stance on Adani, and climate change in general, is likely only to have reinforced the impression that the party doesn’t really stand for much. If, instead of attempting to keep one leg in each camp, Labor had put forward a clear alternative – say a 10-year plan for a renewable energy transition, involving a ban on the construction of new coal mines, massive government investment in renewable energy infrastructure, public transport and so on, and a jobs guarantee for impacted workers – it might have gained more traction.
But while we can speculate about what hypothetical policy might have enabled the Labor Party to limp over the line in this election, the real problem is that the ALP clearly had no interest in offering anything better. The real question, then, isn’t so much why a party of outright climate vandals was re-elected, but why the two prospective parties of government are both climate vandals.
The despair at the re-election of the Coalition is understandable. These are people who’d happily watch the world burn if it meant a few extra billions in profit for their corporate mates. But the reality is that Labor would not have been much better.
Not only did they refuse to take a clear stand against the construction of the Carmichael mine, but their broader policies on fossil fuels and the environment showed a complete lack of commitment to meeting their stated goal of reducing emissions to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
Their climate policy barely mentions coal mining at all. There was no promise, for example, to stop or at least limit the construction of new coal mines, or to reduce the billions in government subsidies currently given to the fossil fuel industry. In addition, their plan to spend $1.5 billion to expand natural gas fracking in the Northern Territory and Queensland would have resulted, according to analysts, in significantly more emissions than would be released by the Carmichael mine.
Put simply, the Labor Party, despite their concern to offer a somewhat “greener” face than the Coalition, would still have been a government for the fossil fuel barons. Whatever they might have decided with regard to the specific case of Adani (and all indications were that they would have allowed the mine to go ahead), Australia, under Labor, would have remained the world’s king of coal for years to come.
Some environmentalists see this lack of vision on climate as reflecting the need for Labor to pander to the sentiments of the ignorant masses. This, presumably, is the thinking of those, like Age columnist Nicola Philp, who have concluded that the best course of action for the climate movement is to sit down and shut up.
But the idea that it’s the public that’s the drag on climate action is rubbish. Survey after survey over the past decade has shown that a majority of Australians want serious action – even if there are short term costs. The thing that needs explaining is why Labor has been so reluctant to offer it.
Election after election, all we get are long term targets and short term tinkering that’s vastly inadequate to the scale of the task. This lack of vision isn’t accidental. It reflects the self-imposed limitations of parties committed to governing within the parameters set by free market capitalism.
In Australia, more than in most countries, the capitalist system was built on fossil fuels. Any serious challenge to this industry would be seen as a threat not only to the fossil fuel barons themselves, but to the capitalist class as a whole. The Australian ruling class, whether they’re directly involved in the industry or not, are up to their necks in the riches it has brought.
Australia’s status as one of the world’s biggest exporters of fossil fuels also boosts its ability to project its power globally. The demand for Australian coal and other resources in countries like India and China, for instance, doesn’t just provide opportunities for fossil fuel companies. It helps open doors for capitalists in all sectors of the economy.
The influence of the fossil fuel industry over politics in Australia is commonly seen only as matter of it “capturing” politicians through donations to political parties, lobbying and so on. This is certainly a factor. But it’s not as though those who run the Australian state need much convincing.
For a start, many of those who occupy positions of power in Canberra, whether in parliament itself or at senior levels of the bureaucracy, have histories in the fossil fuel industry. The “revolving door” between politics and the boardrooms of Australia’s major mining companies is a busy one indeed.
Even without that, it’s an unquestioned belief among political leaders and senior public servants that they should strive always to act in the “national interest” – and that means the interests of Australia’s capitalist class. Whatever individual politicians might think about the destructiveness of fossil fuels, they can’t ignore the immensity of the profits they bring. And under capitalism, profit rules.
To question this would be to question the entire basis on which Australian capitalism has been built, and the means by which it has grown into and maintains itself as a significant regional power. It would be to question the quasi-religious belief in the sanctity of the market – that all-knowing, all-seeing god which, in the philosophy of neoliberalism, is the sole repository of all human wisdom.
As newly appointed leader of the Labor Party Anthony Albanese said when asked after the election about his views on whether the Carmichael mine should go ahead, “It’s not up to government to determine that, it’s up to markets”.
If we’re going to get the kind of action that scientists think is needed to halt the slide towards climate catastrophe, we need to challenge directly this kind of free market fundamentalism. We need, at the very least, a massive government-led intervention into the economy to drive a rapid shift away from fossil fuels. And it should be clear, by now, that the Labor Party is never going to be prepared to do this.
So should we all just bunker down and wait for the dark age of climate chaos to envelop us? Is all hope lost? No. Now isn’t a time for despair. It’s a time for rage.
Rage that we live in a “democracy” that’s rigged for the rich. Rage that the climate criminals occupying the boardrooms and parliaments of the world are the most able to buy their way out of the consequences of their actions. And rage that decades of political rhetoric about climate action have turned out to be nothing more than hot air. Against the power of the capitalist state, and the network of influence that binds it to the fossil fuel economy, we have to pit the rage, and the power, of the streets.
Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old who spearheaded the global School Strike for Climate movement, had it right when she spoke at the UN climate summit in Poland late last year. “We have not come here to beg world leaders to care for our future”, she said. “They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge.”
Historically, there is little precedent for positive reforms simply being offered by our rulers from on high. Again and again, they’ve had to be forced to accept change.
Whether it was universal suffrage, the right to form a union, civil-rights legislation in the US, equal pay for women or basically anything else you could name – our political leaders have had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, by the protests of ordinary people. And it has mattered little which political party has been in government. The fact that equal marriage legislation in Australia was won under a Coalition government is a case in point.
There are many positive signs for the future. The emergence of Extinction Rebellion (XR) is one. The movement, which formed in London late last year, both recognises the urgency and scale of the climate challenge and is prepared to take the kind of action needed to force it onto the political agenda.
It has clearly struck a nerve. Over the Easter weekend in London, tens of thousands of people were involved in actions that shut down or disrupted large areas of the city. More than 1,000 people were arrested – something which only increased the level of attention the movement, and issue, enjoyed.
Following the federal election, the Australian branch of XR organised a series of protests here, including the thousands-strong march through central Melbourne mentioned above. The atmosphere of this protest was very different from other climate actions of the past few years. The crowd was much younger – including many high school students – and the tone was much more militant and confrontational.
One of the major strengths of XR is its focus on mass direct action in major cities. Cities are the centres of political power, and if we’re going to win action on climate change, it’s here that the pressure must primarily be brought to bear.
We can only hope that XR’s actions continue to grow. The capitalist system is driving us rapidly towards climate catastrophe. We have to use every means at our disposal to disrupt this trajectory, to continuously harry the fossil fuel barons and the climate vandals in parliament, to throw our collective spanner into capitalism’s destructive works and cherish every grinding of its gears.
Ultimately though, we need to go beyond this. Mass direct action can go only so far. What is needed is the real social power of organised workers.
Bringing together the spirit of militant direct action of XR with a movement of strikes building out of the School Strike for Climate campaign is therefore a potential source of hope. Greta Thunberg has called for workers to join the next global climate strike on 20 September. The involvement of workers is crucial to the success of our movement. Protests on the streets can be ignored or repressed. When people stop work, it’s another matter entirely.
As the saying goes, the bosses need us, we don’t need them. Strike action stops the flow of profits at their source. If the strikes are widespread enough, they can bring the entire system to its knees. And because capitalism is entirely dependent on the labour of workers to function, they can’t just fix things by locking us all up.
Even very small scale strike action by workers on 20 September would be a gigantic step forward. It’s encouraging, with respect to this, that a number of union leaders in Australia, including, notably, the head of the maritime division of the Queensland CFMMEU, Bob Carnegie, have taken a clear stand against Adani and on the need for real action on climate change.
We need to recapture the spirit of the militant BLF – of unions fighting for jobs and sustainability, not siding with the bosses and politicians who argue that the two are counterposed.
In the end, in the face of the depth and scope of the climate crisis, what we need is revolution – strike action so widespread, and so sustained, that it challenges the continuing rule of the capitalist class, and opens up the prospect of a new society in which workers run things for themselves.
The climate crisis is being driven by a capitalist system built on the insatiable appetite for profit of the wealthiest few. The alternative we need is socialism – a system in which society’s productive resources would be managed collectively by workers in the interests of human need, rather than private greed. We have a world to win, and no more time to lose.