Speech - Address to the Sydney Institute - Sydney - Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Speech - Address to the Sydney Institute - Sydney - Wednesday, 16 December 2020 Main Image

By Joel Fitzgibbon

16 December 2020

Fourteen months have passed since I last addressed the Sydney Institute.  Back then, we could not have imagined the enormity of the challenges ahead of us – bushfires, a pandemic and the worst economic downturn in our lifetimes.


In the pre-emergency media environment, my October 2019 speech attracted more than a small amount of publicity.  I’m hopeful Gerard thought that was a good thing.


The media did not focus on the eight lessons I suggested Labor needed to take from the 2019 election.  It did not cover my analysis of, and criticisms, of Scott Morrison. 


Nor was there any coverage of my warning, that both the increasingly inward-looking posture of many countries around the world, and Scott Morrison’s Trump-like dalliance with the notion of a departure from the settled global order, were a threat to our economy and our security.


But given the inexplicable potency of the climate change issue, the media’s narrowcasting of my speech was hardly surprising. Nor, I must admit, was it disappointing.  Not for me anyway.


What was a little surprising was the political Left’s disproportionately critical response to my speech; a reaction best described as “shrill, ideological, elitist, out-of-touch, and irrational”.


Let me remind you what they were responding to.  This is, word-for-word, what I said of the government’s climate change positioning in October last year:


“The Prime Minister has largely avoided scrutiny and accountability on this subject because all the focus has been on Labor’s more ambitious targets.

But what would be the outcome if Labor offered a political and policy settlement to make 28 per cent the target by 2030? The focus would then be all about actual outcomes, and the government would finally be held to account and forced to act.

A political settlement would also restore investment confidence and for the first time in six years, we could have some downward pressure on energy prices.

Based on recent history, 28 per cent would be a meaningful achievement, certainly a better outcome than the one Labor’s last climate policy is now achieving. That is lesson 6: you can’t achieve much if you are perpetually in Opposition. As Gough Whitlam once said; the impotent are pure”.


Many of the attacks on me in response to the question I posed, were quite personal.  


You’d swear I’d asked not a rational question, but rather I’d advocated a return to the steam engine.  Or worse, a doubling of the tax imposed on chardonnay.


All of this only made me more certain I was on the right track and today, I feel well placed to claim I was right about target-setting, and they were wrong.  The public debate this last 14 months should have been entirely focused on Scott Morrison’s target and his failure to meet it. 


In any case, subject to the timing of the next election, the Morrison Government will be required to submit a new medium-term target next year.  It makes you wonder what all the fuss over 26-28 per cent was about.


Today I build on the thoughts I shared with you last year.


I consider medium-term targets to be of limited utility.  Medium-term targets are a bit like weight-loss goals, useful but not mandatory. They provide no guarantee of success, as so many of us know.


Certainly, medium-term targets should not be set by opposition parties.  From the opposition benches, politicians have no capacity to determine what rate of achievement might be possible, without doing harm to our economy and local jobs.


But the Paris Agreement Malcolm Turnbull signed us up to does require Australia to set a medium-term target for each period.  Therefore, the government of the day must.


But it should be a commitment guided by departmental and agency advice and one made on behalf of the Australian Government and the Australian people, not one by any one political party.


Once set, Australia’s target should remain our target for all of the commitment period, regardless of any change of government. That means that on winning government, a successful political party should not change the medium-term target prior to the end of the commitment period. 


This proposal would provide continuity and certainty for those who invest and create jobs.  It could also put downward pressure on energy prices and take the heat out of the climate change debate.


While it would be difficult to legislate for a guaranteed continuity on what grounds could either of the major parties reject, such as a political settlement.  Ultimately, it could become accepted as a common-sense parliamentary convention.


It is of course possible that a government elected early in a commitment period, could find itself back on the opposition benches before the end of that period. To that prospect I say, tough luck.


A new government renewing the medium-term target at the end of a commitment period would be expected to follow the same expert departmental and agency advice as did the previous government.


Throughout the COVID-19 threat, a bi-partisan view emerged about the need to stick like glue to the expert health advice.  If climate change is the existential threat many argue, why would we not take the same approach on greenhouse gas reduction policy?


For the new convention to enjoy the confidence of the electorate, more transparency will be required in the delivery of advice, and indeed, the processes for determining the medium-term goal.  Ideally, a war-time cabinet model could be embraced to put both major parties in the room when the target is set.


Our medium-term target should not be the subject of a political bidding war in which those involved put their own political ambitions ahead of the national interest.


The target, of course, would become a floor, a minimum goal. If a government chooses to aim higher, that’s a matter for its leadership.  But it would be for them to explain to the electorate why the expert advice and guidance is being departed from.


It’s time to end the climate wars and the damage they are doing to our international standing, our economy and, indeed, our natural environment.


I heard Labor’s Climate Change spokesman Mark Butler claim last week that on Scott Morrison’s current policy trajectory, Australia would achieve net zero emissions in 146 years’ time.  Not 140 years, not 145 years, but exactly 146 years.


For the punters, this claim is no more believable than Scott Morrison’s claim he is on track to meet his current medium-term target.  And it’s no more believable than anything the Greens have to say on the issue, or the National Party for that matter.


This is the problem with the climate change debate, no one is being honest with the Australian people. That’s because honesty would come at the cost of perceived political advantage. I use the word “perceived” advisedly, but “delusional” may be more accurate.


For each of the main combatants, meaningfully responding to the adverse impacts of a changing climate runs second to political opportunity.  Where would the Greens be if climate change ceased to be an issue? What impact would it have on their capacity to raise funds?


Scott Morrison certainly doesn’t want an end to the climate wars, they’ve helped the Coalition win the last three elections.


For that reason alone, Labor should commit to whatever medium-term targets Scott Morrison commits the Australian people to.  We should also re-commit to net zero emissions by 2050 and promise a Labor Government to accelerating the pace of the innovation needed to achieve the mid-century goal.


Investing in research, development, and innovation, and encouraging commercialisation is a very Labor thing to do, and Labor Governments have proven themselves good at it.


Promoting innovation takes more effort and thinking than does simply implementing a carbon tax, but the technology path will deliver greater benefits to the economy and offer more reward, both in outcome and political terms. It also offers greater certainty and security for working families.


Carbon taxes – or carbon constraints to use the less scary language – are a 20th century solution to a 21st century challenge. 


Carbon constraints may have been the right public policy response in 2001, and for the decade thereafter, but investors long ago gave up waiting for parliaments to act and to act without retreat, as Canberra did in 2013.


Over the course of the last decade, large-scale solar and wind farms have become a feature on regional landscapes everywhere. Australians have taken to roof-top solar like ducks to water.


More and more motorists are moving to electric and hybrid cars and the latest anti-pollution systems are further reducing heavy vehicle emissions, both on-road and off-road.  


Our farmers have been reducing their carbon footprint by embracing new production methods, as have our oil and gas producers, our miners, and our manufacturers.


Last week the Department released the latest National Greenhouse Gas inventory results.  They tell us that, in the year to June 2020, the emissions intensity of the Australian economy was at its lowest level in thirty years, 64.7 per cent lower than in 1990.  


It also told us our per capita emissions are down 44.7 per cent over the same period. Almost half.


We could no doubt do better on climate change, and we should.  But Australia is not performing so inadequately to justify the obsessive madness some bring to the discussion.


Australians care about our natural environment. They know how important it is to both our economy and our security.  But their top priorities are their own financial security, and a safe environment for both them and their families.  In this post-COVID period, never has that been more true.


The priorities of working families must also be Labor’s priorities.


Eighteen months on from Labor’s 2019 election loss, the Curtin Research Centre’s Nick Dyenfurth and the AWU’s Misha Zelinsky have put to paper their views on the future direction of the Labor Party.


They invited several Labor parliamentarians and respected Party members to do the same.  Each of them was drawn from the Party’s Right faction.


All of them made valuable contributions.  Many, in their own way, spoke of the historic lead role the Party’s Right has played in policy direction and electoral success. 


Most found fault with our recent narrative and policy approach.  Each of them offered ideas about how we can do better.  No one defended the status quo.


Senator Marielle Smith wrote about the importance of families and the need to ensure they are left in no doubt that Labor stands with them and their aspirations. 


Michael Easson wrote about the drift of people of faith and the need to once again embrace them, and to reassure people of all faiths that their right to adhere to, and be guided by, their religious convictions is supported and respected by the Labor Party.


Shoppies Union boss Gerard Dwyer rightly argued that trade unions remain an important part of our social fabric and that collective action remains an important tool in achieving and maintaining some of Labor’s key objectives, including equality of opportunity, the right to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, and the right to return home safely from the workplace each day.


Speaking on behalf of the communities of Northern Australia – and I would argue for all regional communities – Townsville Mayor Jenny Hill sent my admiration of her even higher with a passionate appeal for more than the usual lip-service from governments for regional development, opportunity and disadvantage. 


I make a passing reference here to the important contribution of Senator Raff Ciccone who wrote about immigration and the importance of regional dispersal.


But while the competition was tough, the essay that grabbed me most was that of Senator Anthony Chisholm.


Chis provides a frank and depressing overview of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party’s recent dismal performances in Queensland and reminds us that we can’t win government without the Sunshine State’s regional seats.


Most important of all, Anthony Chisholm reminded us that you can only give effect to good policy from the Government benches.  Of the opportunity to do good things for Queensland he said, and I quote:


To do it, we need to win elections – and that means taking the people with us”.


Winning federal elections isn’t easy. Labor Members know this only too well, having won a majority of House of Representatives seats just once in the last 27 years.


Labor is not the natural party of government at the national level.  History tells us that we win only when the electorate tires of the other mob and we don’t look too scary.  At the 2019 election, we seemed determined to look as scary as we could possibly be.


We need to read and learn from the various contributions in Nick Dyrenfurth’s Write Stuff.


Labor can progress an agenda full of positive change consistent with Labor’s values, while also reassuring the electorate that we’ll put personal safety, the health of the economy, and their financial security first.


We must leave voters in no doubt that we believe in rewarding hard work and in backing aspiration. Just as much as we believe in making sure no one need be left behind.


And we must be louder and prouder in our support for those who don the hi-vis each day to earn the export income we need to pay for the imports we are so fond of.  


I said in my speech here last year:


“I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the way we stopped talking to our blue-collar base”.


Astute judges of political attitudes who worked the Queanbeyan polling booths at the Eden-Monaro By-election 6 months ago went home with no doubt that support amongst our traditional base is yet to be restored. 


There they encountered voters in hi-vis clothing and steel-capped boots turning up with LNP and Shooters & Fishers votes already in hand.


In his forward to the Write Stuff, former Labor Senator Stephen Loosely stated the obvious when he wrote:


“To fail to recognise the significance of regional and rural Australia, especially in the outlying states of Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia is to languish in opposition in perpetuity”.


In demographic terms, Queanbeyan is the equivalent of parts of Western Sydney, the Hunter Valley and Central Queensland.


We won’t win back our traditional base from the Senate and the House of Representatives dispatch boxes. 


Our most senior MPs and Senators need to get on their bikes. They must visit our coal mines, gas projects, manufacturing plants, maintenance sheds and the like, to tell the workforce that they should be proud of what they do because we sure are.


We have a lot of work to do yet before we can claim we’ve put the labour back into the Labor Party.