Labor’s policy conference fails to put Morrison under pressure

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The Labor party’s stage-managed policy conference was a clear demonstration that leader Anthony Albanese plans to continue the party’s “small target” strategy, offering working people very little in a pandemic recession and climate emergency.

The mainly online conference, held over March 30-31, updated its platform for the next federal election. Tellingly, there didn’t seem to be much, or any, debate. 

The establishment media exaggerated minor issues, such as the alleged “censoring” of former MP Michael Danby when, in fact, an amendment he had been going to speak on regarding Palestine and Israel was withdrawn.

The party abandoned any meaningful climate action: Labor decided to scrap its ridiculously low 2030 climate targets altogether and confirmed its support for the federal government’s COVID-19 gas recovery plan.

It even passed a motion supporting the coal industry, along with the rest of the mining sector.

The fossil fuel industry, cheered on by the pro-gas Australian Workers Union, has been pressuring Labor via former front bencher Joel Fitzgibbon. The support for the pro-fossil fuel motions showed how successful that effort has been.

This capitulation, however, was disguised by token announcements about subsidies for electric cars and vague talk about becoming a “renewable energy superpower”.

Promoting the phasing in of electric vehicles, albeit private ones, is not wrong. But it is not the same as a concerted push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Expanding public transport and promoting cycling would have a bigger impact on emissions.

In any case, what is required is an urgent, society-wide push to reduce emissions as fast as possible in the next 5 to 10 years. Nothing in Labor’s new platform points to such an approach.

Labor is making much of its commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. But, as climate scientists point out, this is a recipe for climate catastrophe: even if achieved it is way too little, way too late.

It is also a meaningless target in the context of a three-year election cycle that postpones any action into a nebulous far-off future.

Further, as Socialist Alliance councillor Sam Wainwright explained on the April 11 Green Left Show, the big climate issue is for Australia to reduce its fossil fuel exports.

“The big taboo is Australia’s export of coal and gas which is booming,” he said. “If the significant new reserves of coal and gas which the Australian mining industry is planning to open up are burnt anywhere in the world, then we have no chance of meeting our climate reduction targets.”

Labor’s updated policy platform also fails to offer any alternative vision regarding the transition to new sustainable jobs for those currently working in the fossil fuel sector, the expansion of workers’ rights, alleviating poverty and homelessness or redistributing wealth, which the mining bosses, in particular, have been accumulating despite the pandemic.

If elected, Labor is not bound to implement any of these policies. Its shock loss in the 2019 federal election was explained by conservatives within and without as the party having been “too ambitious”, offering too much reform. The exact opposite is the case.

Since then and under Albanese, the party has taken the “too ambitious” narrative to heart: it is now offering little real opposition to the federal government.

It voted in 2019 for Scott Morrison’s tax cuts for the rich, extra security powers for then-home affairs minister Peter Dutton and for the Coalition’s dodgy Drought Fund.

Labor supported the key elements of the government’s so-called “gas-led recovery”, announced last year, even though it was going to increase carbon emissions and there was no guarantee that such a plan would lower energy prices or create secure jobs.

More recently, Labor voted with the government to cut JobSeeker payments (unemployment support) back to poverty levels.

Labor hasn’t learned much from its 2019 defeat and yet it is stridently standing by its wrong conclusions. While we can expect to hear a lot more rhetorical opposition to Morrison’s “failures”, judging from this policy conference we are unlikely to see the party promote a progressive agenda on the climate, jobs and energy.

The small-target approach is not guaranteed to fail, especially given the growing odium towards the Morrison government as a result of its failure to take institutional sexism seriously. But neither does this policy platform put the Morrison government under any pressure. The small target strategy is a disaster for working people who, facing multiple economic, social and ecological crises, yearn for bold and progressive leadership. Labor’s policy conference said, pretty plainly, it is not going to rise to that challenge.

[Alex Bainbridge is a national co-convenor of Socialist Alliance. The April 4 Green Left Show with Sam Wainwright and Vivienne Porzsolt featured an in-depth discussion about some key concerns arising from the Labor Party’s policy conference. Watch it at greenleft.org.au/media]

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