Australia is heading into our seventh federal election in which climate policy is a key factor. In each case the debate is framed as a trade-off between jobs and the environment. The Coalition has won four of the previous six (2004, 2013, 2016 and 2019) by claiming it has the better policies for protecting jobs while also reducing emissions. Labor won in 2007 and 2010 by convincing voters it was better placed to reduce emissions while protecting jobs.
The difference is subtle, but important – particularly as there is not much difference in the substantive policy goals of both sides. And so it is in those subtle details where the debate takes place. In 2019, the Coalition revelled in “narrow-casting” by then Labor Leader Bill Shorten – who adopted different rhetorical positions depending on whether he was in Central Melbourne (anti-coal) or Central Queensland (pro-coal jobs).
The challenge of satisfying both its urbane, green-left city base and its traditional blue-collar supporters in regional areas was simply too much for 2019 Labor. Former Greens Leader Bob Brown led his now-famous climate convoy through regional Queensland to remind coal workers and their families that a large part of Australia wants to close down their industry, and the Coalition won the election off the back of their (entirely predictable) response.
However, global events over the last three years have shifted public opinion further away from coal, and in favour of climate. This has lessened the pressure on the Labor Party, as public opinion leans towards their political narrative – reduce emissions while protecting jobs. And in 2022 it’s the Coalition that is struggling to get its messages straight between Collinsville and Collins Street. As Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and a number of other high-profile Liberals come under concerted assault from so-called “Teal Independents” running on climate issues, they have been very keen to highlight the Government’s commitment to reducing emissions to net zero by 2050.
In regional Queensland, however, their Nationals coalition partners have been attempting to hold all the coal-mining votes they won from Labor by dismissing the significance of the “net zero” commitment. Prominent Parliamentarians and candidates have described the government’s commitment as “flexible”, “not binding”, having “wiggle room” or – completely unambiguously – being “dead”. This in turn has forced the Prime Minister to iterate the Government’s commitment to the policy. This assurance is unlikely to have the desired effect either in the city or the bush. In each case, voters will be suspicious if they think the Coalition is trying to walk both sides of the street.
In any event, it’s an unwelcome distraction for Scott Morrison, who would prefer to be talking about anything other than climate change at this point in the campaign. There are a number of lessons in this, which will no doubt be clearer after May 21. Whatever the result of the election, this warfare inside the Government shows that it is simply not possible in today’s instant media environment for any party to try to hold separate positions in the city and in the bush. Whether it also proves the old political adage that disunity is death, we will know in just over three weeks.