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Labor must start nation building

By Leigh Ewbank - posted Monday, 17 May 2010

It’s no understatement that last week’s Federal budget was bad for climate change. The Rudd Government, fresh from its emissions trading backdown, once again failed to live up to its rhetoric. It failed to act on “the greatest scientific, moral and economic challenge of our time”. And it failed to deliver the scale of investment needed to drive our transition to a clean energy economy.

There was a belief that the 2010 budget would include some big investments to combat the climate crisis. Rudd’s decision to delay the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) to 2013 coincided with a sharp decline in public support for the government. The Prime Minister’s own approval rating has collapsed in recent weeks, falling 14 points to 45 per cent - the lowest level since taking office in 2007. The budget was regarded as a way for Rudd to regain his edge on climate policy. He would have the opportunity to restore the confidence of voters suspicious of his government’s commitment to climate change.

As we now know, the government’s investment in renewable energy was markedly less than the year earlier. But should this come as a surprise? No. It shouldn’t.


There is almost nothing driving the Federal government to invest the common wealth of Australia in projects to address climate change. Australian climate policy has been dominated by green neoliberalism for years: targets and trading is the mantra. In the minds of many, carbon pricing, caps, targets, and markets are synonymous with climate action, while investment measures are reserved for the national health system, infrastructure projects (often to facilitate coal exports), or sports programs.

Industry bodies representing big business and some of the largest of the national environment groups have presented emissions trading as the best way to decarbonise. This has had the effect of obscuring alternative approaches. The emissions-trading orthodoxy had no competition in the mainstream debate until very recently, when a broad coalition of prominent Australians and organisations signed an open letter to the Prime Minister. This letter called for a massive increase in investment towards renewables and climate-friendly infrastructure in the 2010 budget. More broadly, the letter called on Labor to embrace a nation-building approach to climate policy.

“Australia needs a nation-building project for climate change with the scale and vision of a Snowy Mountains Scheme for the 21st Century,” states the letter. “Such an initiative will drive our transition away from fossil fuels towards a clean, renewable energy economy.” “This approach,” the letter argued, “will spur economic development and create good Australian jobs. It will put Australia on track to achieve the emissions reductions needed to protect the nation from dangerous climate change.”

The letter symbolises an attempt to broaden the debate. The ideas contained in the sign-on letter present a challenge to the green neoliberalism that has dominated national climate policy discourse.

While the Labor party bungled the budget, it still has the opportunity to reframe its climate change agenda. It can draw on Australia’s rich nation-building history to implement effective programs to mitigate and adapt to our changing climate. As the nation’s largest ever engineering project, the Snowy Mountains Scheme is the perfect model for moving forward on climate change.

Politically, the model provides the government with a narrative and framework for coherent policy. Nation building is in the political DNA of the Australian Labor Party; after all, it was Chifley Labor government who initiated the Snowy Mountains Scheme in the late 1940s. Opposition leader Tony Abbott will have a tougher time arguing against this type of policy. While he has successfully demonised emissions trading, branding it a “great big tax”, he hasn’t been able to do the same with Labor’s current nation-building project, the National Broadband Network. Abbott himself has committed the Coalition to investment-centred climate policy with “direct measures” and can’t afford to backflip on the important issue in an election year.


Culturally, the nation-building model provides Australians with a way of understanding the technological challenge at the heart of climate change. It also draws attention to the scale of engineering and can-do spirit required to transform the nation from a fossil-fueled economy to a renewable one. This approach will demonstrate the benefits of “green” jobs, making the concept a reality for thousands of Australians.

Nation building must occur before carbon-pricing measures are implemented. The combination of the political and cultural factors just mentioned paves the way for the reintroduction of CPRS, or implementation of the Greens’ interim carbon price. Only when Australians work in industries that benefit from decarbonisation will our government be able to apply a strong price signal. The core objective of climate change advocates should now be on changing the political landscape. To create the conditions for passing effective carbon pricing measures when the time is right.

It’s too early to tell whether the Rudd government will embrace this visionary nation-building approach to fill the void left by their decision to drop the CPRS. One thing is clear though: it is now the best way for Labor to salvage their reputation and stave off electoral punishment.

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About the Author

Leigh Ewbank is a graduate of RMIT University's Bachelor of Social Science Environment degree and was a summer fellow at the progressive think-tank the Breakthrough Institute. Leigh currently reports for and consults on framing and messaging.

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