Dear Bill Shorten,
May I call you Bill? I feel that after a lifetime of supporting Labor I’m entitled to that modest liberty.
Bill, I’ve just read one of the most shocking things of my adult political life. I’m overtaken with competing emotions and reactions; I’m simultaneously bemused, disturbed, incredulous and thoroughly gob smacked. It seems that you and the Labor Party are considering backing away, even if only temporarily, from your commitment to your established carbon pricing agenda. It seems you’re considering allowing the Abbott Government to “scrap the tax” after all. Is this true or just media speculation?
Excuse my candour, mate, but assuming it’s true: are you flipping insane? Has Labor completely lost its capacity to read the electorate and the politics of this issue? Its record of the last six years gives a certain pause for thought on that score. I put it to you in the strongest possible terms that this is the worst move you could make with regard to action on climate change – or your political future. I remind you that over the previous six years you’ve been on the wrong side of the politics on this, but on the right side of the policy. The political failure is your (Labor’s) fault. You were politically out-witted by an economic and scientific half-wit. How does that feel, Bill? Smarts a bit, I imagine. Now you want to hand him the shovel with which he can dig an even deeper hole for you?
Here are some things I feel you should seriously consider:
# Over the last six years you allowed your political opposition, with an overtly skeptical disposition to climate change, to control the narrative of this policy area. You allowed this opposition to take one of the greatest dangers facing modernity and fudge it, misrepresent it, dilute it, re-characterise it, morph it from a scientifically based human imperative to a petty squabble over economic semantics. You failed miserably. I’m sorry, Bill, but there’ no other way to say it.
# Soon after being deposed as Prime Minister by Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard expressed her regret at not having taken a more direct and aggressive stance with regard to the aforementioned dynamic. You recall, in her Guardian piece she said:
‘ … and in a political task that will require bravery, Labor must continue to stand behind the significant policies which are right but are currently outside the national political consensus. Clearly, carbon pricing is the political giant of this class.
Without doubt, Tony Abbott won this public opinion war and dominated this political conversation. The times suited him. For most Australians the last long drought was perceived to be the result of climate change, and when the drought broke their concerns about climate change receded. The circus in Copenhagen and “climategate” fed scepticism. Then, at the worst time, the structure of the Australian electricity market delivered huge rises to the electricity bills of families. While cost of living pressures were easing in other parts of the family budget, the pain of these big lumpy bills was acute and remembered.
Labor’s failure to embrace Malcolm Turnbull’s bipartisanship when it was on offer, to campaign vigorously and go to an election early on carbon pricing in late 2009 or early 2010, and the twists and turns of Labor policy since have all fuelled this fire of opposition.
I erred by not contesting the label “tax” for the fixed price period of the emissions trading scheme I introduced. I feared the media would end up playing constant silly word games with me, trying to get me to say the word “tax”. I wanted to be on the substance of the policy, not playing “gotcha”. But I made the wrong choice and, politically, it hurt me terribly.
Hindsight can give you insights about what went wrong. But only faith, reason and bravery can propel you forward.
Labor should not in opposition abandon our carbon pricing scheme. Climate change is real. Carbon should be priced. Community concern about carbon pricing did abate after its introduction. Tony Abbott does not have a viable alternative.
While it will be uncomfortable in the short term to be seen to be denying the mandate of the people, the higher cost would be appearing as, indeed becoming, a party unable to defend its own policy and legislation: a party without belief, fortitude or purpose.’
Please take note. You’ll find a very significant number of Labor supporters are in complete sympathy with the sentiments expressed in that quote.
# Whilst in Government you allowed a ratbag bunch of guttersnipes to take the momentum and high ground away from you – on this and other issues. Now, unfathomably, you’re considering handing that back to them, only magnified. Do you not understand how such a move will be interpreted by much of the electorate? No? Well, I’ll tell you – it will be seen as a confession that Labor was wrong and the Coalition was right all along. The truth of that doesn’t matter, as you well know. Much of the electorate has an entirely plebian rather than substantive and sophisticated engagement with policy. Tony Abbott’s campaign proved that beyond question. The average person on the street will see your action as an admission of fault and failure – on policy and not just politics. Do you have any idea what that will mean? Again, if not I’ll tell you – it will mean that the Abbott Government will have the issue all to themselves. They will have the high ground. They will lead the political discourse and will posses the enormous political luxury of having the only climate change response out there in the public market place. That will inevitably lead to their position, their attitude, their policy gaining acceptance with the electorate. Frogs in heating water, Bill.
You will not be able to offer any credible opposition to, or criticism of, the entire philosophy of Direct Action if you have tossed aside the alternative. The criticisms of an Opposition that walked away from its own policy will ring completely hollow and will be effectively and rightly dismissed by the Government. And should you go into policy hiatus on the issue, which is what is being suggested, it’ll amount to going into a fistfight without hands. Saying you will “scrutinise” Direct Action is the language of the weasel. What’s to scrutinise? You know perfectly well what’s wrong with it – that it cannot achieve anything meaningful and that it’s a total cop-out. Scrutinise? What the hell? That, mate, is tantamount to implying you might come to accept it yourself.
# You have to stand firm. You must recognise the political failure and naiveté of Kevin Rudd’s hopeless attempt to take some of the political momentum away from the Coalition during the election campaign by indulging in the rhetoric of “dumping the tax”. No such thing was happening. You were moving from a static price ETS to a floating price ETS. You were simply re-scheduling. You weren’t doing anything with a tax that didn’t actually exist. You were playing catch-up with the politics and you looked stupid for doing it.
Do you seriously think there will be no social and political impact from years of nothing but the Coalition’s attitude and actions with regard to climate change being the political soup du jour? Do you seriously think that whatever new strategy you come up with, which will inevitably cost the electorate something, will not be immediately characterised by the Coalition as a “tax”? Do you really think you can avoid that? You can’t and you’ll have to deal with it. It’ll be a hundred times more difficult to cope with the politics of it in the future than if you stand up and deal with it right now. Do you really want to have to virtually start from scratch on this? Do you really imagine a decade of inaction on climate change by this country won’t have all sorts of repercussions? What do you think is going to happen to the Australian mind-set during months and years of the Coalition quietly taking climate change off the political radar? You want to be faced with having to prosecute a whole new case for real climate change action in that sort of environment? Really?
Selling an ETS ought to be as politically simple as selling the NDIS was. It’s about our children and our future. You need to think about why you couldn’t do it and fix that. Running away from your failures is a coward’s response dressed up as the pragmatism of politics. Seriously, Bill, when was the last time the Labor party showed some genuine political courage and statesmanship on something? No, I can’t remember either.
The rot started when Uncle Kim began to capitulate on asylum seekers and it’s only gotten worse from there. Polls have replaced ideology in terms of political priority in the minds of far too many in the Labor Party machinery. Your support base is heartily sick of it.
# Call Tim Flannery immediately. Speak to him about making the new Climate Council an official Opposition research and advisory board (or whatever is politically appropriate). Show the Australian people that the Abbott Coalition cannot simply dump important Government advisory bodies like the Climate Commission and get away with it. You must send some positive, unapologetic and strong messages on this. If you do not, you are gifting the Coalition two terms in Government. That is unacceptable. It is also utterly avoidable. Do you actually want to avoid it, Bill?
# The Australian public deserves, and I suspect, desperately wants you to be the strongest Opposition you can be – right from the start. Your support base is crying out for it. They are quietly pleading for it. Well, in some quarters not so quietly. Surely you understand that this Government has no real mandate for anything. They went into the election with the most sorry looking policy platform seen in this Nation for decades. The election was not a referendum on Carbon. You know that. Labor lost the election – the Coalition did not win it. You know that too. This means this Government is vulnerable. It has to earn its stripes, its credibility. It’s imperative that it does not achieve this by default of there being no effective Opposition. Backing away from a signature policy on climate change is to take a gigantic step in the direction of doing and being nothing. Find a way to do the politics better. Be a leader. You don’t have the luxury and this country can’t afford the luxury of the Labor Party sitting back contemplating its navel and its policies. You had a vision for the future; you had a policy platform – and it was perfectly fine. For the most part it had broad community support. You didn’t lose the election because of your policies (and the Coalition sure as hell didn’t win because of theirs); you lost it because you screwed up the politics. You put a disunified Labor Party on the front page of every newspaper every stinking day. Seriously, Bill, who the hell was going to vote for that?
Ok, I’ve made my points. I apologise if I seem rather agitated. It’s only because I am. There is no reason whatever for Labor to back away from its climate change agenda and a multitude of reasons for them not to. Big reasons – the sorts of reasons that are above politics.
You are risking my vote on this. And whilst I can’t speak for others I dare speculate you may be risking quite a few more. In the most recent Labor Party email blast, National Secretary George Wright – you know him, right? – said,
‘The Labor Party my parents introduced me to was courageous, visionary and striving for equality and opportunity. ‘
Mine too. Has it gone, Bill? If not, now would be a really good time to show us.