How the Green New Deal Can Win Back the Working Class and Prevent our Climate Catastrophe

by Marc Sidarous

According to a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in 2018, we had 11 years to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C, otherwise the risks of catastrophic natural disasters will increase significantly. That report was released one year ago and as of yet, nothing has changed. Fossil fuels continue to be used at record levels and temperatures across the globe continue to rise every year. The last five years have been the hottest five years on record. If this continues, humanity is in grave danger.

That is not to say that some are not taking action. The recent global climate strikes, held between the 20th to 27th of September 2019, were an unprecedented statement by over 7 million concerned citizens to our leaders: “You need to do more”. The rise of teenage activist Greta Thunberg is a testament to both her own passion and her unwavering commitment to mitigating climate change. She, and the strikes, represent the increasing acknowledgement of climate change as a serious problem. 

As with any movement that agitates for change, there was an inevitable backlash towards Greta and the climate strikes. It has been fierce, dishonest, and bruising. It peddles in xenophobia, isolationism, resentment and conspiracy mongering. It’s dangerous and toxic but depressingly, it’s succeeded.

Take, for example, the results of the last federal election. In simple terms, Scott Morrison won the un-winnable election (or Bill Shorten lost the un-losable election). Pundits have focused on factors such as the role of money in politics or the unpopularity of Bill Shorten as a political figure. Others have looked to Labor’s policies on superannuation and taxation to explain their seemingly momentous loss. 

These analyses miss a fundamental principle of politics. Voters do not respond to any one policy and won’t be shifted by one ad they see on TV or Facebook. Voters respond to narrative. They will support the narrative that they identify with the most. It is the job of the two main parties in Australia to shape their narratives, with policy and messaging that interact and complement each other, to appeal to a majority of the electorate while being anchored to their ideals and beliefs. 

Some issues can dominate these narratives during any particular campaign. In 2007 the prevalent issue was Industrial Relations and it affected the narrative of both campaigns. Labor’s narrative argued the government could not be trusted to provide you with a secure and stable job, but Labor could. Labor won a thumping majority that year. Climate change policy became a dominant issue in the narratives of both campaigns in 2019.

The results of the 2019 election showed that there was a 1.17% swing towards the Coalition in two-party preferred terms. This broke down to a swing towards the government in every state and territory except for Victoria and the ACT, the least rural and suburban states/territories in the country. In Queensland (the most rural and suburban state), the Liberal National Party obtained a devastating swing of 4.34%. The Liberal National Government returned with a two-seat majority (a net gain of two), with the ALP losing one seat on net, the crossbench remaining at six and the parliament growing by an additional seat.

Demographically, there was a clear trend of middle/lower-income suburban, regional, and rural seats swinging to the Liberal and National Parties. Conversely, higher-income, inner city seats swung to the Labor Party. This was consistent in every state and territory. For example, in the seat of Brisbane there was a 1.08% swing to Labor while the rest of the state swung heavily to the government.

The seats that had the largest movement to the government by far were those where coal reigns supreme economically. In the electorate of Capricornia, which is anchored by the mining towns of Rockhampton and Bundaberg, no non-ALP member had ever been re-elected except for in 2016. It was the government’s most marginal seat going into the election. Labor’s primary vote collapsed by 14% and there was an 11% swing to the sitting LNP member in two-party preferred terms. In Flynn, another Central Queensland seat dependent on coal, the same pattern emerges. The Labor vote collapsed, there was a severe swing to the incumbent member and the seat transformed from extremely marginal to remarkably safe, overnight.

In the formerly safe Labor seat of Hunter, the results were a carbon-copy of the aforementioned seats. Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon held on to his seat by the smallest Labor margin since 1906. Unlike Capricornia and Flynn, Labor had the advantage of incumbency, it is not in Queensland, not next to the proposed Adani Carmichael mine, but is subsistent on the coal industry.

Climate policy was discussed extensively during the campaign. The media dubbed the election ‘The Climate Election’ and the impending Labor victory was supposed to be a repudiation of the existing government’s inaction on climate change. 

The narrative of the ALP became ‘we will implement the hard but necessary changes needed for governing and for taking action on climate change.’ The Coalition narrative was simple: ‘That’s is too hard and too expensive, we will not do that.’

We were told that the man who so lovingly embraced coal inside parliament, who is seemingly perplexed by Santa Claus giving coal to the naughty children and not the good ones, was to be punished for his beliefs. That Shorten’s narrative would best Morrison’s.

Except that didn’t happen. ScoMo won. The best explanation as to why comes from the most prominent climate sceptic in the country, Tony Abbott. On election night, when the former prime minister lost his once safe, high-income, Northern Beaches seat to an independent, he told the ironically jubilant crowd:

“When climate change is a moral issue, we Liberals do it tough. But when climate change is an economic issue, as tonight’s results showed, we do very, very well indeed.”

Polls show voters recognise climate change as a serious issue. Almost two thirds (64%) of a June, Lowy Institute poll listed climate change as a critical threat to Australia. This number will continue to grow as global temperatures continue to rise. Yet, recent history tells us that when in the privacy of the ballot box, voters place their faith in those that minimise the issue.

The ALP is currently in the middle of reviewing their abysmal performance in the last election. In the infamous words of Hillary Clinton, “What Happened?” Shadow climate minister Mark Butler stated that, while Labor’s principles on the issue were ‘unshakeable’, all policies were up for revision if necessary. What cost Mark Butler a seat in cabinet was not the 45% renewable target in and of itself. What cost the ALP government is what has been plaguing the centre-left around the world when it comes to climate policy—which narrative does the average voter identify with?

The current rhetoric used by those advocating action in the climate debate is moralistic in nature and frames climate action as costly and sacrificial. Almost all mainstream talking points include the words ‘hard but necessary’ and ‘there will be a cost’.

For the single mother living in Gosford who worries about how she is going to pay her bills, that is the last thing she wants to hear. She understands that climate change is a serious issue, but so is putting food on the table. For the coal miner in Central Queensland, when you present her with the choice of denying climate change and maintaining her livelihood, or accepting it and entering poverty, that is no choice at all. 

For many in this, or similar situations, climate change is seen as an issue for those who can afford to do something about it. Fairly or not, it’s seen as those who can afford to buy a new Tesla, or install solar panels and even purchase a reusable coffee cup. Climate change is seen as an issue of the elites and not the working class. The current messaging on climate change makes action sound like a cost we must bear, no matter the price. Where does that leave you if cannot bear any more costs?

Climate change is real. The consequences of inaction will be felt for generations to come. Crop yields will diminish, water will become scarcer, ecosystems will collapse, and it will be poor and working people who will be hurt the most as a result. Therefore, action must be taken, and quickly, but if the current policies are not and will not be accepted in the near future, then how? Never again can the economics of climate action be a winning issue on the right. 

Changing perception will not be done by words alone. It will be done through action and policy. Policy that invests in rather than taxing, working people by raising wages, protecting worker rights, guaranteeing economic dignity, avoiding ‘job retraining programs’ or ‘tax incentives’ and is funded through an appropriately progressive taxation system that cannot be shifted back to the working and middle classes.  

The Green New Deal (GND) is the sweet elixir from which the left must drink to revitalise their fortunes in the climate change debate. 

The GND is legislation sponsored by and popularised by first-term US Congresswoman and unashamed progressive, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts. The proposal is unique for climate policy as it combines social and economic reforms, and public work projects, with environmental concerns such as renewable energy and resource efficiency. It invests in working people while still taking appropriate action on climate change.

The plan is marketed as the successor to the New Deal program of President Franklin Roosevelt (hence the name). A suite of policies so popular Roosevelt won four consecutive elections and permanently realigned American politics. Specifics of the GND include 100% renewable energy by 2030, a massive public works and government infrastructure program, and a federal jobs guarantee. It and its predecessors have been described as a Blue-Green Alliance between blue-collar labour and environmentalists. Over and above, it’s ambitious targets of emission reductions are necessary to combat the climate emergency.

The GND is not without its detractors, of course. There are the bad faith arguments, put so eloquently by the former host of the Celebrity Apprentice:

“HONEY! Is the wind blowing? I want to watch television” or “Can’t eat meat, can’t drive your car, no more planes folks, no more planes.”

That, and arguments similar to it, are attempting to reframe the debate as individual sacrifice. If the policy is followed through and it is correctly framed as an economic investment, that argument will not succeed.

There are those who argue that such a ‘radical’ policy can not be politically satiable to voters. They will argue that it ‘drives up’ electricity bills or will be ruinous to the economy. However, if this policy is sold as an economic program that invests in our working people, and guarantees full employment, including for those economically dependent on fossil fuels, guarantees the rights of the worker and a living wage, these fallacies will fall short. It will be popular because history and common sense tells us so.

Medicare is a good parallel to the GND. It is a large, government program that radically changed the healthcare industry in this country and was of immense benefit to working and middle class people. The Liberal Party were opposed to it from its inception and ran campaigns declaring it ‘socialised medicine’ and ‘big government run amok’. The Liberal Party lost election after election, until they no longer pledged to dismantle it.

The Green New Deal will not change the narrative by itself. The policy must be supported by a change in mindset from the ALP that rejects the trappings of neoliberalism. No more can a Labor candidate for Prime Minister proclaim “I am an economic conservative”. No more can a potential Labor government advocate for an increase in taxes that raise prices for working people. Taken together, the narrative of climate action will shift from morality to hip-pocket economics for the working class, and climate politics may finally cease to be perceived as an elitist issue before it is too late.

Marc Sidarous is a Master of Journalism and Communications student with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics. He left his job in a graduate program to follow his dreams. He aspires to become a political reporter one day. The TV character he identifies with the most is Diane from Bojack Horseman.