Before we get to what’s going on with Labor and climate change, because politics is a deeply human business, we need to start first with the psychology of a political party still coming to terms with losing on 18 May.
Viewed through the prism of the five stages of grief, Labor finds itself, depending on the person, somewhere between bargaining, depression and acceptance. Co-existing with the five stages of grief is pent up anticipation, or anxiety, associated with the campaign review being spearheaded by Jay Weatherill and Craig Emerson, which will serve as the official history of the loss. With that assessment about to land, we’ve had a bunch of people front-running the process, from Bill Shorten down.
As they wait for the final verdict from Jay and Craig, Labor is telling itself three stories about why it lost in May.
Version one is we lost because too many voters disliked Shorten. Version two is we lost because Chris Bowen proposed too many revenue measures and that fuelled the death tax scare campaign. Version three is we lost because Mark Butler was too left-leaning on climate change, and couldn’t answer basic questions about how much climate action would cost.
Putting Shorten’s contribution to one side, the internal folklore at the moment for people inclined to aggressive simplicity veers between it was Bowen what dunnit and it was Butler in the library with the candlestick.
As well as the current history wars – which is a more elevated way of characterising what is, predominantly, a combination of arse-covering, blame-shifting and reasonably unsubtle positioning for the future – people also want to influence where Labor lands in policy terms for the coming term.
All the Shorten-era policies are up for grabs and the right faction is seeking to assert itself in the vacuum, because there is a view around that Labor skewed too far left during the last parliamentary term and there needs to be a course correction. The rationale for a shift is expressed as follows: one of the primary reasons Bowen had to chase highly progressive revenue measures (that may or may not have cost Labor votes) was to pay for left-driven social spending (that may or may not have won Labor votes) – and that combination killed us.
Just a couple of things about the right faction, or a “right view” that we need to be clear about before we move on. The first is the right faction is not monolithic, there isn’t a single view, there’s a spectrum of views; and the second obvious thing to point out is the person leading the charge on “we must present as more friendly to growth and aspiration” (which can be read as we are going to tax and spend less) is actually the most senior leftwinger in the show, the leader, Anthony Albanese.
With those caveats noted, it is absolutely correct to say the right faction is restless and keen to assert itself, and Joel Fitzgibbon, a veteran of the NSW right, has nominated himself as titular head of the repositioning effort. A special repositioning envoy, if you will.
Fitzgibbon becoming more vocal serves a few purposes. In brutal power terms, it provides a public reminder to Albanese that the NSW right faction is around and remains important to the stability of his leadership given a number of them backed him post-election for the top job instead of Bowen, one of their own. Just in case anyone might have a memory lapse. Hint hint Albo. Hi.
Fitzgibbon, colleagues say, got the fright of his life in May when his ultra safe seat in the Hunter, the heart of coal country, flipped over to marginal, so he’s got an interest in narrowcasting to his constituency. So there’s a bit of that going on, and 2019 tells us Labor won’t win elections if it can’t speak compellingly to that element of its base.
I also think Fitzgibbon is seeking to create space for a genuine debate on where Labor should land on climate policy, and on other things – which would be fine, welcome even, except the climate science tells us the time for rolling seminars was actually over a decade ago, and is certainly over now. The longer we delay action, the worse things will get.
This genuine debate point is important though, and we need to linger here for a moment to nail this thought.
Part of the reason Labor feels off balance at the moment, both internally and externally, is because these people have spent the last two parliamentary terms prioritising discipline over everything else.
In order to atone for throwing away government during the Rudd/Gillard period, Labor as a collective has held its tongue for six years. Right now, what we are watching is a group of people learning how to argue productively with each other again, when argument, either constructive or destructive, has been considered the cardinal sin.
Speaking anthropologically, this is interesting, watching a sub-culture fashion new rules of engagement in full public view. Considered through the prism of basic human psychology, moving argument from banned activity to permissible is going to feel, for the protagonists, kind of liberating and energising and cathartic, and kind of wrong, perhaps consequentially so.
Having mapped out the general terrain, now we can come to the substance of climate change, and whether ambition in Labor’s climate policy is now up for grabs.
Let’s step through some basics that might not be obvious. Labor can’t take the same 2030 emissions reduction target to the next election as it proposed in 2019, because Australia will be three years closer to the deadline.
Just as a matter of practicality, the 45% by 2030 target will have to be reviewed, which is why Fitzgibbon nominated his own alternative target in a speech to the Sydney Institute this week, framing his adverturism philanthropically as “a sensible settlement” on climate policy.
Fitzgibbon said Labor should adopt the same 2030 target as the Coalition – 28%. Not content with that, Fitzgibbon then wondered out loud how many elections and leaders Labor was prepared to lose as a consequence of championing an ambitious climate policy that voters in regional NSW and Queensland had rejected. Creating a bit of forward sizzle for his speech, Fitzgibbon wondered these things in the news outlets most likely to amplify this thesis: the Australian and Sky News.
This was sufficiently provocative to warrant a swift response. Butler, the shadow climate change minister, blasted back quickly. He said no to 28% – that was a crap target, and Labor wasn’t about climate capitulation. Albanese’s office then circulated a letter from Butler which was distributed pre-emptively to all MPs to respond to any incoming voter angst triggered by Fitzgibbon’s foray. In that letter, Butler describes Labor’s commitment to achieving the goals of the Paris agreement, keeping warming well below 2C, as “unshakeable”.
If this particular issue was going to be decided today, you’d put your money on Butler prevailing, because the Fitzgibbon view is not universally held in the right. Views are mixed and there is a solid constituency in the shadow cabinet and caucus for climate action.
But there is a long way to go in this discussion and Labor has to resolve more than pollution reduction targets. It has to work through what it says to coal communities like the one Fitzgibbon represents – and that is genuinely difficult.
Katharine Murphy is Guardian Australia’s political editor