Like Vietnam, on Climate Change Labor is on the Right Side of History

Address to the Queensland ALP State Conference, 23 August 2019

By Wayne Swan – President of the Australian Labor Party

It is my pleasure tonight to introduce our Guest Speaker, Penny Wong. 

It’s especially great to be able to do that in a state which, at the state level at least, has voted Labor almost continuously since 1989.

We all know in Queensland it's tougher for Labor federally, but we shouldn’t treat the recent federal election outcome as a bereavement – as easy as that might be – because it was nothing like 1996 or for that matter 1975.  So let’s not make it that.

A look at our campaign shows not everything in our losing campaign was a disaster, and far from everything in the winning campaign was genius.  We got a lot of things right, and we got a few things wrong.

As Treasurer there was probably no other line Minister that I worked more closely with than Penny.  First of all on climate change, and then in Finance.

You might think that someone who has had a 40 year association with the right in Queensland might not necessarily work smoothly with someone from the South Australian left. 

And I am sure that the great success we had working together was due to Penny’s unique skills in bringing people together, and her integrity and authenticity.

When you’re in the trenches fighting vested interests – as we on the progressive side always are – you couldn’t ask for a better person standing shoulder to shoulder with you than Penny.

And one of the reasons I am so confident we can turn this around in Queensland and nationally is because of the depth of talent we have in our Federal party and the strength of our leadership, particularly Albo and Penny.

If you look around the world there are reasons to be hopeful.  In international politics we may be living through what many see as an extreme right take-over, but its foundations are shaky.  We can see this in the US and Britain, just as you can see it in Australia. Their trickle-down economics and their climate change denial are ultimately self-defeating.

Hostility to climate change and sustainability and their rabid creation of wealth and income inequality can produce its own counter-revolution.

It’s up to us to convince the public that an empowered and active government will create a better society and a prosperous and sustainable economy.

A few weeks ago one of the greats of our movement passed away.  Graham Freudenberg, a Queenslander, author of Whitlam’s “Its Time” speech, and one of the labour movement’s greatest wordsmiths and historians, once said to me that the most significant speech he ever wrote was Arthur Calwells rejection of Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War.  That speech denounced participation in that war without denouncing the American alliance.  He said his main task on Vietnam was speaking bleak truths about the war, while keeping the Party together.  Labor’s stance was initially unpopular.  But by 1969 Labor’s stance was vindicated.

As I was watching “Insiders” last Sunday I thought of Graham’s speech as I watched Penny demolish the Coalition on climate change, national security and Australia’s place in the world.  She outlined a principled position and a practical policy.

In the next 5 to ten years climate is going to completely reshape global, national and local politics.  And just as conservatives internationally are in deep trouble on inequality, they are going to be in much more trouble on climate. 

Like Vietnam, on climate change Labor is on the right side of history.

The last federal election was a bad election result for climate policy in Australia, and particularly in Queensland. 

But all of us know – because we are realists, because we trust experts and the science, because we take our responsibilities for this great country and for our planet seriously – all of us know climate is not just going to go away as an issue.

The conservatives are climate deniers – make no mistake about it – either outright like Tony Abbott, or in the weak, tricky way Scott Morrison is: pretending to accept the science while thinking it is perfectly fine to do nothing about it.

Those climate deniers in the Coalition think they are having an argument with Labor about climate. Not really. They’re arguing with an even more formidable and even less sentimental foe: the laws of physics.

And just as night follows day, just as global politics were reshaped by the horrific September 11 attacks in the US, somewhere not far down the track there will be a dreadful climate event that will similarly reshape global and national politics.  It could well be on our own doorstep.

Penny made another hugely important point on “Insiders”: that as we set about substantially reducing our emissions we won’t do so on the backs of workers in our carbon-intensive industries. Change is coming to the coal industry and others, just like it is in our emissions-intensive sectors.

But I’m here to level with you. That change isn’t happening because of climate targets set in Canberra or because of what politicians think. It’s coming because global financial markets are shifting capital from high to low carbon. It’s coming because renewable energies are now cheaper than fossil energy in a growing number of markets. And it’s happening because mining bosses are doing what they always, always do, and cutting jobs through automation.  

These are just facts. Only politicians who don’t care about working people and their communities will deny them. They will deny them right up to the moment the bosses close the mine, then they will blame someone else and wash their hands of it. Only Labor is up for the hard but honest political work of engaging in these communities in the transition to secure, unionised jobs in the renewables industries.

Over the last decade it’s been tough times for centre-left parties around the world.  The radical right has used race and immigration to hollow out centre-left voter support among working class and lower income earners to camouflage their wealth concentration agenda.

The right’s solutions can only exacerbate the root causes of people’s anger with the political system.

Let’s take tax where massive tax cuts to corporates and wealthy individuals are leading to massive cuts to health and education, and pushing up tax rates for modest income earners.

The standard conservative argument you hear about Labor’s tax policy is that we lost because we pursued the politics of envy and drove away aspirational middle ground voters.

Nothing could be further from the truth, but where the conservatives were successful was to run a scare campaign on death taxes.  And of course it was here that Palmer’s millions really hit home.  The great irony of our economic policy was those voters allegedly targeted by Labor’s policies stayed with us, and the actual beneficiaries swung against us. 

I know that Penny and the leadership understand the challenge and certainly will not retreat on the progressive shape and content of our agenda.

We all know we are in for 3 more years of hard work, but we also know that Penny and Albo are hard workers.  They have the strength, courage and the values that will advance our movement.

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