Dame Mary Gilmore Oration 2024

by Felicity Wade, LEAN National Co-convenor,
Worrigee Sports Club June 30, 2024

Member for Gilmore, Fiona Phillips, LEAN National Co-conevenor, Felicity Wade, Member for South Coast, Liza Butler and candidate for Kiama, Katelin McInerney


Thank you all, I’m really pleased to be here.

I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet – Yuin Country of the Jeringa people. The ecological story of Australia has a long history, where for tens of thousands of years the symbiotic relationship of nature and humans was understood in a sophisticated way, with First Nations managing and renewing resources. We have much to learn from our First Nations’ people,

Because cycle on nearly 240 years since colonisation and the issue that underscores our conversation tonight is the challenge of how fundamentally that symbiotic relationship is out of whack, our political economy is failing to manage and replenish resources and threatening in the process to take out the foundations on which life relies. That’s not hyperbole, but it is a fact that is really hard for us as humans, living our lives with our horizons circumscribed as they are, let alone politics, or a nation to easily grapple with. I guess that’s what I’m keen to talk about this afternoon. The challenge and imperative of environment for the Australian Labor Party.

Mary Gilmore is a pretty fabulous figure to have an electorate and an oration named after. I’m no Gilmore expert although I had to learn a bit about her at school as the houses at our feminist all girls school were named after Australian women writers. I was in Tennant, as in Kylie Tennant but Gilmore more often won the athletics.  Here’s my three favourite autobiographical facts about Gilmore – She was the first woman member of the Australian Workers Union and wrote for its newspaper. She joined the utopian socialist New Australia Colony in Paraguay in 1893, which failed and they all came home – but it is such a wonderful expression of the radical politics that informed the making of Australia. And she started writing a column in the Communist Tribune in 1952, aged 87, which she then wrote for a decade.

Dame Mary is a leftist hero, but was also ahead of her time on the environment. She wrote a poignant poem, the title of which tells the story -  The Koala: a plea for the slaughtered. One of her main schtick's was writing about country life and the Australian landscape. Along with Henry Lawson - with whom she had a relationship - she was part of that important concoction of nationhood of the 1890s and early Federation that had a deep connection to place and landscape, the bush as particular but hard, connected to heart-break and radical politics.

Happily she died long before her great-great nephew, Scott Morrison became Prime Minister.

In the few minutes I have this afternoon to talk to you about how I see our grand old party responding to the environmental challenge, I find myself struggling with the most basic definition of what we are discussing. The banner of environment now holds so much – there is the overwhelming existential threat of a changing climate – the impacts of which this community is seeing in real time as fire and flood keep returning and whittling away people’s sense of safety and home - and we’ve hardly yet begun on the temperature increases baked into our future.

But there is also the pressure on nature that is becoming existential as well. There is a lag in our understanding and the narratives surrounding it, but the degeneration of nature is threatening to collapse our life support systems just as quickly as the warming of our planet. Arresting the degradation of nature still often is described in post-material terms about the right of other species to exist, which struggles to cut the mustard in the material world of politics.

But scientists now have developed a model of nine planetary boundaries – these are the systems that are essential preconditions for humanity’s pursuit of long term social and economic development.  They include things like climate change, biosphere integrity, land use change, fresh water change and modification of biochemical flows.  Scientists recognise its hard to properly diagnose the health of these planetary systems, but 6 of the 9 are assumed to have been breached. Climate change is only one of the natural systems which we must attend to.

I came to the Labor party through the environment. I was at high school when Bob Hawke saved the Franklin River. While I am part of the first generation in my family to go to university, thanks to Whitlam’s higher education reforms- Hawke’s Franklin decision was the one that marked and inspired my childhood. 

I pulled out the famous full colour ad – a new technology at the time - that ran in the Sydney morning herald in the lead up to the 1983 Federal election and had it tacked to my bedroom wall.

Hawke’s leadership on the Franklin was my political awakening - it spoke to me of nationalism: a deep pride in the place we live and its strange, unique beauty, of optimism in Australia and its confidence and place in the world and, that politics could do things that mattered.

When LEAN relaunched on the 30th anniversary of the high court decision in July 2013, Bob Hawke told the story. Labor lost all 5 seats in Tasmania that election. When asked if they made up seats on the back of the issue on the mainland to offset the losses, Hawke said it was hard to tell, but it didn’t matter, it was the right thing to do. It is my theory that Hawke’s conviction – even when there were clear electoral costs – above and beyond the environmental outcome was an essential aspect of Hawke’s appeal to the electorate. I am sure it won votes.

Looking back, that seminal environmental decision looks all so simple – a beautiful place threatened by a specific inappropriate development that a brave leader stepped in to address. In the 40 years since that decision the terms of the debate have got so much harder! 

The 20th century delivered unprecedented economic growth, and with it great advances in human development. In Australia we have ridden this wave and are some of the richest people on the planet, enjoying escalating life expectancy and material plenty. But this has been an amazing 70 years or so of system depletion. Australian scientist, the late Will Stefan provided the most stunning insight into this as he charted resource use from 1750 – the industrial revolution – population, GDP, water use, fertiliser use, primary energy use, fish catch and of course greenhouse gas emissions all have a hockey stick trajectory,  flying upward at 1950 – in such a short period.  Literally within many of our lifetimes, we have pushed the earth to its limits and are now facing system collapse. Its sort of unbelievable.

The World Economic Forum, with PWC have started to translate this into terms our economic system can understand, they estimate that 44 trillion dollars of value generation are at risk due to business dependencies on nature.

This reality can be translated into the terms of Labor’s foundation story as our story cuts to the heart of economic production. There are three factors of production, capital, labour and “the land” or resources used in production. The Labor party formed in response to the conflict between labour and capital. At the time of our creation, the land was a neutral actor, largely ignored. The last half century has shown capital is in fundamental conflict with “the land” as well. This threatens not only our livelihoods but life itself. In this triangle the environment and workers share the crap end of the same stick.

Environment has been central to the story and social democratic legacy of modern Labor.

Gough Whitlam made environmental protection core work of the Federal government. He banned oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef and created the GBR Marine Park, he set up the inquiry that led to the ending of sand mining on K’gari, Fraser Island and he also started the process of integrating environment into the purview of government, creating the country’s first environmental laws.

Bob Hawke is undisputed as Labor’s most successful modern Prime Minister. He came from the ACTU and never shied away from a deeply Labor persona of looking after the everyday of everyday Australians. But he was also a remarkable environmentalist.

Hawke’s list of iconic decisions – Franklin, Kakadu, Daintree, leading the international push to stop mining in Antarctica – is impressive. But more than this, he also delivered early attempts at systemic approaches to environmental protection. In 1992 the Hawke Labor Government initiated a National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development aiming to “facilitate a coordinated and co-operative approach to ecologically sustainable development” toward long-term benefits not just “short termism”. This ground-breaking attempt to address nature’s decline in a systemic way died a death and no government has since had anything like this system level ambition.

In the last couple of decades climate change has dominated the space of environmental politics. The creation of the world’s largest marine reserve system under the Gillard Government was significant, but we are only just beginning to think again about the level of systemic response needed in the nature sphere.

The Rudd-Gillard government did the hard yards on establishing a carbon price. The climate wars were ferocious and the Greens obstructionist. Labor paid dearly for their commitment to acting to arrest climate change while maintaining the confidence of the Australian people. The power of the “no carbon tax under a govt a lead”, mixed up with a whole lot of internal strife were potent in Tony Abbott’s victory in 2013.

Fast forward and with our victory in 2022, we thought that perhaps the climate wars had quietened, that the good work of Albanese Minister, Chris Bowen was shifting the debate and it was no longer in the realm of whether climate change is real and action legitimate, rather shifting into the challenging but work-a-day realm of implementation. The Albanese govt has legislated emissions targets, created incentives to spur on the shift to 82% renewable energy by 2030, introduced the Safeguard Mechanism to limit emissions from industry, has introduced vehicle emissions standards and a myriad of other policies to decarbonise Australia. As we all have learnt this isn’t easy, in retrospect we all have no real excuse for not anticipating such a major industrial retooling, a remaking of our energy system would have local impacts, creating disquiet and challenging us to both tell the story better and ensure community engagement is deep and effective.  And as the right does, it has morphed again, adjusting to new circumstances and found a new angle of attack. Opposition leader Peter Dutton has picked up on the regional fears, fanned them and fashioned his nuclear proposal to exploit and reignite the climate wars. The country groaned in unison to see them back.

I’ve got three observations I’d like to make about where we are at as a party committed to building a better Australia in a time of ecological collapse:

While the scale of the problem is huge, we can only go at the pace in which we keep the Australian public with us, and we now have a huge task ahead on winning the on-ground battle for the energy revolution. You are seeing this with the off-shore wind debate just north of here. Social researchers tell us that people are unsure of our plan and where it is taking us, they are worried about the impacts on their community and its environment, unsure that there really are jobs in the new energy system or that renewables really are cheaper.

It annoys me that environmentalist often complain that Labor should move faster. Labor is committed on climate action but the pathway is through implementing real things, in real places, and as we are discovering this is human and hard.

And now we have the complication of Dutton’s nuclear play which seems less about the reality of building nuclear reactors – we all know it is an illogical, expensive idea with huge risks, but more a hook for a the narrative that can be used to speak to the fears the renewable roll out has ignited.

The Simpsons - the story of the working class family living in the fictional town of Springfield, whos main economic activity is a nuclear power plant in which the dad, Homer, works - has been much referenced in this debate and its cultural resonance acknowledged by the political class. Peter Dutton in addressing the Liberal party conference in November last year conceded party research found some Australians “were influenced by The Simpsons … People didn’t want a Springfield going up in their back yard”. Prime Minister Albanese has apparently taken to refereeing to opposition environment spokesman Ted O’Brien as Homer – handy when Mr O’Brien has more than a passing physical resemblance to Mr Simpson. The three eyed fish, that lives in the rivers around the town of Springfield is apparently coming up in focus group research.

However, as Peter Lewis from Essential Media pointed out to me this week it is important to remember that the Simpsons is primarily a story of a family who rely on the stable work that the nuclear plant provides for Homer. One of my favourite episodes is called “And Maggie makes three”. When Homer’s daughter Lisa asks him why there are no baby photos of her younger sister Maggie, he tells the story of when they found themselves financially stable enough for him to leave the nuclear power plant and take his dream job in a bowling alley. He is doing great , innovating , loving his work life when Marge gets pregnant with Maggie. They can’t afford a third kid on his wage and his boss at the bowling alley can’t afford to give him a raise so Homer returns to the nuclear plant. Mr Burns, his boss puts a plaque above his desk that reads "Don't forget: you're here forever". The reason there are no photos of Maggie in the family album is because they are plastered all over the walls of Homer’s work space where he needs them to get through the day, and in fact have been strategically placed to obscure some of the Mr Burns’ plaque so it now reads “Do it for her.”

My point is imprecise here, but on this issue Labor has tended toward the technocratic in how we approach it and talk about it. This won’t do. We haven’t adequately told a story of the renewable revolution and assured people it will work for them and their families. This debate will be won in our ability to make this argument in a way that talks to the contradictions in Homer’s life and his core motivations about his love for his family and creating a safe and good place for them.

Over recent weeks I have been thinking about change and stability. It seems to me there is a strange tension in the heart of the Labor party. We are a party committed to change and reform. Our roots are in radical politics, committed to taking on the powerful, creating change. But at the heart of our reason for reform is to provide stability and limit disruptive change in people’s lives.  Our focus is in limiting capitalism’s excesses to provide secure and long standing work with good conditions and the implied community and sense of place that delivers – the stuff that underpins a stable and happy life.

But change is also coming at us with the changes in the climate and the environment’s ability to sustain us. We have built a civilisation on the expectation of a stable climate, where temperature ranges are limited and predictable. But the changes in the weather are being felt so clearly in this community. We are seeing changes in the ability for the landscape to manage droughts and the rivers to remain healthy, the pollinators to do their job.

Labor’s basic mission of building stability and security into people’s lives has been severely interrupted by the challenges of globalisation, casualisation and so on, but it is also interrupted by the changes that responding to the climate and environmental crisis demands. Retooling our energy system and decarbonising our industries will demand change for individuals and communities. The debate about native forest logging is one of these in your corner of the world.  Our task as a party is to manage change without impacting on people’s sense of stability and safety. It’s a tall order, especially with bad actors trying to cause unrest. We must be the best version of ourselves to bring people with us and deliver the transition.

My second point is that we are a long way from where we need to be on a systemic response to arresting decline in the natural world, to safeguard the natural capital on which our economy relies.

In late 2022, the Convention for Biodiversity had what people are calling its “Paris moment” in Montreal when a breakthrough Global Biodiversity Framework was adopted. Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek was there and played a pivotal role in its ambition. She also adopted the big new idea of “Nature Positive” which is a new global movement to arrest the continuing loss of nature, turning it around by 2030 and moving into restoration in the years beyond.

Nature Positive aims to better integrate the dual crisis of climate and environment but also to emulate the level of response that climate change has inspired. Central to it is the creation of baselines and targets so we can measure if we are succeeding in turning the ship around. To create a Nature Positive Australia where we end the trajectory of loss – of extinctions and deforestation - requires laws and incentives. It requires tools to value nature and to direct financial flows to its protection. We need to expect business to disclose its impacts  on nature– making this mandatory as is currently occurring for climate – and to address them. It will require institutions and industry creation like we have for climate – an “ARENA and CEFC for nature” and so on.

I think we have some way to go, however on creating the political support for the Minister on the scale of this task and the revolution it implies for how we currently operate. It is my observation that this level of response on the environment is a bit of a stretch for a materialist party. Climate change, with its focus on energy systems and industrial retooling as well as workforce skills fits more naturally into our version of nation building. We have some work to do to make protection of natural capital sit alongside our accounting for and consideration of financial and human capital.

Finally, and this is where we as the membership of the Labor party come in, we need to keep pushing our party to better embrace the imperative of environmental action as central to our party’s mission and vision.

LEAN has three aims – Firstly to shift party policy. Secondly, to empower the Labor membership to make change – we are overtly and consciously an organ of the membership and, thirdly, to embed environment and climate concern into the heart of the mission of the ALP, write it into the party’s DNA.

I think we do Ok on our first aim and have plenty to be proud of in our last decade of pushing the party to ambition. The second two remain our shared challenge.

I am always saddened when I read Labor history, how little the issue features. This week I read Frank Bonjorno and Nick Dyrenfurth’s  A Little History of the Australian Labor Party. While the role of environment politics, particularly climate change inevitably took more words as the story inched towards today, it still shocked me that environment and climate change were relegated to the lists of social issues that were used as evidence of one of the book’s key themes,  “the middle classing of the ALP.”

One of the clearest things President Joe Biden said in the US Presidential debate this week was, and I quote,  “The only existential threat to humanity is climate change.” Social issues are deeply important, but surely this existential inhibitor to all of our other goals deserves a bigger, more fulsome discussion within the party and in any text that aims to understand and celebrate the Australian Labor Party’s nation making importance in the 21st century.

While I was a bit uninspired by the Little History, I found its introduction by Labor Party President, Wayne Swan full of things to spur us on. Wayne’s reason for our existence was clearly stated, we must win power in order to affect positive change:

“Winning power to put in place the big building blocks of economic prosperity and environmental sustainability is what our party must focus on.”

These must be the two key goals of Labor’s mission in the 21st century. It is up to us to make it so. And this is where the President’s introduction also has insights for us -

“In addition to a bigger policy offering, we must as a priority grow a bigger and deeper party. We win when we build a movement, not just run a campaign.

“To be successful, we must build our movement and make our party much larger, more vibrant, more imaginative. To defeat the radical Right, we must rejuvenate the Centre Left.  We must recruit and retain significant numbers of new members, particularly in outer suburban and regional areas where the people who need our help mostly live. A society built from the bottom up, not from the top down, cannot endure unless it is supported by a party that is large and dynamic and with membership representative of and spread across the country and the demography of modern Australia.”

As is sometimes said in the media, LEAN is the biggest internal grouping of members within the party. We are a loose gang, decentralised and working in our particular places across the country – our fabulous LEAN community is an example, here on the south coast. You are not alone, we LEAN people – Labor true believers toil away to defend the environment across Australia.

We cross factional lines, and we gather those who have no interest in factions at all.

We influence change by organising the membership and their universal concern for the environment. But on membership we clearly have some challenges, COVID undermined the branches, branches seem a bit anachronistic these days and our aging profile reflects this.

So together we need to keep believing, believing in the wonderful deep and ethical heart of the Labor party. I love it. It’s faulted and warty but full of people of committed to the dual aims that President Swan articulated – economic prosperity and environmental sustainability. We are the only party who can thread the needle of caring for the everyday needs of Australians while shifting to a footing commensurate with the crisis. Finding opportunity – of which there is plenty – and more importantly articulating the promise of stability and safety as we face huge change. 

We all need to be part of innovating, building our ranks and our strength, making sure the professionalised party machine hears our voices,  crafting messages and policy to deliver a robust response to the environment challenge.

Together our efforts are of the utmost importance to Australia and the Labor party in the 21st century.

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