Peter Garrett - Remarks to LEAN

Sydney, December 7 2019


Here’s what we know.

The natural world is under siege. The threat we face is literally existential.

We are surrounded by fires, force fed by a super hot spring. Our cities and towns are blanketed with smoke and the sun has gone out, it’s hard to breathe.

Rivers and springs are drying out, big and small towns are running out of water – running out of life.

The planet is burning, the weather is veering out of control and it’s going to get a whole lot worse, very quickly, unless we act with a sense of urgency to get ourselves on a zero carbon pathway.

These aren’t disputable facts nor an ideological position, this is our reality. We are facing a climate crisis equivalent to war in terms of the scale of the threat.

And while Australia burns, the Prime Minister fiddles like some modern day Roman emperor - Nero from the Shire.

Other than for a brief, ‘Eureka’ moment when the Gillard government’s price on carbon kicked in and emissions actually starting coming down, the anti-science, anti-environment stance of a belligerent coalition has derailed the debate, frustrated real action, and cost the country dearly.

The Prime Minister cuddles a lump of coal in Parliament and lies when he says the situation is under control, and that we will reduce greenhouse pollution to the extent necessary. In fact, emissions are slated to rise. And are rising.

There is no economic incentive in place to reduce greenhouse gases spewing into the atmosphere, nor the political will to save the Great Barrier Reef. There’s no plan for how we are going to survive the climate emergency and, instead, the environment department has just been dismantled!

So the Labor Environment Action Network – the largest non-factional grouping in Labor – has a big and important job on its hands. It aims to ensure the environment is central to decision policy-making in the party and it aims to ensure that when Labor returns to government, the environment becomes more central than ever to decision making. Indeed, LEAN is the future of Labor because LEAN is tackling the fundamental new social reality.

Whether it’s heat driven droughts and bushfires, rising seal levels already washing over our Pacific neighbours, vanishing forest cover and retreating ice caps, increasing deaths in cities and suburbs from heat waves and air pollution, the signs of this new social reality are unmistakable.

Whilst it’s not too late to avert the worst of the climate catastrophe, we are rapidly running out of time.

We have just over a decade to act if we want to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, which means we have to cut emissions in half by 2030 to have an even chance of surviving in a livable world.

If we act with purpose a great future is possible. Imagine Australia as a clean energy superpower, imagine nature repaired and revitalized and imagine our cities and towns made clean and livable once again.

What does this mean for Labor, and the Labor Environment Action Network?

Well there must be real ambition. The party must have the wits to realize what’s at stake. Labor was founded as a response to appalling social realities and that mindset needs to be reinvented to tackle the challenges of this century.

Historically Labor represented the ideal that everyone should have a fair go, safe working conditions and decent pay. In the 1980’s Labor’s response to the social reality of those times meant preserving the safety net while modernizing the economy.

Today Labor again needs to be that party. What we used to call ‘the environment’ is now a mainstream threat to the lives and realities of working Australians – indeed all Australians.

We need to move past the false dichotomy debates of jobs versus the environment, to develop national policy that will enable us to rise to the scale of the challenge, in the time required.

Politics has been lagging behind. Too often in Canberra climate and environment are seen as just more issues for arguments – another subject on which to frame talking points. But this is a deadly category error because the changes we are seeing are not a matter of opinion or ideology, they are a matter of fact. And the consequences which flow from ignoring the facts are of a different order of magnitude. Now we are not just talking about improving lives – we are talking about saving them.

Recognizing the decade of failure we’ve experienced and the intensity of the culture wars, Labor must be at its best in rising above the short term. We have to build coalitions and avoid the eternal temptation of descending into tribes. In short just as John Curtin inspired the country’s response to World War Two we need similarly inspiring leadership to the meet this latest existential crisis.

Climate is such a big issue that it requires building a national consensus and delivering a nation wide transformation of the economy. And this is the answer to the perennial question about the legitimacy of political parties in general and the relevance of Labor in particular. Our times do not call for “business as usual” politics. On the contrary, Labor’s future is tied to its capacity to rise to the biggest challenge in its history, arguably the biggest challenge in the nation’s history as well.

Labor must draw on its proud record in protecting the natural environment remembering the green movement and the Green Party are not necessarily the same thing. Millions of Labor voters are proud and committed environmentalists, because they trust in Labor and in the ideals of social democracy as the best way to unite the country on a challenge of this magnitude in a way that is both fair and effective.

Many Australians worry they no longer live in a cohesive society, whilst at the same time expressing greater concern about climate change. Labor can build a sense of shared purpose, drawing these parts of our tradition together.

Our true believers are dying now. The suburbs of western Sydney and Melbourne are being crucified on the altar of inaction, regional and rural communities are hostage to climate damage, and only a party with an understanding of a just political economy can deliver lasting climate solutions.

Labor must face down self interest and sectional interest, whether from some in business, or some in the CFMEU, or from individual members who eschew reality and are not committed to the challenge, and indeed in the case of the Shadow Minister for Agriculture & Resources Joel Fitzgibbon, deliberately undermine the party whilst still holding their position.

It’s important to realize that we are witnessing a tectonic shift in the world’s climate at the same time as faith in established institutions and the liberal democratic experiment is waning. Only by responding with courage and conviction can any political party hope to establish lasting legitimacy in the eyes of citizens.

This past week saw concern about the environment reemerge as a key issue for Australians. For young Australians it always has been important. They will be more radical and less forgiving then their parent’s generation for it is they who will bear the brunt of the climate crisis if we fail to act now. Will they see Labor as the party that fights for them or a party consumed by battles they see as increasingly irrelevant in a world that is literally on fire.

This is Labor’s great challenge and you only have to look out the window to know there is no time to waste. Unlike Neros old and new, now is not the time to fiddle, and those who do will be judged by history for the wreckage they leave behind.

Labor’s mission is not simply to avoid catastrophe, but to build a just and decent country in world that is healthy, where the children of today and tomorrow really will get a fair go.

To learn more about or to join LEAN click here

To read the Sydney Morning Herald/Age coverage, click here 


get updates