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With Joel Fitzgibbon Gone, the Australian Labor Party Must Stop Appeasing the Fossil Fuel Lobby

After waging war on behalf of coal billionaires, Labor Right MP Joel Fitzgibbon has resigned from the party front bench. If the Labor Left wants to undo the damage he did, they need to start fighting for jobs and the environment as tenaciously as Fitzgibbon did for the coal lobby.

Shadow Minister for Agriculture Joel Fitzgibbon at a caucus meeting at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia. (Mick Tsikas — Pool / Getty Images)

For over a year, Australian Labor Party (ALP) MP Joel Fitzgibbon waged a guerrilla war against his party’s climate policy. Fighting on behalf of fossil fuel billionaires and the Liberal Party, and aided by the conservative Sky News channel, Fitzgibbon notched up a series of victories.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s strategy of appeasement is what made this possible. Early in 2020, Albanese backed the widely maligned Adani coal mine. Then, in September, the ALP abandoned its 2030 climate targets, leaving only a vague commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050, a target so far over the horizon that it’s functionally the same as climate denial. In late October, Labor capitulated yet again, agreeing to support new gas projects, effectively signing on to PM Scott Morrison’s “gas-fired recovery.”

This week, “Coal” Fitzgibbon’s campaign finally reached a dead end. Following condemnations by other Labor front bench MPs, the “Member for Coal” announced his resignation from the shadow cabinet. It’s good to see Fitzgibbon go, but it won’t end the Labor Right’s campaign of predatory delay on behalf of fossil fuel executives, or reverse the damage they inflicted on the party and its response to the climate crisis.

The Climate Crisis Has a Deadline

Instead of seeing the ecological crisis as the “great moral challenge of our time,” the Labor Right has continually downplayed the issue as a “climate grievance,” localized to a small subsection of the electorate.

This view is both morally reprehensible and politically indefensible. Decisions made today will have more impact than decisions made a year from now, and are far more important than decisions made in a decade.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading institution for climate science, has reported that even 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming will be hugely destructive, threatening the stability of human civilization. Research conducted by Oil Change International has found that the world’s presently operating coal mines and gas and oil fields contain enough carbon to take us beyond even 2 degrees Celsius of warming. Even if you exclude coal, operational oil and gas fields alone have the potential to drive temperatures up by 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Opening up new coal, gas, or oil developments will lock in decades of new emissions and warming, ensuring disaster. In short, it will be a death sentence for millions.

This is why Labor’s support for new gas projects — as well as new coal mines and other forms of fossil fuel expansion — is morally and scientifically bankrupt. Try as they might, they won’t be able to push the climate crisis over the political horizon. The smoke that covered our cities last summer, the dying Great Barrier Reef, and the water shortages for communities across western NSW are enough to show that this crisis is not years away — it’s already here. Labor can’t triangulate its way out of a dead planet.

“Small Target,” Big Emissions

Since becoming leader in 2019, Anthony Albanese, who comes from the Labor Left, has tried to neutralize the Right, both within Labor and without, by minimizing climate policy differences between himself and Liberal PM Scott Morrison. In July, he spoke at the National Press Club to offer a bipartisan energy policy with Morrison. It was unclear exactly what Albanese had in mind, aside from the naive hope that by surrendering, he could make the issue go away.

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel lobby and their political foot soldiers have successfully turned climate change into just another front in the long-running culture wars. Sensing Labor’s weakness, they have used climate politics to drive a wedge through the working class, pitting inner-city workers against rural and blue-collar workers, and dividing us based on the industry we work in, the place we live or our level of education. Indeed, climate politics is arguably the most effective wedge conservatives have in their arsenal.

As a first step, Labor must stop allowing conservatives to dictate the terms of the climate debate. This means abandoning the strategy of appeasement; conservatives will never drop one of their most potent weapons out of civility or pity.

Instead, Labor must reframe the question by decisively rejecting Joel Fitzgibbon’s disingenuous argument that real action on the climate crisis will cost blue-collar jobs. As long as Labor accepts this conservative framing, it will lose.

The only choice left is to embrace transformative climate action and fight to save the environment by also materially improving workers’ lives. Tinkering around the edge of an unpopular and broken system is bad policy and worse politics. Solutions to the climate crisis are already largely popular, with polling from Essential showing government investment in housing, renewable energy, and transport as the highest priorities for voters.

A Popular and Necessary Alternative

Labor needs to stop looking at the climate crisis as a political “third rail” and embrace it as the opportunity that it is. There is no shortage of work to be done, from rapidly decarbonizing our energy system, to preparing our cities, towns, and communities for impacts we can no longer avoid.

Even under the most optimistic scenarios, Australia will be a hotter, drier, and harsher place. We will need sea walls to guard against erosion, greenery to shade and cool our cities, land management to reduce fire risks, and so much more. We will need research, innovation, and education to train a skilled workforce, and to adapt to (and survive) the rapidly developing ecological crisis. And this is to say nothing of care work. In a less hospitable world, nurses, doctors, and care workers will become even more vital.

Moreover, this is just the beginning. Many climate thinkers have argued that shorter working weeks are a vital part of any plan to reduce emissions. Fighting for more leisure time has been a fundamental principle of the labor movement since its earliest days, and that could form a key policy plank of a popular climate policy.

But a transformative agenda can only win if backed by a serious mass mobilization. However, in recent years, Labor has regarded social movements with fear and hostility. Indeed, the party’s review of their 2019 defeat argued that “Labor’s policy processes were too attentive to [the] efforts” of external advocacy groups. In practice, this means that the ALP demobilizes movements by demanding they compromise and quietly engage with the ALP’s internal bureaucracy.

Instead, clear, fearless leadership should embolden social movements and unions, encourage community and workplace organizing, and strengthen existing left institutions like Medicare, while also building new ones.

Fight Fire With Fire

The Labor Left’s dogged pursuit of appeasement has failed. Although he has now been relegated to the backbench, Joel Fitzgibbon’s public guerilla war has inflicted enormous damage, undermining Labor’s already weak climate policy.

So, if the Left wants to make sure that Fitzgibbon does not return from the political wilderness to fight once more for coal, they should borrow his strategy, and wage war on behalf of workers and the environment.

This means seeking allies outside the party to challenge the fossil fuel lobby. In fact, the basis for this is already being built as social movements coalesce around proposals like this such as a Green New Deal or a Climate Jobs Guarantee, while coalitions such as the Real Deal and the Hunter Jobs Alliance are bringing together climate and union movements around similar demands. Imagine, for a moment, if the Labor Left abandoned their defensive posture and amplified these voices instead.

In the face of overwhelming public opposition, the cynical campaign from Labor’s fossil fuel lobbyists would disintegrate. And Labor may take advantage of one of its last chances to lead the necessary — and popular — response to the climate crisis.