News from the front desk Issue No 375 – On elections, Tim Buckley, jobs and growth, Tim Hollo and ecological democracy
The Fifth Estate | 23 February 2018
Election season is on and voter sentiment is opaque and so confusing that in South Australia they’ve stopped polling. Labor is pro-climate action, and anti-coal, no wait, now coal mines are OK. Tim Hollo executive director of think tank The Green Institute says the seeds of discontent are taking root; they’re deep, widespread and leaving the major political philosophies behind.
Around the nation a swarm of elections is coming our way.
There’s the Tasmanian election on 3 March. The Batman by election in Melbourne in the hot button Melbourne seat on 17 March. South Australia has its state election on the same day, and Victoria’s is mandated for 24 November. There could even be some federal action with a half senate election between August this year and 18 May next year (in the absence of another double dissolution) ahead of another federal election next year.
What’s interesting is the enthusiasm with which Labor seems to have latched onto a growing realisation that not only is coal on the nose and that renewable energy has become a strong and stable favourite with consumers/voters, but that these two issues can actually win elections.
Just look at Queensland.
Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk got a whiff of which way the wind was blowing in last year’s state election and made a firm commitment to veto public funding of infrastructure for the Adani coal mine. And won.
In South Australia, Labor premier Jay Weatherill long ago realised that renewables, new technology and a clean future were a winning combination and as the polls wavered and confused everyone in recent weeks, he’s decided to go “hell for leather” on renewables. What’s to lose?
In quick succession, Weatherill announced a spate of ambitious projects. The renewable energy target was now a whopping 75 per cent by 2025, up from 50 per cent pretty much already achieved, an energy storage target of 25 per cent, interest free loans for solar and batteries, a micro grid by WA’s Carnegie on the old Holden site and a plan to green the gas grid with hydrogen.
And just in case Tesla’s virtual solar power plant over 50,000 households was seen as a tad lacking in ambition, Weatherill promised to create another virtual solar plant, with an additional 50,000 households.
But there’s more – the renewables story in South Australia goes on and on.
Tim Buckley says renewables is about jobs and growth
According to the highly regarded Tim Buckley, director of Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, and with a background that includes 16 years as head of equity research for Citigroup, South Australia is ranked as one of the world’s top regions for variable renewable energy.
And renewables are creating the all-important jobs. Just one deal announced in South Australia on Thursday, Sonnen’s new battery plant, would create 450 jobs.
In Queensland, 3000 jobs have been created in renewables in the past two years alone.
Some people say the jobs are short term, he says. “What, are they fake jobs? You get skilled up, you build more.
“There are now more projects you can poke a stick at.”
What’s driven the jobs is the state government’s renewable energy target.
Australia will be investing billions of dollars forever in new renewable energy infrastructure, he says.
“There are billions of investment underway now.”
If it’s all about jobs and growth, then this is where the action is.
For a political party trying to win votes, it’s not a bad strategy to have.
Even more encouraging is that globally coal is on the nose. Including with our number one coal buying customer, Japan, whose government has signalled it’s going renewable. So has South Korea, our third biggest coal customer. And so on.
Labor’s shadow minister for climate change and energy South Australian Mark Butler gets it.
His speech this week at Sydney Institute tackled the financial and legal issues around coal and climate challenges.
Here are just a few of the highlights worth pointing out for their no nonsense jabs:
- Quoting a story from The Australian he notes BHP spinoff South32 “dumps thermal coal, citing uncertainty and climate change.”
- Blackrock in 2016, the world’s largest asset manager, with almost US$5 trillion, said investors could no longer ignore climate change. “Some may question the science behind it, but all are faced with a swelling tide of climate-related regulations and technological disruption,” he quoted.
- Standard and Poors said in 2014 that climate change would soon start to place downward pressure on the credit ratings of nation states due to the economic and financial impacts.
- The Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority’s Geoff Summerhayes said “society’s responses to it are starting to affect the global economy”.
- San Francisco and Oakland in California were taking BP, Chevron, Exxon, Conoco and Shell to court to make them pay for “infrastructure the cities need to build to protect coastal assets against sea level rise”. Joining in was New York Mayor, Bill De Blasio with another $20 billion claim in damages.
There’s a lot of detail in Butler’s speech. In fact we decided to publish the whole thing in full here, because we’ll bet it becomes a handy source document.
Labor, in other words, seems to have stopped fence sitting and jumped into the clean and green game.
According to Tim Buckley, federal Labor reasoned that “not only did the electorate not smash Queensland Labor for being anti coal and for being against subsidies for a billionaire but they were rewarded.”
So why did Bill Shorten flip on coal mines?
So what happened with that beautiful story arc when Labor leader Bill Shorten suddenly clipped its wings to meekly echo mining union CFMEU’s stance on coal mines?
“There is a role for coal in Australia,” Shorten said. Adani was just “another project”.
Buckley for one isn’t as fussed as you might think. Likely it’s short term politicking in the lead up to the important Batman by election, he says.
It seems there are two things going on here.
First, he says, it’s important to understand the difference between high grade coking coal that sells for high prices and is relatively lower polluting and low grade more polluting thermal coal.
Australia experts 60 per cent of the world’s coking coal and Queensland produces 80 per cent of that. In NSW it’s the other way round: the state produces 80 per cent thermal and 20 per cent coking.
According to Buckley coking coal will be around for a few decades yet.
The second is the pressures on Labor from mining unions.
The CFMEU, Buckley says, has a job to do, to protect thousands of workers’ jobs. And while it’s clear the national body has started the thinking to transition to a clean energy and technology future, in Queensland the local CFMEU isn’t so forward thinking and is placing huge pressure on its national branch and the Labor Party.
So while on the one hand Labor knows thermal coal is a dead duck, it’s willing to pretend it supports a thermal coal mine and maybe sacrifice Batman in order to win seats in Far North Queensland.
The irony is that the sacrifice would also include unionist Ged Kearney, president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, who is Labor’s candidate in Batman.
Labor, says Buckley, is feeling a bit cocky about the Adani coal mine because it thinks the project won’t get finance and most big contractors are walking well away from it. He’s not so sure. The problem is that Gautnam Adani is about four times richer than he was four years ago, worth about $US15 billion, and has the means to kick start the project. And, since he hates to spend his own money, there’s always the possibility that the federal government will dig deep (with our money) to help the poor guy out.
There’s more going on
This is all very confusing for any party, but especially one trying to seize the opportunities of a booming clean energy economy while trying to claim some strategic agency for a bumpy jobs transition.
But there is still something missing from the picture.
We all know the polls in recent years have been notoriously wrong. Right around the planet.
In fact the results have been so damaging for the reputation of pollsters that in South Australia they’ve actually stopped polling on a two party preferred basis because it’s so hard to work out what’s going on.
One reason flagged for why polls are so wrong is that they rely on telephone surveys, by landline. And many, if not entire swathes of certain demographic groups, simply don’t have landlines and no one yet has come up with a White Pages for mobile phones (cue start up alert).
The other possibility is that no one really knows what’s going on but whatever it is, it’s fundamental.
Tim Hollo on ecological democracy
Tim Hollo, Christine Milne’s rather exceptional political adviser during her time at the helm of The Greens, is not surprised there is confusion in politics right now, especially for Labor.
“A cultural shift across to the Greens is happening in many geographical places like Melbourne and Labor doesn’t quite know how to respond,” he says.
Hollo is these days executive director for think tank The Green Institute, and his work is to develop some “big ideas” around what he terms green politics and “ecological democracy”.
We spoke to Hollo on Thursday while he was travelling by bus from Canberra to Sydney to flag some of that thinking at Politics in the Pub that night.
His work, he says, is an “attempt to articulate an ecological politics” in the context of what’s been talked about as the “crisis of democracy” that’s said to underpin the electoral ructions under way.
Green politics is not quite in the picture, he says. And it’s separate to the social democracy movements such as those fostered by Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the UK, who both came near to seizing power in national elections.
“I believe that green politics as we conceptualise it in a new and positive way can be a distinct and very powerful response to this crisis of democracy,” Hollo says.
This is an area of thinking that is slowly emerging and sits outside the comfortable realms of conventional politics, such as social democracy, capitalism, and even natural capitalism and mainstream environmentalism.
Addressing the disconnection between people and nature is key
“It’s about bringing people together with each other and with nature and it addresses the incredible disconnection and alienation at the heart of this crisis of democracy.”
In simple terms ecological democracy “understands that humans are part of nature and therefore any attempt to build a more equitable and fairer and better society must include at its core the protection of nature.”
Social democracy doesn’t quite see that, he says. The thinking of Corbyn and Sanders and Shorten “see humanity as core but not nature as core to their objectives”.
A problem with social democracy he says is that it has been developed as a response to capitalism and therefore starts from a position of looking at capitalism on its own terms rather than looking at the problems afresh.
“Capitalism at its core is about disconnection, about saying it’s humanity over here and environment over there.”Its tendency is to comodify or “atomise” and price everything.Socialism fails to change that framing, he says.
“Both drive homogenisation, steamrolling local cultures, failing to appreciate the strength that comes from interconnected diversity – the secret recipe of ecology,” he says in the speech.
Mainstream environmentalism has also seen humanity and nature as separate, he says.
Nor is “natural capitalism” any better. The idea capitalism can be improved by applying its own rules correctly to nurture and protect its capital base including our natural resources, is also flawed, he says, because it’s “trying to tweak a philosophy that is faulty.”
There’s a failure, he says, to appreciate that “the social and ecological, in fact, everything, is connected and that everything we do is part of what others around us are doing and that’s how the world works and each time we do something, we have an impact on everyone around us and that it’s also the other way round.”
He’s not the first to think this way, Hollo says. In fact, he suspects that this thinking is widespread but as yet undefined and without structure.
It’s not coming from any particular leadership base, he says, it’s coming from what people are seeing with their own eyes and what they are experiencing. Partly it picks up on the original and traditional meaning around the idea of “the commons” and a more genuine democracy evidenced by citizens juries.
In Barcelona, for instance, there is a huge co-operative movement underway as a response to the GFC where groups of citizens are taking control of services and even infrastructure such as water.
“There is a big shift going on.
“I don’t know where it’s coming from.”
One of the first signs, he says, was at the Paris Climate Convention where he saw the slogan, “We are not protecting nature, we are nature protecting itself.”
Not a bad way to sum it up, he says.