Changing tack: climate action under an Abbott gov't

October 11, 2013
The effects of climate change, like extreme bushfires, will grow worse as the Abbott government rolls back what little climate m

With Tony Abbott ruling the roost in Canberra, it is important for the climate movement in Australia to take stock and have a discussion about where to go next.

It is easy to be discouraged by the election of Abbott. However, it should not be forgotten that the election was more than just a “referendum on the carbon tax”, it was also an electoral snapshot of a country that has been subjected to an exceptionally strong barrage of brainwashing for the past few years. The ideas spread through the media are powerful, but they are not invincible.

If we look back to the election of Kevin Rudd in 2007, two powerful movements were occurring. The Australian Council of Trade Unions-led Your Rights At Work Campaign was in full swing, but it should not be forgotten that the first big round of Walk Against Warming rallies, which called for action on climate change, were also happening. These helped end the John Howard era.

These mass expressions of dissent, themselves symptomatic of even wider discussions occurring in Australian society, helped catalyse and confirm the idea that change was needed.

In effect, these movements were like an antidote to the strong and ingrained mass media portrayal of Howard as a beacon of neoconservative goodness.


By the end of the Rudd and Gillard years, there was no such mass movement to counter the brainwashing. This may be because the small and largely ineffectual climate reforms enacted by the ALP government, supported by the Greens, put the movement to sleep.

Now a challenge has been identified: the need to regain the momentum of the climate movements in the streets, as the small reforms are rabidly attacked by the right.

Every month brings new natural disasters symptomatic of the severe and worsening ecological crisis of capitalism.

In recent years there has been political upheaval around the world. Significant people’s power movements have taken centre-stage. The rise of revolutionary movements winning government in Latin America; the Indignados in Spain; the Arab Spring; the rise of the left-wing SYRIZA party in Greece; the wave of the Occupy movement in various countries; and mass protests in Quebec, Chile, Malaysia and India name just a few.

If economic crisis, corruption, sexism and rape culture and budget cuts can precipitate sudden and deep political shifts in places previously under the thumb of dodgy rulers, so too the climate crisis can play a central role in the downfall of Abbott, just like it did with Howard.


The climate movement needs to keep it simple. We know we need to radically reduce carbon emissions to have any chance of avoiding severe warming. This is the message we need to campaign on, and not buy into the logic of what is “pragmatic”. Pragmatism is a stepping-stone to people like Abbott, not a stepping-stone to something better.

If the climate movement goes quiet, the Murdoch-led brainwashing machine is free to do its thing in the absence of the people-power antidote. Maintaining the movement is the real stepping stone to the climate action we need.

Lobbying the ALP is a dead end, but some people refuse to give up hope. The reason the ALP cannot be reformed is because the party, at its core, is captured by the fossil fuel mafia, and will never have a climate policy that does anything other than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The climate movement needs to remain staunchly independent and keep our campaigns focused on the big picture.

Being politically independent of the ALP as a movement does not of course preclude the participation of ALP members who understand the need for urgent, deep emissions cuts.

SYRIZA in Greece rose from relative obscurity to become the main party in opposition, off the back of strong social movements. It may yet form government and start implementing a radical or revolutionary reform program in coming years.


There is no reason the Greens, or some new party to the left of Labor that combines the best activist traditions of the environment, social and trade union movements, or some combination of the two, cannot change tack to battle Abbott and emulate this feat.

Keeping focused on climate action, on the actual big and necessary task of deep emission cuts, does not have to come at the expense of achieving broad and active public support.

Abbott might slash and burn the few small climate reforms the ALP made, but he will also inevitably stir up the masses with his wrecking-ball lunacy.

This will mean the climate movement gets a fresh chance to capture the rage, amplify it, cultivate it, and sculpt it into a force capable of getting something better than the Coalition’s weak target of 5% emissions cuts by 2020.

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