The March 13 Western Australian election is shaping up as a referendum on the Mark McGowan Labor government’s handling of COVID-19, with the pundits expecting it to be returned, perhaps even with an increased majority.
Elected by a landslide 40 seats in 2017, with the Liberals and Nationals reduced to 19 seats between them, commentators would ordinarily be predicting a second-term Labor government but with its majority trimmed back.
Like incumbents around the country, McGowan has benefitted from the aura of authority that comes with handling the pandemic (and sucking oxygen away from the opposition).
The catastrophic fires north-east of Perth — which on February 2 had already burned through more than 9000 hectares, injured several firefighters and razed 70 homes — have not yet generated a broader debate about the link between fossil fuels and climate change. It should.
Perhaps it is a sign of just how low people’s expectations are.
People are understandably grateful to have been spared the sort of pandemic catastrophe unleashed by narcissists like former US president Donald Trump and Britains's Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
While the recent lockdown in Perth has exposed the reckless stupidity of entrusting quarantine to a network of shonky private contractors, just as it has in other states, it’s unlikely the opposition will be able to make much of it.
The Liberals are still struggling to recover from the damage done to their reputation by their early criticism of WA’s border closure. This is compounded by the huge miscalculation by their federal counterparts who initially backed the challenge to this measure by mining billionaire Clive Palmer.
However, the defining feature of the McGowan government is its terrible record as a loyal servant of the fossil fuel industry.
In the face of catastrophic climate change, what the oil and gas industry wants, it gets.
Even as Perth is blanketed in smoke, the government has approved a controversial onshore gas project and a gas-fired power station that will generate 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between them, plus paved the way for offshore gas projects.
The gas industry is already WA’s biggest polluter, pumping out 32 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. The rise in production over the past 15 years has already caused WA’s emissions to skyrocket, undoing all the carbon pollution reductions across the rest of Australia.
The state government is committed to expanding the industry and, if proposed new gas fields off the Pilbara coast go ahead, this would lock in fossil fuel extraction until 2070 — pumping out 139 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, four times higher than those predicted from the Adani Carmichael coal mine in central Queensland.
Far from doing a good job of protecting lives, the McGowan government is pushing us all to the brink of civilisational collapse and the most traumatic and violent phase in human history.
While its actions are profoundly sociopathic, it doesn’t consciously seek the destruction that its actions make more likely.
While it concedes that climate change is real, it has also decided that averting the climate catastrophe is not its job, or that it can be pushed off into the indefinite future, or fall to other countries.
Essentially, the government has been persuaded that its corporate mates must be able to continue to profit from the sale of fossil fuels.
This perverse bipartisan consensus frames Australia’s politics.
In a mining state like WA it can be hard to imagine how a popular majority in favour of a rapid transition away from fossil fuels could be constructed.
In the abstract it’s easy: we already have the technology to rapidly transition to a net zero emissions society while improving peoples’ lives.
However, doing so will require the redistribution of wealth, making the fossil fuel industry pay for its own obsolescence by funding the transition, expanding the public sector and extending democratic control over the economy.
In short, capitalism simply can’t go green.
Saving life on Earth will require the creation of a social power — in our communities, on the streets and in our workplaces — that can mobilise to break the power of the fossil fuel corporations and implement the transition we seek.
As urgent as this is, it still seems light years away.
But, as living with COVID-19 becomes the “new normal” and JobSeeker and JobKeeker are rolled back, the growing dissatisfaction with mainstream politics will reassert itself.
The frantic way in which McGowan sought to sweep away the homeless camp in Fremantle’s Pioneer Park while falsely attributing its organisation to Extinction Rebellion (XR) points to its fragility.
XR has continued to hound the Labor government over its catastrophic climate policy, despite the pandemic.
The homeless camp exposed the state government’s cuts to public housing and making the homelessness crisis worse despite running a budget surplus.
There is a growing thirst for changes that bring together needs as diverse as refounding Australia as a republic based on a treaty with Indigenous nations, making dignified affordable housing a human right, transitioning away from the use and sale of fossil fuels and creating democratic workplaces.
The challenge for all of us committed to any one of these things is to come together to make that vision a reality.
[Sam Wainwright is the Socialist Alliance candidate for Fremantle.]