Anthony Albanese will attempt a political reset to shore up his leadership with a major frontbench reshuffle, shifting climate and energy spokesman Mark Butler and bringing shadow defence minister Richard Marles into a more frontline portfolio.
Butler’s job will go to Chris Bowen, from the right, currently health spokesman, as Albanese faces the challenge of forging a climate policy that straddles Labor’s dual suburban/ regional and progressive constituencies.
Until recently, sources close to Albanese have said the reshuffle would be minor. But Albanese starts 2021 facing widespread criticism from within the party as well as from commentators, and the imminent reshuffle has presented an opportunity to get more vigour into Labor’s performance.
He told the ABC on Wednesday the reshuffle “will achieve a stronger team going forward with the right people in the right jobs. And it will be, I think, a positive move”.
Butler, from the left and personally close to Albanese, held the climate portfolio under Bill Shorten and is strongly identified with the policy that Labor took to the election. He has resisted calls to water it down.
Faced with public urging from former frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon to move Butler, Albanese last year refused to do so.
Shifting Butler will facilitate reshaping the policy, which Albanese has started to do, and send a signal about a more pragmatic position. But it could also lead to a backlash from progressive supporters and give the Greens room to score points.
Butler will become spokesman for health and ageing. This will ensure he is to the fore in the next few months, with the release of the royal commission report that will be highly critical of the aged care system.
He is a former minister for ageing and has written a book on the area, titled Advanced Australia: the Politics of Ageing.
Butler said in a statement: “The job of every frontbencher is to serve in the portfolio allocated by their leader. That’s always been my position under the four leaders I’ve had the privilege of serving under”.
As expected, Ed Husic, who joined the frontbench as resources spokesman when Fitzgibbon moved to the backbench late last year, will go to another post.
There is speculation Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong might move from foreign affairs.
Anthony Albanese’s “Jobs and the Future of Work” speech delivered on Tuesday was, in some ways, a beacon in a dark landscape short on policy ambition. It illuminates the right issues. Technological change and artificial intelligence. The potential for smart manufacturing and domestic economic development. New directions for Australia’s resource sector. A clean energy economy. But the torch shines unevenly.
As an agenda-setting speech coming early in the new electoral cycle, it is weak on ideas, facts and proposals. It spins on about technology and innovation, a hollow chant reminiscent of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s mantra “jobs and growth, jobs and growth”. Maybe Labor is keeping its powder dry. Or it has been scarred and silenced by its election loss, blamed by some on a big target, policy-heavy campaign.
The “vision statement” nevertheless opens impressively by looking at clean energy technology and the Australian possibilities for a new manufacturing boom in a decarbonising world. About the Morrison government, Albanese says its policy settings barely acknowledge climate change, yet “in the century before us, the nations that will transform into manufacturing powerhouses are those that can harness the cheapest renewable energy resources”.
Albanese pumps up the potential for Australia’s cheap wind, wave and solar power to grow domestic manufacturing jobs and energy-intensive industries. He sings about clean energy jobs based around mineral resources such as lithium.
And as another round of state and federal parliamentary inquiries probe the feasibility of nuclear power in Australia, Albanese slams the door on this tired debate, declaring: “we don’t need nuclear power when every day we can harness the power (of the sun)”.
But for all its talk of the need to “innovate, adapt and adjust”, the speech is blind to the harder questions of decarbonisation. On this issue, Albanese tried to walk both sides of the highway by wandering down the middle.
Australia is a major domestic producer of greenhouse gas emissions, making it about the world’s 14th biggest emitter. In recent years our domestic emissions have risen, largely thanks to fugitive emissions released as we extract increasing volumes of coal and natural gas for export.
Australia is among the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters. These exported fossil fuels are responsible for an estimated 3.6% of the global emissions total. If we add these emissions – for which we are morally responsible and from which we benefit financially – to our domestic pollutant load, this places Australia among the planet’s worst emitters.
While bickering about domestic emissions targets, neither Labor nor the Coalition have tackled Australia’s parallel carbon economy – our growing exported contribution to global warming. It’s a big, dirty, lucrative, open secret. It involves jobs in marginal seats. It can determine the fate of governments.
And so Albanese’s vision statement, while extolling the virtues of a hydrogen export sector, also pumps up our fossil fuel trade. He nods at jobs from liquified natural gas exports from northern Australia, and at how traditional industries might benefit from a low-carbon future, such as by providing metallurgical coal to produce wind turbines. (Metallurgical coal is used in steel production. But environmental advocates argue Australia’s continued expansion of these exports is preventing the global uptake of cleaner steel-making alternatives).
One wonders who his intended audience is. Labor fools no-one by supporting both a clean energy revolution and a business-as-usual future for fossil fuels. It’s akin to the party’s evasive and self-harming position on Adani, which left workers in regional Queensland feeling patronised, dispensable, anxious, hostile and disaffected — and the growing majority of Australians who are deeply concerned about climate change, furious.
Those who have been following the climate issue closely – resource sector workers, unionists, parents, children and activists alike – know what is required now are tough but fair policies, and a strong commitment to future jobs that are not dependent on the whims of export markets in a decarbonising world, or on policy shocks at home when weak emissions targets suddenly have to be toughened dramatically.
To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement — to hold global average warming to well below 2℃ and as close as possible to 1.5℃ — requires “negative emissions” – removing existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. To propose a low-carbon future with continued fossil fuel exports is fakery in the extreme.
Many researchers and others, here and overseas, are working with regional communities on ways to generate investment and enduring jobs, enabling a rapid transition from economic dependence on coal and gas. It is slow and sometimes hard work. In this vision statement, Labor fails to recognise the need for a concerted, innovative national program along these lines. It is here that fresh policy is needed, and trust and consensus must be built, carefully, over the coming years.
Clarification: this article has been amended to clarify the author’s view that Australia is morally, if not legally, responsible for emissions created by its fossil fuel exports.
Update: following publication, Labor’s shadow minister for climate change, Pat Conroy contacted The Conversation with the following statement:
The moral and legal responsibility for carbon emissions lies with the nation that burns the coal, not the nation that digs it up.
This principle was enshrined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris climate treaty and previous international agreements for reducing global emissions.
Holding Australia responsible for burning Australian coal overseas is equivalent to holding Japan responsible for pollution emitted by Japanese cars in Australia.
Activists who want to hold Australia responsible for emissions from coal burned overseas are arguing for the destruction of global climate conventions established 27 years ago, and the only practical approach to addressing climate change as a global challenge.
Under the approach argued in the article, responsibility for transport emissions in Australia would shift to Japan, Germany and Thailand, because the cars are made there, and to Singapore which exports the fuel.
Not only is this completely impractical and unimplementable globally – it gives the Morrison Government leave to do even less. It distracts from the main game – meeting our legal obligations and transitioning Australia to a clean economy – and it says Labor is no different from the Liberals.
In campaigning on coal exports, activists are acting as if we have already secured strong emissions reduction mechanisms in Australia, and making it harder to do the real work to build community support needed to achieve real action.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s so-called “China reset” should be viewed for what it is. That is, neither a self-criticism of mistakes made in managing the China relationship, nor necessarily a self-confident assertion of Australia’s foreign policy priorities.
For all intents and purposes, Turnbull’s speech at the University of New South Wales last week was an exercise in damage limitation, as he trod lightly over vexed issues in relations with Beijing.
Among the motherhood statements about contributions Chinese-Australians have made to the greater good was a key passage in which Turnbull emphasised a common interest in “free trade and open markets in every part of the world”. He said:
So in the midst of this rapid change, Australia continues to address its own interests by pursuing a relationship with China based on mutual respect and understanding. For our part, we act to advance Australia’s prosperity, ensure independence of our decision-making, and secure the safety and freedom of our people.
After this summation of the national interest, Turnbull reproduced a quote from Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Australian parliament in 2014, long before any thought of a disruptive Donald Trump presidency had materialised. At the time, Xi said:
The United Nations Charter and the basic norms governing international relations should apply to all countries. With that, countries big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, are all equal. This means not only equal rights and interests for all countries, but also equality of all countries before international rules.
In doing so, Turnbull sought both to assert Australia’s sovereignty in pursuit of its own interests, and also to remind Xi of China’s commitment to a “rules-based” international order.
This was diplomacy at work, prompted by a realisation that relations with Australia’s cornerstone trading partner have become strained – due partly to Turnbull’s own clumsiness, which I will come to later. His mission on this occasion was to unstrain them.
Beijing has put Canberra in a freeze for the past year or so over statements by both Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop that were regarded as unhelpful. China took particular exception to a Bishop speech in which she criticised its political model.
Bishop herself has not been to China for two years. As a consequence, relations are perceived to be drifting or, worse still, in a state of disrepair.
Judging by Beijing’s mild response to Turnbull’s speech via a foreign ministry spokesperson – and the presence in the audience at UNSW of China’s ambassador to Australia and its consul-general in Sydney – the prime minister achieved part of his objective.
This was Australian statecraft at work, driven not by China hawks in Canberra, or advisers who are jaundiced where Beijing is concerned, but by realpolitik.
In other words, no purpose would be served by a continued freeze in relations with Beijing, notwithstanding real policy concerns about Chinese assertiveness in both the South China Sea, and in Australia’s own southwest Pacific sphere of influence.
Turnbull had yielded to diplomatic advice to separate domestic politics from foreign policy, as if such advice should have been necessary.
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advisers, led by the Chinese-speaking head of DFAT, Frances Adamson, had secured a “battle victory not a strategic victory”, in the words of a prominent Canberra China-watcher.
Why is a reset needed?
In all of this, the question might reasonably be asked: how did Australia manage to aggrieve its cornerstone trading partner in the first place?
The answer to that question lies partly in Turnbull’s own poor political judgement.
The prime minister makes much of his China experience as a merchant banker seeking to do deals on the frontier of that country’s economic emergence in the 1980s.
On the evidence, Turnbull still has a bit to learn about dealing with China, including the importance of nuance. The Chinese are masters of diplomatic subtleties – unless it suits them to be otherwise.
Turnbull’s error was to frame Australia’s foreign interference laws – aimed at limiting the ability of foreign entities to intrude into Australian domestic politics – in such a way that his public statements caused unnecessary offence in Beijing.
While these laws clearly had China’s state propaganda apparatus and Chinese money in mind, there was no need for Turnbull to rub it in. And yet rub it in he did.
On the last occasion, he said it in his own version of Chinese. Such phraseology – “the Chinese people have stood up” – has sacred meaning in China. This was the expression attributed to Mao Zedong when proclaiming the People’s Republic in 1949 after decades of foreign interference, including unspeakable crimes by the Japanese.
It might also be observed that China is not the only country that seeks to influence Australian domestic politics via its various agencies and an active diaspora. Hardly less assiduous in its attempts to exert pressure on an Australian political process is the State of Israel, via its own government and semi-government apparatuses and an assertive domestic lobby.
Complications arise when activities cross a boundary between the legitimate exercise of soft power and attempts to corrupt the political process, or resort to forms of intimidation.
Where to from here?
There is no doubt that managing relations with China is challenging, especially at a time when Beijing is constantly testing the limits of what is acceptable in ruthless pursuit of its interests.
A mercantilist China will seek to get away with what it can.
That said, Australia has no choice but to strive to get the balance right in dealing with a rising power whose trajectory is such that by mid-century, or sooner, it will have the world’s largest economy and a military capability that will enable it to project power far beyond its shores.
Turnbull’s early priority should be to restart bilateral interactions at senior level, including a Beijing visit before the year is out either by himself or by Bishop.
Where Turnbull was on firmer ground in his UNSW speech was in the emphasis he laid on shared interests with China on free trade and open markets. Leaving aside Chinese mercantilism in which it invariably seeks to tilt the trade environment in its favour, Turnbull identified what is clearly a common interest, and one that needs to be exploited.
This is resistance to the sort of trade bluster emanating from Washington in which the Trump administration seems bent on disrupting an international trading environment that is being run ragged by capricious policymaking. Turnbull said:
When it comes to trade, we should never forget that protectionism is self-defeating, not a ladder to get you out of the low growth trap, but a shovel to dig it deeper… In trade, there will always be more winners, more growth and more jobs, on a level playing field.
In the end, relations with China can be likened to a long march, in which each step along the way needs to be taken with care – or as Deng Xiaoping might have advised: Cross the river by feeling the stones.