The backflip is standard operating procedure in professional politics, we all know that, but the double backflip is a somewhat rarer event.
Yet under the cover of yet another seismic convulsion inside the Turnbull government, Bill Shorten looks to be lining up for the dubious double on the controversial Adani coal mine. After signalling quite clearly in late January that Labor would toughen its position on the project, the Labor leader has cooled off noticeably on that notion over the past week or so.
Just before David Feeney announced he would resign from parliament because he couldn’t prove he was eligible to sit in the lower house, triggering a byelection in his lower house seat of Batman, Shorten used an appearance at the National Press Club to telegraph a shift on the mine.
Labor had perched uncomfortably on the fence on Adani for a very long time, with a stock formulation along the lines of we don’t like it, but if the project has been through approvals, it should be welcomed on the basis it will create jobs, and by the way, we won’t give it a cent of taxpayer money.
Climate groups had been active with Shorten over the summer break, trying to persuade him to adopt a legal option of stopping the mine. The Labor leader changed the working formulation on the project in late January, and backed in the putative shift in the weeks immediately following, suddenly revving up the negative environmental impacts of the project.
With the pivot in full flight, Shorten jumped on a story by my Guardian Australia colleagues, Amy Remeikis and Michael Slezak, suggesting that Adani had submitted an altered laboratory report while appealing a fine for contaminating wetlands near the Great Barrier Reef. “If Adani is relying on false information, that mine doesn’t deserve to go ahead,” the Labor leader thundered.
It became known that the party was examining legal triggers to stop the project, perhaps overhauling the Environmental Protection Biodiversity and Conversation [EPBC] Act to insert a “climate trigger”, perhaps reopening an assessment because of the negative impact of the project on water, or on the health of the Great Barrier Reef.
The Adani pivot, which had been tightly held in Labor’s leadership group (where a lot of issues are tightly held), then went to the shadow cabinet for a discussion.
There were, and are, a range of views about how hard to go. One significant internal player, Anthony Albanese, nailed his colours to the mast publicly this week, declaring (before any formal decision) that Labor wasn’t going to overhaul the EPBC Act to stop a mine that had already been through the relevant approvals.
The shadow climate minister, Mark Butler, fellow left winger and Albanese ally in an institutional sense, has a different view. He’s been on the record for months opposing the project, and he’s not alone in having that view.
Shortly after the shadow cabinet discussion, momentum drained from the redux. There was also another complication. The mining union made it known publicly that Labor should not harden its position on the Carmichael project, because if it did, it would trigger a divisive internal debate about the future of coal – a debate the party wasn’t ready to have.
With institutional forces in play internally, the tectonic plates shifting, Shorten scampered up to Queensland over this past week to trial a line that Labor didn’t care for Adani, but did care for coal and coal miners, and a Labor government would look after Queensland with an industry policy that would deliver a pipeline of blue collar jobs.
Presumably there will now be a period of settling to determine whether attempting to be all things to all people actually flies with the voting public.
Where it is unlikely to fly is in Batman, where the Greens have been running an anti-Adani ground campaign against the ALP for months, a campaign local activists will intensify over this weekend, with Labor’s equivocations on the project now built into the scripts for the Greens door knockers and the phone bankers.
Perhaps at a political level that doesn’t matter much to Shorten, as hard heads have been pessimistic about Labor’s chances of holding the seat given that area of Melbourne has been in the process of going Green.
But a few things will matter to Labor at the next federal election. One will be having a climate policy that appeals to progressive as well as traditional voters. Another will be having a leader who isn’t perceived by voters as a flip-flopper, or a climate warrior of convenience.
While Labor can’t and shouldn’t forget blue collar workers and succumb entirely to the post materialist sensibilities of its inner urban constituency, toughening its line on Adani represented an opportunity for Labor to try to unify the progressive left, which has engaged in poisonous recriminations as a consequence of the toxic climate wars which have divided Australian politics for more than a decade.
As well as settling at least one ongoing war with the Greens, opposing the project would also have the added benefit of enlisting a flotilla of progressive activist groups to bolster its campaign efforts at the next federal poll.
The #StopAdani campaign is the biggest civil society action seen in Australia since the Franklin campaign. Best have that wind in your sails rather than sailing into that headwind.
And of course, there’s the substance. While Labor can perhaps defer the future of coal debate that the Construction, Mining and Energy Union conceptualises, doubtless correctly, as a looming rupture in the party and the wider movement, but that debate can’t be avoided forever.
Butler in a speech to the Sydney Institute this week made it plain why it can’t be avoided. The corporate world is not avoiding it. Regulators are not avoiding it. Insurers aren’t avoiding it.
If institutions in this country stick their heads in the sand, and fail to get serious about policies to constrain greenhouse gas emissions, Butler correctly pointed to the potential for future litigation to “recover damages for losses incurred as a result of climate change from people who should have prevented those losses from occurring”.
“One-eyed reliance on scenarios that pretend that the world is not changing is simply unsustainable and, potentially, legally negligent,” Butler said.
“Investors are already voicing their expectations that companies do better in this area. But government and regulators clearly have a role to play in improving standards as well.”
If the world is to meet the climate targets agreed in the Paris deal, the reality no politician or political party can now avoid is simple.
More coal will have to remain in the ground.
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