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Assessing the Fate and Fortunes of Green Action Under the Coalition vs. Labor

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With a national election due shortly the 2022-2023 budget was one of heightened significance, with the Morrison government laying out its intentions for what it would do if it’s reelected. By the same token, the budget reply speech given by Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese offered an indication surrounding what the Labor Party would prioritise should it win government in a few weeks.

Just as a focus on the issues of cost of living and house/rental prices was seen, in the media and wider community discussion surrounding renewables and climate change also featured prominently, illustrating these topics are among those which are very much at the forefront of mind for Australians surrounding their futures. This was the case regarding policies that would impact at a local, national, and international level.

So how did the budget plans of the Morrison government and Opposition stack up? And what’s the overall 'vision' of each party for renewables and climate change action? Let’s look now.

A Quick Recap of Recent Years

This budget was always going to be different from the norm. This is owing to the fact that recent years have seen the Australian government spend big in a number of areas in response to the pandemic. For the Coalition, which has long campaigned throughout the decades on an ideology that government must balance its budget - and ideally have a big surplus - the huge spending seen by the Morrison government represented a powerful break from the norm. The traditional Coalition approach is as distinct from Labor governments who most certainly can also be good economic managers, but are traditionally less reluctant to borrow money and run deficits in the name of increasing public spending on services, taking the position which many economists hold that - given the unique nature of a government as distinct from a typical household or business - having debt, and running deficits is not as problematic as many think.

There are also arguments about particular governments amidst this ideological debate. Some Coalition supporters would argue their (current and former) leaders have had to cut public spending because the excess spending of a prior Labor government caused a financial crisis. By the same token, Labor supporters will often argue their - once again, current and former - leaders have looked to boost public spending when they are in office, because the previous Coalition one cut social services so significantly as to create a social crisis.

Ultimately the ideology and history informs an understanding of the present dynamic, and why it’s so exceptional. The fact is right now Australia has a huge budget deficit, and one that will exist at least for many years, and (far) more likely, decades. For the Coalition there is no chance they can run to this election like they typically would, promising to deliver a budget surplus if they get - in this case, back - into office. In turn, they have shown a readiness to spend big in the years prior with the pandemic, yet (as discussed further below) with some very questionable decisions surrounding where exactly that spending has occurred.

This backdrop has set the scene for a budget in 2022, before an election where the outcome will be vital to charting a course for the nation through the 2020s. This is because whomever is in power for the next three years after the election will be tasked with making (or failing to make) major decisions surrounding Australia's growth of renewables, and quest to reduce emissions.

There’s no disputing that more investment in renewables is not only necessary, but logical - given the huge reduction in cost of living expenses boosting renewables can bring, and the immense growth in jobs and profits green energy can bring to our economy. In turn, it’ll be vital whoever is power after the election is ready to spend more money on climate change action domestically, such as by seeking to climate change-proof areas like coastlines in major cities which are particularly vulnerable to to climate change, and the erosion of which could cause immense harm to countless people who live and work nearby. Australia will also need a government to provide proper support to Australians impacted by climate-change linked natural disasters, which are sadly expected to arise.

Put simply, Australia requires its next government to have a strong plan for renewables, a readiness to recognise that investing in renewables can not only cut costs and up profits, but ultimately help reduce government deficits, and a willingness to also sufficiently fund resources which can help those impacted by climate-change linked natural disasters. So how do the Coalition and Labor’s budget - and their broader vision for the future of the Australian economy as a whole - measure up in this regard?

A Budget for a Nation Emerging from the Pandemic?

The Coalition budget unveiled by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg can be summated as ‘here today, gone tomorrow’. A cut to the fuel excise will bring some hip-pocket pain relief for people at the petrol pump for the next few months. In turn, some one-off cost-of-living payments to the tune of $250 is set to be paid out to around 6 million Australians in April - which is of course timed to occur very close to the election. Beyond this, other ‘sugar hits’ were offered, like a one-off increase in the tax offset from July 1, which (among other changes in this area) would see people earning between $90,001 to $125,999 get an extra $420 back.

Yes, there are also some bigger policies included in the bunch - such as $10 billion to enhance cyber defence capacity - but overall this budget leans heavily on the short-term goals of the government. Furthermore, unsurprisingly - given this Coalition government’s consistent ethos since first coming to office in 2013 - there were no announcements of substance surrounding renewable energy or climate change action. This year as in years prior, the Coalition budgets have shown these issues are just quite clearly not a priority for Australia’s present leaders.

The budget reply by Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese of the Labor Party focused primarily on aged care, childcare - indeed it could be said, a general theme of ‘care’ - but it also devoted some time to Labor’s Powering Australia policy. Although this policy was not a new one - first unveiled in 2021 - it does bring with it some notable promises. Labor contends if it wins office it shall, “Upgrade the electricity grid to fix energy transmission and drive down power prices”, “Make electric vehicles cheaper with an electric car discount and Australia’s first National Electric Vehicle Strategy”, and “Install 400 community batteries across the country”, among other plans.

When it comes to net zero, we know the Coalition plan aims for Australia to reach it by 2050, with a policy based upon the foundation of “technology, not taxes” (read: relying significantly on future advances in technology that are far from a sure bet). Labor’s policy when it comes to the target date of 2050 is the same, but it has set a target of a 43% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030, which is better than the Morrison government’s current target (first set by the Abbott government) of a 26-28% cut on 2005 levels by 2030.

Given Ernst & Young have said prior that government investment in renewables could create over 100,000 jobs across Australia - and offer an immensely better return than investing the same in fossil fuels - it can be said it’s disappointing Labor as the alternative government of Australia is offering a plan that when it comes to net zero 2050 is essentially the same as the government. A more aggressive uptake of renewables could help us cut our emissions faster, and reach net zero sooner.

Yet just as Labor is pursuing a ‘small target’ strategy this election - following on from their shock loss in 2019 under prior leader Bill Shorten - which undoubtedly accounts for their more timid set of policies this time around as they try to win office promising to be a ‘safe pair of hands’ - the fact is given the Morrison government’s many missteps surrounding renewables and climate change action, it’s highly questionable whether such an approach was necessary. As a recap of the following major events will now show, the government has made so many blunders that Labor arguably has a lot more leeway this time around given - as distinct from 2019 - Scott Morrison is now a known entity by voters, and evidently his government is not well liked.

On Coins and Character

In considering the 2022 budget it’s also necessary to consider some of the broader circumstances that surround it. After all, while much fanfare has been made by the government about how this budget helps Australians - and there’s indeed some - such as the fossil fuels sector - who are set to benefit from it substantially - the subtext of issues surrounding it are also relevant, as they raise questions about why certain spending has not occurred, is set to occur, and may yet occur.

This government went to the last election promising they would build a lot of commuter car parks, with a number of them in at-risk Coalition seats. That idea was already odorous to many in the general public, and made more odorous still when considered alongside other episodes like the ‘sports rorts’ scandal. Ultimately though, a number of car parks were not built, including in Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s seat, the man who is responsible for putting the budget together! Similarly, although critics held pandemic social support payments have been wound up too soon - with the federal government essentially arguing it couldn’t afford to bankroll such things going forward even though many Australians remained desperately in need - notably the government is held to have overspent $13 billion on Jobkeeper payments.

Yes, after some pressure some repayments by companies were made, but critics have noted the lack of transparency in the government’s process surrounding JobKeeper, and - despite it surely being in the best interests of the public to know where taxpayer dollars are being spent - their refusals multiple times to make the process make transparent. So how does this relate to renewables and climate change action, precisely? It’s about the relationship between government and public spending, and the ideology and politics that underwrites it.

While there has been plenty of money to hand out during recent years to companies that turn a record profit - and evidently, some real disinterest in the government in attempting to get it back when its been apparent it really wasn’t needed - when it comes to the most recent floods in Australia’s east, the Morrison government has been criticised for being stingy with the cash. While the Morrison government eventually agreed to help the Queensland government - led by Labor Premier Anastasia Palaschuk - pay for a flood support package, this is only after it first refused to do so.

To members and advocates for the Coalition, this sort of approach to natural disasters may be defended by arguing that the Liberal Party is one that favours small government and reigned-in government spending. Yet evidently such concerns didn’t apply at all when it came to Jobkeeper. Nor did they in the support that’s been shown for the fossil fuels industry. But when it comes to giving immediate aid to some of the most vulnerable Australians who’ve had their lives upturned by climate change-linked disasters - and finding more money to support renewable energy projects which help end the use of fossil fuels, and stop the worsening impacts of climate change in future - apparently there just simply isn’t any cash in Canberra’s coffers.

Once again, this contrast is worth reaffirming. There’s been tons of money at the ready to pay out to companies which turned a profit in the pandemic, and to prop up a mining industry that is holding up the switch to renewables, and continuing to contribute to emissions. Yet coming to the aid of Australia’s most vulnerable, and investing to help prevent more climate change-linked crises, is apparently just too expensive for this government. This despite the fact that it’s known renewable energy is not only going to become even more affordable to use in future, but the cost of living due to climate change-linked incidents - such as the premiums on home insurance - is only set to rise further.

The bottom line is it’s expensive for Australia to pay out millions to companies which don’t need it, and delay a switch to renewables which offers far greater growth prospects for jobs and profits. In turn, Australia cannot afford to keep propping up the fossil fuel industry, and fail to provide the necessary support to those in crises.

Australia’s Standing Diminished by Morrison’s Fixation on Fossil Fuels

It’s no revelation to say we live in a globalised economy. Yes, recent years have seen pushback against this by certain political figures, and the pandemic’s impact on international travel has been significant. Yet ultimately, no country can ‘go it alone’ today in a world that is by many measures economically borderless. When it comes to climate change action, this issue is a shared international challenge, and one that requires Australian leadership to show an acknowledgement of its severity, and also an understanding of the consequences which exist, for failing to recognise and respond to it.

This is a key consideration when it comes to the Morrison government’s ongoing fixation on fossil fuels. Not only does this position damage Australia’s economic and environmental future at home, but also Australia’s standing abroad. An example of this came in recent weeks, when - on the same night Anthony Albanese was due to give his budget reply speech, which some commentators indeed felt was disrespectful to both Australians and Ukrainians as it was evidently part of an attempt by the government to split attention among the events in the news cycle - Morrison made an introduction for Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, which illustrated what he regards as Australia’s greatest offerings to the international community.

In listing off the (otherwise appropriate) support that Australia has been looking to provide Ukraine, Morrison listed humanitarian aid, weapons, sanctions against Russia - and also coal. Yes, coal. Morrison said, “And you even have our coal. And there will be more.” Common sense would say this could have been left out of the speech - indeed, arguably with an electorate that is deeply frustrated with the government’s stance on climate change, mentioning it wasn’t necessary, and certainly set to be incendiary - but for Morrison it was apparently critical to make this point.

The key problem here is this isn’t just embarrassing for Australia, but also likely to be deeply offensive to many abroad, given the harm being caused by the ongoing use of fossil fuels globally, the fact a huge chunk of the global fossil fuel industry resides in countries with autocratic regimes, and the missed opportunity by Europe in recent years to move away from fossil fuel to renewables more rapidly, is held to have been a key contributor to this war, given Russia continues to retain control over a huge amount of oil and gas which Europeans are reliant on. Thus, if a shift to renewables had occurred earlier, a far stronger negotiating position with Russia in years prior - and capacity to potentially deter their actions in Ukraine - arguably could’ve been had. Morrison is either aware of this and decided he was not fussed about the offence it would cause, or he’s ignorant of it - either way it’s an issue.

Ultimately, this episode goes to the core of why Australia’s vision for its future when it comes to renewables and climate change action is not just about what occurs at home. Certainly, what happens domestically must be first and foremost for any Australian government. Nonetheless, our capacity to get things done at home locally are reliant on maintaining strong international partnerships globally. When there’s a government intent on idolising fossil fuels while the threat of climate change-linked bushfires loom each summer - and with them, each bushfire season threatening to beam horrifying pictures around the world of iconic Australian symbols like the endangered Koala being burned and displaced by the fires - it’s not hard to understand why those abroad would look upon the Australian government with a dim view.

A Clear-Eyed Perspective About the Choice Between Imperfect Visions

A lot has been said about the short-sightedness of the Coalition’s budget. It appears clear this is one that was designed to win an election, with little vision beyond it. In essence, it provides (as aforementioned) a short-term ‘sugar hit’. One that offers to make things a little better today, but only with the implicit understanding of harder days awaiting ahead in return. As discussed prior, the drawbacks of this approach for renewables and climate change action in particular are substantial, given they are long-term challenges, which by default require a long-term vision in response to them.

Labor’s budget is also not without issues. There’s no doubt the party needed to do some in-depth soul searching following the last election loss, and - with a government many feel is evidently content to not simply be conservative, but actually regressive when it comes to green action policies - it’s understandable why Labor thinks it can get away with being only slightly more ambitious than the government in some areas. But ultimately this strategy is certainly not totally safe either, given a first term Labor government will inherit many of the problems currently faced by the incumbent, and could find their underwhelming policies fail to deliver visible improvements for voters - and this could pose a real problem when it comes time to seek reelection.

On Sunday 10 April 2022 the election was officially called for 21 May 2022. In turn, it’s anticipated that many announcements remain to be made by major parties throughout the campaign. As a result, we may yet find a number of policy announcements move the ledger here a little, to reflect more favourably or negatively upon the Coalition or Labor when it comes to green action. Yet overall, the budget and budget reply, in complement to prior positioning and other policies shared in the lead up to this point appear to illustrate the firm battlelines which have been drawn. Ultimately, Labor’s green vision for Australia is not one that could be regarded as especially bold or inspiring, but at the end of the day it is better than the incumbent offering. The current Coalition government appears blind to the challenges and opportunities alike in this area. As a result, as it concerns green action in Australia, it can be said it’s hoped this budget was not the start of a new chapter for the Morrison government, but instead among its final acts.

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