Climate change at the helm of Labor's next big idea

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 23 April 2008

Whatever else it does, the 2020 summit may be remembered as sounding the death knell for the Australian Labor Party. Events around the NSW Labor's conference next weekend may bury the corpse.

There was a time once, not so long ago, that when a Labor government took office, its ideas and policies would come from the Labor Party. Based on its local branches and membership, the party would hold conferences and convened policy committees to prepare for office. Left and Right would fight to ensure that their preferred policy was adopted. The stakes in the party were high.

Not anymore. Today the ideas and policies come from think tanks, universities, business, NGOs or religious bodies - anywhere except from the Labor Party itself.

There was a time once when MPs, elected to parliament on the efforts of grassroots members, did not dare reverse explicit policies decided by conference. Not anymore. The NSW Premier and Treasurer have decided to privatise electricity and will, if necessary, defy the party's highest body.

There was a time when party members collected many small donations to swell the coffers to fight the election campaign. The era of the chook raffle actually existed. Not anymore. Today election expenses are funded by governments and big corporate and union donations.

In the internal life of the Labor Party, all that matters are factions and the small group of people who run them. Factions now act as 'executive placement agencies' for ministerial staffers and would-be MPs, in the words of former Labor MP Rodney Cavalier. Star parliamentary candidates are recruited outside the party from those with media profiles.

In elections, parties have become franchises and campaigns are about marketing a brand, not a social vision.

All major political parties are undergoing the same process of hollowing out but this process affects the Labor Party most of all, since it still has the skeleton of a mass membership and the remnants of a grand vision of betterment.

At the heart of the problem is a crisis of ideas and vision. To have a political party that means something, its members must care about a cause. They must feel a passion. Last week Kevin Rudd argued that politics has moved beyond Right and Left and spoke about a new reforming centre. But where are the new ideas that will actually mobilise and revive a political party?

Perhaps the answer lies in something else identified by Kevin Rudd as one of the primary challenges of the our century : climate change. Preventing climate change depends on stopping 'business as usual', according to Ross Garnaut and Nicholas Sterne. What they didn't mention was that this involves stopping 'politics as usual'.

Politics-as-usual decrees that the purpose of politics is to have more. Governments tax and spend to give the public more goods, more money, more consumption. 'Enough' is not a word in the lexicon of old politics. But dealing with climate change means people must make do with less. In simple terms, the price of energy must rise and along with this the price of almost everything.

This will be the greatest challenge to Kevin Rudd and any other political leader in Australia for the next few decades. To implement genuine reforms on climate will involve sacrifice of personal convenience. Political leaders have only ever achieved this (and stayed in office) during a national wartime emergency. Moreover, such changes cannot be imposed from above, if they are to be accepted. Instead a genuine groundswell of support is needed to make the sacrifices acceptable.

Herein lies the chance for the revival of political parties like the Labor Party. The old vision of the labour movement was based on the threat of material deprivation and the need for social equality. It asserted that survival lay in a collective approach not an individual one. It called on supporters to make great sacrifices to achieve a grand humanitarian ideal.

Today a new vision and values built on the threat of climate change offers a close parallel. Climate change is a real danger in the same way that unregulated industrialisation once was for ordinary workers. Equality and sacrifice are vital for acceptance of the policies that are needed. There is no individual solution to climate change, we all share the same atmosphere. Climate change is an issue which won't go away. It is no longer an 'environmental' cause but one that centrally involves the economy. It may become a central driver of all government decision-making.

Along the way, it may become the One Big Idea to revive political parties.