Queensland and the politics of change


As I listen to Love40percents latest announcement in Canberra, I’m reflecting on the ALP wipeout in Queensland’s recent state elections and the ramifications for the so-called party of the left currently in power nationally under Prime Minister Gillard.

Briefly, the ALP in Queensland have lost about 45 seats and the remaining 6 or 7 members do not even qualify as the official opposition which is supposed to number at least 10 members. The incoming LNP government will have a clear mandate to do whatever they want and is likely, given the vote and a history of voting intentions, to remain in government for some time. While much of this can be dismissed as an electoral mood for change, the question remains what changes do the voters want?

If voters wanted a green change it wasn’t reflected in the outcome for the Green party which actually declined. Judging from the percentage swing to the right, voters instead opted for the more conservative values which in Queensland equates to development or growth in gross economic terms. Social and environmental issues come second.

What does that have to do with Love40’s announcement?

It seems to me the electoral demise of traditional left leaning parties in Australian politics is a consequence arising from their collective failure to enact genuine change when in government. By change I mean radical systemic changes, similar to what Gough Whitlam’s Labor government ushered in. But a tangible tension remains, that is, arguably no radical social change can be brought about by the democratic system since parties are in power at the discretion of the majority of voters.

But simultaneous to this feature of democratic government is a very pressing need to change society, or more specifically, to change the nature of our economies which are entrenched in our social structure, for I argue that the threat posed to humanity by climate change is not a technological problem but rather it is one grounded in our economic systems.

The parties of the right deny this and those of the centre left, such as the ALP try to minimise the extent of change but Love40’s platform is useful because it highlights the problems a green future has in the short term.

Number one culprit in the rising level of CO2 in the world’s atmosphere is burning stuff for energy, coal for electricity and oil for transport. Now there are alternatives to these but, and this is the big but, the large scale deployment of these alternatives would radically disrupt the current social and economic order.

For example, Australia could harness the abundant solar energy it receives and do away with coal powered electricity generators but it would wipeout the coal “industry” which in real terms means lots of people out of work and more widely, related businesses would suffer. Yes there would be “new” jobs elsewhere but these easy words bandied about by well intentioned folk disguise the extent of disruption that such a switch entails. It seems people are ok with the idea of progress if progress means more money or more toys or a new house but progress that involves dislocation and disruption, such as declining business or unemployment, is undesirable.

So the left-centre governments try to appease existing stakeholders by minimising disruption but at the same time such appeasement hinders the speed of adoption and permits a wider view that such changes are not really that necessary. Softly softly approaches might have worked twenty years ago but the environmental clock is ticking louder now.

If the coal question is problematic then the oil question is equally difficult, perhaps more so because the social disruption is arguably greater. At present discrete vehicular transport is the human norm, be it cars for personal transport or trucks for freight. Less viable is a quick switch to some alternative such as hydrogen power since the technology requires considerable development which hinders its widespread adoption. Systemic changes such as electrified mass transport in the form of light rail or even a massive expansion of existing train technologies do not fit particularly well with existing urban structures that are predicated on car based transport nor do they fit easily within social expectations that are implicit in individual car ownership.

The appeal of left wing parties aspiring to hold government has in the past been rooted in a desire for structural change to the economic forces that condemn large sections of society to economic disadvantage, an argument based along lines of property ownership and wealth. This motive is now compounded by a pressing need to change some given fundamentals that underpin the way we live in 21st century urbanised cities. On both counts, the existing party of the left, the ALP is failing to act decisively. Instead, at local levels it is mired in concerns for continuing to provide stable governance of existing structures while trying to adopt face saving ideas that might bring incremental change but which are equally restricted by monetary concerns and on the national level, the same issues of maintaining the status quo while appearing to do something progressive are relentlessly attacked in the public sphere by opponents to any ideas that threaten the existing economic powers. It seems trivial to observe that the public sphere is dominated by vested interests aligned with the existing order just as it seems trivial to note that it is easy to promise that life will be easier if we keep doing more of the same.

The conclusion that must be drawn from the steady decline by the centre left in Australian government is not the counter, that a return to right wing politics is desired by all but rather it is that governments of the left have failed to deliver on their mandates for structural change, leaving the voters disillusioned and despairing.

When Kevin Rudd led the ALP out of the electoral wilderness in 2007 his campaign resonated with concerns about the importance of acting on climate change. Five years later nothing significant has emerged but for a future date on the price for carbon, one which if the government changes next year will never see the light of day. While the idea of a price of carbon is great starting point for achieving a perceptual shift in how we do things over time, radical transformations such as the widespread and rapid deployment of alternative technologies are much more likely to capture the public’s imagination as they translate environmental concerns into meaningful action.

Arguing against such actions on the basis of economic costs is a red herring. It shifts the focus of the problem away from the environmental outcomes (which it can be argued affect all humanity, all life on this planet) and places the problem back in the domain of the prevailing status quo. A similar argument about forcing people to change on a societal level compounds the problem by invoking libertarian concerns yet as Mill observed three hundred years ago, democracy as the expressed will of the people “practically mean the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people” and once a majority position is established leads to a democracy that is in fact the tyranny of the majority, albeit one subject to constitutional and legal impediments. In the matter at hand, an urgent need to act on the human factors contributing to climate change, we can clearly see that both a majority of the people, informed as they are by the voices of the right and the most active part of the people, the ones who can afford to express themselves in the public domain and have the means to do so, this majority is condemning us to a high risk future where the consequences of climate change are not neatly contained in impersonal terms like drought or floods but rather such consequences have widespread socially disruptive effects as they destabilise existing geopolitical regions.

Queensland may take some comfort in electing a government headed by a former army officer and mayor, yet the signal it sends to the rest of Australia is parochial at best. The ALP federally is now confronted with an especially difficult choice, it is likely to try more appeasement of vested interests especially in Queensland in order to shore up votes or it could (to use a vernacular) go for broke and decide to act more decisively in favour of green left values. Unfortunately the die is largely cast for the Gillard government and we can expect little if any action that would clearly signal a determination to address the structural problems underlying the existing status quo. We are thus condemned to the government we deserve.

update 27 March
In case the political divide on carbon as usual wasn’t clear enough, today the Age website is reporting that the right wing Liberal government in Victoria is scrapping its carbon target following the election result in Queensland.

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