Australia needs its own Green New Deal

If the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is correct, the world only has 12 years to limit catastrophic climate change. As a country highly vulnerable to climate change, Australia needs to act. A summer of record breaking heatwavesraging bushfires across Tasmania and devastating floods in Queensland gives us a glimpse of the future.

On our current trajectory, Australia will struggle to meet its own Paris Agreement target of 26-28 per cent below 2005 level emissions by 2030 but even that may be insufficient. The Climate Change Authority recommended a 45-65 per cent emissions reduction target for 2030 below 2005 levels, based on scientific evidence.

Nearly a decade of inaction means we cannot rely solely on a carbon price to drive the deep decarbonisation needed. It will require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and industrial systems.

Globally there is recognition that past inaction and the urgency to act demands an ambitious intervention. In America, a Green New Deal has become a litmus test for action on climate change. It harks back to a World War II style mobilisation to tackle climate change while also fighting economic inequality.

Pushed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in the space of only a few months, the concept of a Green New Deal has gained support across the field of Democratic contenders for President including Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.

The drastic change Australia need calls for our own Green New Deal but we should draw on our own historical experience rather than simply copying rhetoric from America. Australia has experienced a transformation on the scale that is needed, that of post-war reconstruction during the 1940s.

Post-war reconstruction was shaped by the 1941 Atlantic Charter where the Allies committed to a post-war order that would have a better future for the world’ where there would be freedom from fear and want’. The Commonwealth oversaw the transition to a peacetime economy, planning and coordinating the transition. The role of the Commonwealth transformed as it assumed a wider range of responsibilities, expanding social security, working with the states to provide healthcare and housing, and focusing on full employment. Post-war reconstruction fundamentally shaped the Australia we live in today.

To achieve deep decarbonisation, it must be an overarching mission of the Commonwealth. Economist Marianna Mazzucato has argued that mission thinking can steer innovation to solve challenges such as climate change, increasing both public and private investment and encouraging collaboration.

There is a parallel between post-war reconstruction and a mission of deep decarbonisation. The scale of the challenge we face requires a greater role for the Commonwealth, working with other tiers of government, the private sector and civil society. We need to significantly improve energy efficiency, build a nearly carbon free energy system, reduce emissions from agriculture and transport and change how we use land. It requires co-investment in innovation, skills and infrastructure but also encouraging less carbon intensive activities by reorienting work towards renewal and stewardship, such as by creating more caring roles and reducing working hours.

If we are serious, action on climate change will require a transformation on par with the transition to a peacetime economy. But the challenge we face is not solely environmental.

Action on climate change cannot be separated from the health of our democracy. Social researcher Rebecca Huntley has pointed out the environment has almost become a proxy for leadership at a federal level.

Dissatisfaction with democracy and mistrust is at an all-time high. A Democracy 2025 report on trust and democracy found that fewer than 41 per cent of Australian citizens are satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia, down from 86 per cent in 2007.

Disillusionment with democracy fuels the growth of reactionary illiberalism that has undermined action on climate change. Not only have we seen the election of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro but at home, similar forces within the Coalition have tried to stop action on climate change.

Just as the focus of post-war reconstruction was not merely demobilisation but the maintenance of full employment, developing social security and economic development, decarbonising Australia must involve rebuilding faith that politics can deliver a better Australia.

We need to ensure that our response leads to a good society and a life that people want to live — that means good, secure jobs in new globally competitive industries across the country, more educational opportunities and a better quality of life.

The public supports action on climate change but if we want support for the scale of change needed, the offer needs to be much more than simply one of risk mitigation. The idea that responding to climate change means a life of misery is nihilistic and will doom action. It must mean a better and fairer future for us.

Published at Eureka Street on 11 February 2019


Challenge Magazine Editorial – 2018 ALP National Conference

The next year will be a pivotal year for progressive politics. Australia may become the most populated Western country governed by a social-democratic party if Labor wins in the federal election due next year. We have a responsibility to provide leadership at home and abroad and inspire our sister parties by doing what is right.

While Labor has put forward the most economically progressive platform it has in some time, our narrow focus limits the deeper conversation we need to have. Rightly there is a focus on job security, increasing wages, and funding for public services such as health and education but it cannot be at the expense of ignoring deep seated challenges that are only growing. With only a decade to combat climate change and the growing erosion of democratic norms, distrust of our institutions and attacks on pluralism, not only across the region but at home, by illiberal nationalist and conservative forces, Labor urgently needs to sketch out how it will credibly respond to these crises.

Calls for “sensible centrism” misread the public mood. Labor’s landslide victory in Victoria challenges the conventional wisdom that we must choose between our progressive base and suburban swinging voters. The public is ready for a bold progressive offer so long as it also delivers on their every day concerns and provides a credible plan for the future.

This National Conference is our opportunity to show Australians our offer for the next election. We will be judged by future generations if all we are willing to offer is incremental changes that focus on improving immediate material interests of swinging voters in marginal seats and alleviating excessive inequality but do not offer the transformative agenda that is needed to head off the climate crisis, reinforce our democratic institutions or fundamentally shift power relations to ensure economy to ensure it serves the people.

Our offer needs an economic agenda that delivers real change, both at home and abroad. We need a progressive energy policy that tackles climate change equitably and guarantees a just transition that does not leave workers behind.

It calls for a reshaping the social security system to ensure it does not punish and bring shame but rather provides the support that all our citizens deserve.

It demands rebuilding trust and strengthening our democratic institutions with a commitment to doing what is right, not easy, by embracing the Uluru Statement in full before any attempt at becoming a republic, actively working towards an international ban on nuclear weapons and ending the inhumane treatment of refugees which continues to damage the moral fabric of our nation.

It requires confronting and fighting the resentful nativism of One Nation that has infected our body politic and defeating its antipodean Poujadism. Ground zero for this battle against their nasty politics will be Queensland where Labor’s path to victory runs through.

An ambitious agenda that seeks to transform the country cannot be elite-led and decreed from above. It requires a mass democratic party where rank-and-file members and affiliated unions are both valued and have a genuine say. It also means we need a more representative party that reflects the community that we represent. The Left has led on improving the representation of women across society and in our public institutions, but we have much more to do to better represent people of colour if we are truly committed to multiculturalism.

It is up to all of us to take this responsibility seriously and to reject short-termism. We should not expect a honeymoon period and we must not indulge in what the community might see as arrogant, tribal triumphalism. We must not squander this opportunity to deliver what Australia needs to do to achieve good society. The price of failure will be felt by future generations. It is time to get to work.

Published in the 2018 National Conference edition of Challenge Magazine

Kerry Phelps’ middle-class populism

The aftermath of the Wentworth by-election has shaken up Australian politics. The election of Dr Kerryn Phelps in a blue ribbon Liberal seat has led to a renewed interest in independent MPs as a more local, less partisan and more community focused alternative, encouraging other campaigns.

At first glance, the move towards electing independent MPs seems to be a repudiation of attempts to mimic right-wing populism and a vote for small l liberalism. But it shares more with populism than many care to admit. If we understand populism as centred around representing ‘the people’ against an existing, unrepresentative elite rather than a specific ideology rooted in nationalistic discontent against immigration and globalised trade, it becomes clear.

The election of these independents are in fact a moral middle-class incarnation of populism. Their anti-political stance arises from a widespread mood where the electorate sees politics as detached from their lives. This populism of the liberal centre taps into public dissatisfaction with politics by rejecting the major parties and their methods of operating. Phelps’ claim in her inaugural speech, that the political system ‘has evolved to turn inwards and primarily serve itself, at times silencing the voices of reason and compassion’, fits into such a populist narrative.

It draws upon a tradition of good citizenship, to act in the interests of the people by being ‘above politics’, seeking a ‘stronger relationship between people and our elected representatives’ through a MP ‘who would put the electorate first’, as Cathy McGowan said. Chisholm MP Julia Banks’ resignation statement from the Liberals, where she spoke of the actions of MPs being ‘undeniably for themselves, for their position in the party, their power, their personal ambition, not for the Australian people’ and that she would be putting first ‘people that the major parties have stopped listening to’ echoes this.

This phenomenon is far from new. Attempts to do politics differently harks back to an older tradition, going as far back as the Australian Democrats, and can be seen in the election of other independents such as John Hatton, Ted Mack, Clover Moore and Tony Windsor. Much of MP (and future Australian Democrat leader) Don Chipp’s resignation speech from the Liberals in 1977 would resonate in today’s political climate.

Chipp stated that the public was ‘disenchanted with party politics as they are practised in this country and with the pressure groups which have an undue influence on the major political parties’. He went on to argue that ‘the parties seem to polarise on almost every issue, sometimes seemingly just for the sake of it, and I wonder whether the ordinary voter is not becoming sick and tired of the vested interests which unduly influence the present political parties’.

What is different now is the big decline in party loyalty and the extent of public dissatisfaction with politics that has made volatile swings more common. The Australian Election Study shows the extent of these changes, with the percentage of voters who have always voted for the same party falling from 72 per cent in 1967 to 40 per cent in 2016. Over that same period, satisfaction with democracy fell to 60 per cent from 77 per cent, and now only 26 per cent believe people in government can be trusted compared to 51 per cent. It is of little surprise that it has manifested in an increase of minor party votes to 23.2 per cent in 2016, up from 9.7 per cent in 1969.

As with the rise of populism on the left and right, this liberal populism will drag politics in a different direction now that it has the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

Aided by our preferential electoral system, which uniquely helps independent candidates with a local profile, it has fused with knowledge of organising strategies, such as those used by Cathy McGowan, which are now more easily shared and better resourced. It shows that even in an era where participation in traditional community groups is declining and loneliness is on the rise, people will still come together to organise their local community for change if there is a sense of ownership and their participation is welcome.

The lessons learnt in Wentworth (and other seats such as Indi) are likely to be applied to elect the independents in blue-ribbon urban or rural seats where this idea of good citizenship and community representation resonates. While these independents may have more progressive views on economic issues, it will not be what defines them or determines why voters support them, it is their civic-minded appeal.

As with the rise of populism on the left and right, this liberal populism will drag politics in a different direction now that it has the balance of power in the House of Representatives. The government will be forced to treat climate change, asylum seekers and public broadcasting not simply as a culture war issue. Its precarious position may mean that the tone of political debate changes and it may be forced to deliver stronger integrity and accountability measures, just as minority government in New South Wales did in the 1990s.

The national integrity commission and transferring asylum seekers off Nauru being the centre of political discussions are evidence of a shift beginning. While it may not grab the attention of ordinary Australians, many of whom are increasingly politically disengaged, it may result in a less overtly adversarial tone of debate and improved transparency, integrity and accountability in our public institutions, all needed to rebuild trust and satisfaction with our democratic institutions.

Being outside established parties and requiring their own base to get elected, these independents are unlikely to face the same pressures, not needing to face the same compromises and challenges, and being less likely to disappoint their electorate. Their rise may help counteract the influence of illiberal right-wing populism but it also shows that to gain traction, it has required a populist narrative that rejects the existing order as not representing ‘the people’. It shows that populism continues to dominate Australian politics even among these new liberal centrists who oppose it.

Published at Eureka Street on 5 December 2018.

How have ALP rank-and-file membership numbers changed over time?

I often hear claims about how the British Labour Party is now the largest party in Western Europe with the number of new members cited. The numbers are impressive but also make me wonder how many members of Australian Labor Party are there and how it compares to the past. It is hard to know because membership numbers are a closely guarded secret.

Currently, the only state with available figures is New South Wales. It is only because New South Wales Electoral Commission provides details as part of the electoral disclosure regime. Registered political parties are required to disclose funds raised from membership fees and subscriptions. However, beyond New South Wales, there is no requirement for party membership numbers to be published.

The most recent official source for Australian Labor Party rank-and-file membership numbers is the 2010 National Review.

ALP membership 200210

It provided an overall indication of party membership across Australia between 2002 and 2010 but it did not delve into historical membership figures in the 20th century. Without that data, we do not know how large a decline there has been since the heyday of party membership.

The best available estimate of ALP rank-and-file membership numbers from the 20th century is from Andrew Scott’s 1991 book Fading Loyalties. Based on what fragments of data he could gather, Scott concludes that ALP membership peaked in the decade following the Second World War at around 75,000 and fell to less than 45,000 following the Split and never recovered (though there was some growth until Whitlam). While there was some growth in South Australia and Western Australia afterwards but it could not compensate for declines in New South Wales and Victoria.


The problem with national figures, however, is they hide changes in state branches which can be significant over time.

The book Machine Politics in the Australian Labor Party provides rank-and-file membership numbers for each state and territory branch in 1980. While an approximation, it shows that even though the Australian population has grown by 67%, overall ALP membership numbers are stagnant.

The most recent publicly available figures, broken down by state branch, are from 2015 (though there is a national figure of 53,550 at the end of 2017). These were leaked to The Australian around the time of the National President ballot.

1980 2015 Change Change %
NSW          20,000          18,304 –       1,696 -8%
VIC          13,000          14,969          1,969 15%
QLD            5,500            9,328          3,828 70%
SA            8,050            3,836 –       4,164 -52%
WA            4,000            4,511            511 13%
TAS            1,730            1,144 –           586 -34%
ACT                800            1,500             700 88%
NT                400                338 –             62 -16%
Total          53,480          53,930             450 1%

From this comparative table, we can see that while national ALP membership has been fairly flat in raw numbers over the past three decades, there have been shifts in membership numbers within each state and territory branch.

It is clear from all these party membership figures that the ALP has never been a mass political party though some state and territory branches such as Queensland and the ACT are doing much better than others like SA and Tasmania. Why is something worth further investigation.

We are better than this

With inequality at a 70 year high and living standards stagnating, millions of Australians cannot afford another Coalition Government and nor can our planet. We urgently need a new direction.

We need to change the rules because they are are broken and rigged against working Australians.

We need an economic system that delivers for all Australians and reduces inequality, not one that just concentrates more wealth in the hands of the lucky few.

We need to reinvest in the essential public services that Australians rely on and halt the privatisation of our social security system that so many rely on.

We need to deliver a just transition to tackle the climate crisis while ensuring workers are not thrown on the scrap heap.

We need a Government that does not use the State to go after its opponents and take from those without power while showering as much public largesse as they can to their mates with little scrutiny.

What we have now at both a state and federal level are Governments run for the interests of the super rich, big banks and corporate Australia. They are Governments by organised capital, for organised capital.

The Coalition Government in New South Wales, shorn of some of the socially conservative extremism of its federal counterpart, shows what the Turnbull Government fundamentally is at its heart.

It is a Government that is addicted to privatising everything it can. A Government happy for the rivers of gold from a once in a generation real estate bubble to be wasted on vanity projects rather than schools and hospitals. A Government that has destroyed TAFE and disability services.

But Labor cannot take any election whether state or federal for granted.

It would be an arrogant betrayal of those who rely on Labor Governments. We should not, however, shy away from the fact that dissatisfaction with the Coalition has not translated into excitement for Labor. People are angry because the future does not look better. There is a yearning for positive ideas and policy proposals that address the everyday challenges they face.

Those on the progressive side of politics need to expand what is possible and show that only political involvement can deliver. That means fighting not for what is convenient but what is right and to fight to the end even if we might lose. It requires a party that is democratic and open to debates. Transactional politics and backroom deals that fuel cynicism will only be to our detriment in the long-run. Only the Left can do this and it is our responsibility to lead by challenging the status quo and making the case for change.

The next NSW state and federal election are choices about what kind of country and what kind of state we want to live in. Labor’s message has to be that Australia is better than this, that New South Wales is better than this. And only Labor Governments can deliver this.

Originally appeared in the 2018 NSW Conference edition of Challenge

Robots are not the real threat to work

The more I read about the future of work, the more apparent it becomes that much of the discussion relies on extrapolated models of job losses and technological determinism to justify a course of action rather than critically examining broader trends.

There is no doubt that technological change will shape the future of work, but the extent and nature of that change is still debatable. The oft cited claim that 47 per cent of Americans will lose their jobs due to automation has been challenged by an OECD study concluding the actual figure is more likely nine per cent.

A similar claim by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia citing a figure of 40 per cent was found to be closer to nine per cent after being examined by Professor Jeff Borland and Dr Michael Coelli. The attention given to these initial claims means it is of little surprise that most Australians think the net effect of automation will be less jobs, with a substantial minority thinking it could happen as soon as five years, though the fear may be skewed with a recent Australian study finding young men fear automation far more than women.

While the threat from automation is often overstated, there are big technological shifts occurring which are undermining job security and hollowing out permanent, skilled work. But the experience is that work is created as well as displaced by new technology. Change in social relationships, not technology, explains what is happening in labour markets today.

Rather than a future without paid work, the future is more likely to be a growing polarised labour market with a continuing decline in middle-skilled jobs and growth in high-skilled, high-paying occupations (managers, professionals and technicians), some of which might be considered ‘bullshit jobs’, and low-skilled, low-paying occupations (elementary, service, and sales workers). The most recent OECD Employment Outlook shows that there has been a 9.5 per cent decline in middle-skill as a share of total employment with most growth in high-skilled employment.

Many of these high-paying roles have taken advantage of global markets and technology to have a huge capacity for growth and for trade. Those in lower paid occupations that have not been off-shored are reliant on face-to-face human interaction but also find it difficult to significantly increase their productivity.

This narrative of inevitability suits corporations that will benefit from the current situation. The implication is that actions cannot stop it, so there should be no attempt to regulate.

Trajectories are, however, never inevitable. The moves by state governments towards licencing labour hire firms and the Change the Rules campaign by the Australian Council of Trade Unions show there is no inevitability about the future of work. It may change, but it does not occur in a policy vacuum.

We need policies and laws that ensure people are prepared and supported for both the opportunities and threats of a changing world of work. Australians are supportive of having laws that suit the changing nature of work. A 2017 Digital Rights in Australia report found that over 60 per cent believe that these new forms of gig work need new government regulations.

Part of the conversation about the future of work must also be about the quality of work and how technology can be used to improve the nature of work, such as through better redistributing work, reducing working hours and enabling more decision-making by frontline workers.

And despite the appeal of ‘post-work’, work still has a future in our society. Even if many paid jobs disappeared, work would still exist. Our society depends on the unpaid caring work that is predominantly done by women.

Assuming robots will take all our jobs is an easy way of avoiding the harder but far more important conversation about the gendered nature of work and power in our society, and what we value.

Published at Eureka Street on 24 May 2018

2018 ALP National Conference delegate election results

One of the big reforms at the last ALP National Conference was the direct election of delegates to National Conference equal to the number of federal electorates. Each branch was allowed to choose the method of election with NSW being the sole branch to elect each delegate by federal electorate instead of via proportional representation through an at-large state or multi-electorate regional ballots like elsewhere.

Almost all state branches have now held their rank-and-file National Conference delegate elections. The results of these elections are listed below:

New South Wales

In New South Wales, there were contested ballots in 26 out of 47 federal electorates. The electorates with ballots and factional alignment of the winners were:

Banks: Left
Bennelong: Left
Berowra: Left
Blaxland: Left
Bradfield: Left
Calare: Right
Cowper: Right
Eden-Monaro: Right
Farrer: Right
Greenway: Right
Hughes: Right
Hume: Right
Hunter: Right
Lindsay: Right
Lyne: unaligned
Mitchell: Left
New England: Right
North Sydney: Right
Page: Left
Parramatta: Right
Reid: Right
Richmond: Right
Riverina: unaligned
Robertson: Right
Sydney: Left
Warringah: Left
Wentworth: Left

Overall, the rank-and-file delegate split was 28 to the National Right, 17 to the National Left and 2 unaligned. My understanding is the number of Left delegates went down by two in NSW compared to the last ALP National Conference. At the time, NSW required a delegate to be elected per federal electorate but there was no requirement for direct election by members.


The Victorian ALP had a turnout of 73% for their rank-and-file National Conference delegate elections with 9,609 members returning their ballots. The results were:

National Left Unaligned National Right
Socialist Left 13 IND 2 Mods 10
Industrial Left 1 AWU 7
Con 5

The Victorian union component of National Conference delegates is still to be elected but the total Victorian Left delegation to National Conference is expected to be the same or one less than last time.

Concerns have, however, been raised about the conduct of the ballots as the Victorian ALP Returning Officer made a ruling that members could email for a replacement ballot and allow someone else collect their ballot. Overall, 1,085 ballots were re-issued with a high level concentrated in a small number of branches and electorates. Some branches had over 40% ask for a re-issue. It is been suggested that about 1,000 votes were picked up by the Mods (Adem Somyurek) for National Conference delegates that way. It might be what leads to a National Right majority.


Queensland is holding their delegate elections for both State and National Conference with the Left faction running under the ticket named ‘Local Left Team’. Voting will close on 8 June.

Western Australia

In Western Australia, the split amongst the elected rank-and-file National Conference delegates was 12 Left, 5 CFMMEU and 5 Right. The delegates are:

  • Christy Cain (CFMMEU)
  • Magenta Wilders (Right)
  • Pierre Yang (Left)
  • Carolyn Smith (Left)
  • Matthew Swinbourn (CFMMEU)
  • Josh Wilson (Left)
  • Adrian Evans (CFMMEU)
  • Guy Wroth (Left)
  • Deana Lawver (CFMMEU)
  • Michelle Roberts MLA (Right)
  • Anne Aly (Left)
  • George Gakis (CFMMEU)
  • Matt Keogh (Right)
  • Sally Talbot (Left)
  • Jess Short (Left)
  • Tim Hammond (Right)
  • Patrick Dodson (Right)
  • Dom Rose (Left)
  • Louise Pratt (Left)
  • Stephen Dawson (Left)
  • Helen Tuck (Left)
  • Jessica Shaw (Left)

South Australia

In South Australia, the twelve directly elected National Conference delegates were evenly split between the Left and Right:

South Zone

  • Amanda Rishworth (Right)
  • Kyam Maher (Left)

Central Zone

  • Aemon Bourke (Right)
  • Demi Pnevmatikos (Left)

North West Zone

  • Stephen Mullighan (Right)
  • Karen Grogan (Left)

Regional Zone

  • Eddie Hughes (Left)
  • Clare Scriven (Right)

North Zone

  • Zoe Bettison (Right)
  • Steven May (Left)

North East Zone

  • Dana Wortley (Right)
  • Margot McInnes (Left)


All Tasmanian delegates to ALP National Conference have been elected. The Left will have 19 delegates (including the party leader) while the Right has 4 delegates. This is unchanged from the last National Conference.

Australian Capital Territory

In the Australian Capital Territory, Yvette Berry (Left) and Andrew Leigh (unaligned) were chosen as the directly elected National Conference delegates. The remaining four delegates elected by ACT Labor Conference were split between the CPSU (Left), CFMMEU, SDA (Right) and Gai Brodtmann (Right). The Chief Minister, Andrew Barr (Right), is also a delegate as party leader. The factional split is unchanged from the last National Conference.

Northern Territory

The elected National Conference delegation of six was evenly split between the Left and Right. The Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, sits with the Right faction.

Upcoming State Conferences

There will be three state ALP Conferences in the lead-up to ALP National Conference that will elect some remaining delegates to National Conference (Victoria on 26 May, NSW on 30 June-1 July, Tasmania on 7-8 July). Western Australia, Queensland, the Australian Capital Territory and South Australia will hold their state conferences after ALP National Conference.

If you have any corrections to this post or further information, please send it through.

UPDATE 25/05/18: Reported numbers are that the National Right hold roughly 200 delegates (dependent on whether you include the Queensland “Old Guard”).

UPDATE 13/06/18: Guardian Australia reports that the breakdown is 193 Left, 195 Right, 5 Queensland “Old Guard” and 7 independents.

UPDATE 14/11/18: The Australian reports that the National Right believes it will have at least 201 delegates with the National Left (excluding the Industrial Left) on 171.