Australian Fabians Review
Learning the Right Lessons from the Hunter By-Election
The recent NSW Upper-Hunter state by-election should serve as a stark reminder to Labor that there are no simplistic solutions to the challenges posed by the clean energy transition. Sticking our heads in the sand and pretending nothing is happening will not revive our electoral fortunes. It is a sure path to electoral defeat.
This by-election arguably received more nationwide media coverage than the recent Tasmanian and Western Australian state elections, and it sent shockwaves through the NSW Labor party – ultimately resulting in a leadership change. The resonance of this by-election demonstrated how the Hunter is viewed as a nationwide litmus test of how coal communities are responding to the economic shift to clean energy, and there are important lessons for Labor to draw.
The narrative of this by-election was set up as a dichotomic contest of pro and anti-coal forces. Malcolm Turnbull and a cast of independents on one side; and the Nationals, Labor and One Nation all jostling to out-coal themselves on the other. But NSW Labor didn’t just play into this narrative, we actively helped to create it. The campaign was built on the faulty assumption that a full-frontal embrace of coal would deliver a 1 in 100-year electoral miracle.
Early in the campaign Joel Fitzgibbon boasted that Labor could win the seat, despite its historic difficulties, with “the right script”. That script: a former miner as candidate, a total embrace of coal, turning a blind eye to the economic changes ahead, and the sort of dog whistling about “inner-city greenies” we normally get from One Nation or Barnaby Joyce. In the final days Fitzgibbon described the campaign and candidate as “one of the best”, suggesting it might be a template for Labor moving forward.
Instead, Labor’s vote collapsed by nearly a third, and delivered us a measly 21.2% primary vote. This campaign was a test of how Labor will perform in the regions when we abandon credible climate change policy and ignore the nuanced economic realities and genuine anxieties on the ground. The future outlook for our party if we replicate this approach is dim indeed, and that’s before we begin to consider the electoral impacts this approach will deliver in the cities and other regions facing climate impacts.
This simplistic and naive approach fails to learn from the best of Labor’s history, and it is now proven to be an electoral dud.
The truth is views in our resource’s regions are much more nuanced than this false dichotomy. Opinions on coal in the Hunter are less about climate change or inner-city greenies and more about land use conflicts: the local impacts on agriculture, water and air pollution. Labor has over many years sought to make credible and science- based policies to balance these conflicts, and that should never be abandoned for a simplistic rhetoric which doesn’t resonate.
Outside of land use conflicts, the larger issue is the rightfully felt anxiety these communities feel in the face of the major economic shifts. The Hunter has seen more than its fair share of economic disruption over recent decades, the bruises and scars of which are felt today by many. The changes ahead could perhaps be the most significant for the region since European colonisation.
A key lesson of the 2019 federal election was that we don’t win these communities over through vague talk of market mechanisms and the promise of jobs to come. We need proof and market interventions to guarantee outcomes.
The other lesson: Labor will never win when our core constituencies are divided. Trade unionists, environmentalists, and those of us concerned with creating livable and viable communities all share common values and visions, and we must never let our opponents divide us up.
After 2019, the Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN) recognised these realities, and through our local branch in the Hunter region, got to work with allies from across the union and environmental movements to form the Hunter Jobs Alliance (HJA). The HJA is an alliance of nine unions and four community environment groups, united in our vision of a prosperous and sustainable future for the Hunter region, where workers, their families and the environment can all thrive.
The Alliance was established to create a space for locals to come together, turn down the heat in the debate, and build a coalition fighting for sustainable and diversified job creation opportunities. We focus not where our opinions may differ, but on what unites us. Standing together, we can ensure all our voices aren’t left out of the debate about our collective futures which is too often dominated by big business.
Forming the Alliance involved bringing people together at kitchen tables and pubs across the region with their union organisers and community leaders. Every time, the values shared between all our groups became clearer and stronger. Everyone shares a sense of pride in the region’s industrial history and its role in powering the state’s economy. Everyone wants the region to be a place where families can continue to raise children with decent job opportunities. Everyone wants their kids to live in a safe climate and clean environment. And everyone wants to have a say in shaping their own community’s future.
Nobody is pretending the solutions are simple, or quick. Views among both analysts and the community continue to differ about the phase of economic change ahead. Those finer details can be debated endlessly. But that’s not productive. The HJA argues that our focus should instead be on how we respond to the inevitable changes. We need to learn the painful lessons from regions overseas that haven’t coped well with changes: we need to work together, and to start that work as early as possible.
Throughout our conversations it was clear that most people can see the change coming, and indeed many are already starting to feel it. Jobs are becoming less certain, apprentice numbers are falling, pay is flat, and there are fewer coal trains running down the valley. Matters are being made worse by China’s restrictions on Australian coal exports, news of which broke on the same day we launched the HJA, making a strong case for economic diversification on the front page of the local Newcastle Herald.
Yet some workers told us that despite witnessing this for themselves firsthand, and recognising the realities of climate change, they were still skeptical about the prospects of jobs in future industries. They told us they weren’t loyal to coal or to polluting the environment. They were loyal to their decent, union jobs. They were loyal to their families and their economic security. Fair enough. For those of us who aren’t on the coalface, I reckon most of us would feel and react the exact same way, even if we struggle to admit it.
It was a reflection for me as an environmentalist that our movement needs to do better at campaigning for real and tangible solutions.
Campaigning for projects that workers can see happening in their communities and literally get their hands on. Projects with decent union jobs that employ real people, people that live and breathe these communities. That is how we build confidence that renewables are not a fairy tale, that they can in fact power heavy industry and manufacturing. An endless focus on targets (as important as they are) without any substance behind them is not a recipe to win – it distracts us from talking about the benefits of action.
The Hunter has no shortage of sustainable diversification opportunities in front of it. Australia’s abundance of renewable energy, combined with the region’s industrial skills base, and access to a seaport all position the Hunter well to succeed in a carbon-constrained world. Vast opportunities exist in the production of green steel and value-adding manufacturing supply chains. Securing the future of the Tomago Aluminum smelter with firmed renewables will ensure it remains globally competitive. Mine rehabilitation and land restoration can create thousands of jobs with positive benefits for ecosystems and agriculture. Resource recovery and sustainable materials manufacturing, particularly for coal fly ash, can also create jobs with positive flow on benefits. Of course, not all of these jobs can be created overnight, but the planning needs to be started now. Investment decisions are being made, and we can’t forget that we are competing with regions overseas who are well ahead of us thanks to governments that understand the importance of investing in industry and stable energy policy.
Regions like the Hunter across Australia are facing three intersecting crises. The climate crisis, a jobs and economic security crisis, and a crisis of democracy. Trust in major political parties and institutions is low and falling. We saw this at the by-election with 48% of voters leaving the major parties. This lack of trust in government to deliver outcomes makes it difficult for those of us campaigning for action on climate change, and social democratic outcomes more broadly. But trust in community leaders, through unions and environment groups remains strong. This is the foundation that the HJA is built upon - being grounded in the local.
Reaching deeply into communities and building alliances is tough work, but it can be done. The Labor party is at its best when we build broad coalitions and present a positive vision for the future. Labor has only ever won government from opposition at a federal level by doing this, and notably combining this with strong environmental commitments as Whitlam, Hawke and Rudd all did.
As environmental concern rises across the electorate, Labor’s commitments on climate and environment have enhanced our electoral prospects.
The Emerson/Weatherill review and the 2019 ANU Australian Electoral Study both confirmed this to be the case for the 2019 Federal election. At a state level in NSW, climate and the environment were key issues in the only two seats we picked up in 2019: Coogee and Lismore. I can’t imagine the Upper Hunter campaign rhetoric enhanced our prospects of retaining these seats in 2023. The other two seats that changed hands in that election were Barwon and Murray. Both were gained by the Shooters Fishers Farmers (SFF) from the Nationals where environmental issues also dominated, namely water mismanagement and local opposition to coal seam gas mining (CSG).
Labor cannot rest on the laurels of its historic environmental achievements We now face a politicised environmental flank on both our left and right. The NSW Liberals have recognised these lessons from 2019 and installed Matt Kean in the environment portfolio after years of neglect and downright vandalism. The Nationals, too, have begun to nuance their position on economic transition. During the Upper Hunter campaign, they announced a Mining Communities Future Fund and a statutory Hunter Expert Panel to guide new investment decisions for job creation.
Younger voters casting ballots for the first time at the next election don’t recall the environmental wins of Hawke and Keating. They probably don’t know that Kevin Rudd signed the Kyoto Protocol over ten years ago, let alone its significance. They don’t know Bob Carr introduced world leading emissions policies and expanded the Parks Estate in NSW. Without consistent and strong commitments Labor risks seriously damaging our long-term electoral prospects with a new generation of voters across Australia who are extremely concerned about their future.
In the wake of Upper-Hunter, and with more elections fast approaching, we cannot let the lessons of the 2019 elections continue to go unlearned. The solution to these challenges is not to try and turn back the clock on Labor’s proud climate legacy and retreat to a nothing-but--coal narrative. We must continue to lead on climate, whilst doing better at standing with regions that feel vulnerable - by making interventions to secure their economic future. We can be clear eyed about the scale of the threat posed by climate change and, like Joe Biden, promote a view of climate action through the lens of job creation and opportunity. Rebuilding trust in our core constituencies that Labor in government can deliver projects that create decent, union jobs isn’t easy. But failing to do so only risks leaving them behind, to the benefit of far-right political opportunists taking advantage of vulnerable workers.
Jaden Harris is an environmental campaigner from Sydney. He is the NSW state convenor of the Labor Environmental Action Network (LEAN) and a non-executive director of OzGreen. @JadenHarris95
Series: Australian Fabians Review - Issue 2
Author: Jaden Harris