by Richard Denniss
[Originally Published on Guardian Australia, 29 May 2019]
While Australian political debate has never seemed more sharply divided, the philosophical lines between left and right have never seemed more blurred.
The economy is always in transition, and people are always losing and finding jobs, but – after decades of the right being contemptuous of the pain suffered by workers losing their jobs through privatisation, free-trade agreements or technological change – these days, the right seem obsessed with protecting jobs. But only some of them.
Remember when the right used to be accused of obsessing over market forces and the left of not understanding economics? Those were the days. Today barely a day goes by without an environmental group arguing coal is “uneconomic”, while business groups and formerly free-market politicians demand we protect (some) jobs in regional Australia. When it comes to climate policy the right love intervention: Subsidies for coalmines, direct action for emission reductions and regulation to constrain the market power of electricity companies.
On Saturday, the Australian opened a story on climate change with the following sentence:
Labor front-bencher Joel Fitzgibbon says the ALP’s self-inflicted defeat at the polls will, by necessity, shift the centre of gravity in the parliamentary party to the right, including abandoning market based carbon reduction policies.
Read that sentence again. It turns 30 years of political debate on its head.
According to one of the most senior figures in the ALP right, a “shift to the right” on policy now means a shift away from market forces. Meanwhile, the Greens are the ones pushing for greater reliance on market forces and an emissions trading scheme.
So what’s going on?
The Coalition’s obsession with “protecting jobs” is a recent phenomenon. Tony Abbott promised to sack 12,000 people if he won office in 2013, and Campbell Newman did sack 14,000 Queensland public servants. Joe Hockey mocked the car industry’s request for assistance just before it announced it was closing all Australian factories. They didn’t talk about protecting jobs in those days. On the contrary, they were far more concerned with ensuring Australia was “competitive”.
The jobs hypocrisy of the right goes back to the 1980s, when neoliberalism first began to dominate debate. Back then, it was the left that defined itself by the need to protect jobs, including jobs in the coal industry. When Jeff Kennett privatised Victoria’s electricity generators, over half the people who worked in the Latrobe Valley lost their jobs. Most of the commentators now demanding that Adani be built to create regional jobs were around back then, and the vast majority of them were barracking for Kennett.
We waste our money subsidising industries that contribute little tax and fewer jobs
The same is true for tariff reductions and free trade agreements that decimated manufacturing across regional Australia. Older women in regional New South Wales and Victoria were particularly hard-hit by mass closures of textile factories, closures justified on the basis that city consumers would get cheaper clothes if tens of thousands of regional jobs were lost. Guess whose side the right were on in the decades-long fights about tariffs and free-trade agreements?
But while the Coalition and the Business Council of Australia were often on the side of free markets, they have always been strategically selective in their support for regional workers.
Likewise water policy. While every conservative worth their salt knows that Indigenous people living in small communities who can’t “pay their way” should be forced to move to bigger towns, those same conservatives seem to instinctively know that small farming communities “deserve our support” on the basis that some of the families have relied on farming subsidies for generations.
And then there’s mining.
Between 1985 and 1995 the NSW coal industry sacked around half of its workforce. The adoption of longwall mining and open pits meant that a lot fewer workers could extract a lot more coal. And so miners were sacked in large numbers. Neither the Coalition nor the Minerals Council raged against the impact of technological change on regional jobs back then.
Do you see the pattern?
The right wing of Australian politics has created, or allowed, unjust transitions to occur in the public and manufacturing sectors for decades. But whenever “market forces” threaten politically powerful industries like mining, logging and farming, there is never a shortage of money or political will to ensure “workers and communities” get protected. But it’s not workers and regional communities getting protected, it’s the right’s favoured industries.
The desperation of Barnaby Joyce, Matt Canavan and the mining industry to prop up Adani confuses a lot of people who seem to think declaring a project “is economically unviable” is some sort of killer blow in Australian policy making. But let’s be clear, native forest logging isn’t economic, growing rice in the desert was never economic and nor is clearing huge amounts of land to create marginal farms that regularly need “drought assistance”.
We live in one of the richest countries in the world. Our GDP is the size of Russia’s, and whereas Russia wasted huge amounts of money on nuclear submarines, we waste our money subsidising industries that contribute little tax and fewer jobs.
Of course we should help people in regional Queensland and elsewhere who are suffering from high unemployment and low wages. But the politicians and business leaders making the most noise about Adani have been silent about the hundreds of thousands of other Australians who have been thrown out of their jobs by policy and technological transitions in decades past.
So what does “left” and “right” mean now? Both sides of politics are sometimes sceptical of markets, sometimes fans of subsidies, and sometimes want to help workers and communities adjust to transition. It seems to me that the left want to intervene to ensure that all workers and communities are supported in transition, while the right only want to help mining and farming communities.
It’s no longer philosophy that divides Australian politics, just the decision about who is worthy of support.
Richard Denniss is chief economist at the Australia Institute @RDNS_TAI