SRC 90th Anniversary
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Green new light on the hill: An Australian Green New Deal

Labor is waiting for that green light and wants it

Photo of Alexandro Ocasio-Cortez and Anthony Albanese on background of green and gold

The scene is set at a recent Sydney Policy Lab discussion on the possibility of an Australian Green New Deal (GND). The dramatis personae are the elites of Sydney’s left. The discussion, generally stimulating and effective in coalition-building, ultimately featured contentious issues within environmental discourses.

The evening opened with an admission: no Indigenous people were present. Indigenous peoples ought to be at the centre of an Australian GND, everyone said, but the event took place in an elite, largely white academic space. Little mention was made of effective land and water management techniques of Indigenous peoples. Attendees reminded each other that climate change is a social justice issue, but that discussion lacked context. Noticeably absent was the water crisis in remote Indigenous communities in North-Western NSW, and the Victorian government’s clearing of sacred Djab Wurrung trees for a highway bypass.

The GND is a broad environmental and egalitarian project, Dr Amanda Tattersall told attendees, originating from social movements which survived the fall of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign by gradually developing within and outside of the Democratic party, lately through the efforts of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Justice Democrats. The GND’s historical namesake was the Democrats’ New Deal, a set of extensive post-Depression public reform initiatives.

As a deeply ambitious project, the GND resets numerous policy areas along with the structures of democracy and the capitalist economy itself.

The next government’s environmental policy is a far cry from the GND. The two policy suites are only remotely comparable in terms of breadth and in centering a “just transition” for workers in fossil fuel industries. Under Labor’s policy, geographically-specific Just Transition Authorities will prioritise community power.

But Labor’s approach is grounded in moderating environmental policy rather than reskilling and empowering communities. Subsidising lower emissions-intensive technology leaves the door open for capitalist profiteering rather than public investment. The result is Labor’s policy falling concerningly short of a materialistic and social movement-driven GND.

It’s hard to see the GND developing from within Labor ranks, as necessary as it is for Labor to support it.

The discussion often dwelled on the pedantic and post-material. Discussions questioned the form an Australian GND would take. Without an original New Deal, an Australian-branded “Green and Gold New Deal” needs inspiration from post-war reconstruction, the accords or last decade’s Global Financial Crisis bailout.

A GND would, and must, look, sound and operate differently in Australia. The non-tokenistic centring of Indigenous people and their practice, relevance to people of colour and working class communities as well as the complexities of our own polity make a different GND necessary.

Like America’s New Deal, Australians must confront the way equivalent programs were marred by concessions to capital and racial oppression. The clearing of Indigenous land, incarceration of Indigenous peoples and migrants, and the exploitation of migrant labour were features of both the New Deal and Australia’s post-war economy. Both remain pressing issues today.

The New Deal took up reforestation programs, but jobs were offered to white men first as black unemployment soared and Native American practice were ignored. The New Deal made it easier for workers to organise, but excluded agricultural and domestic workers who were mostly black. Racist Southern landowners and capitalists made a killing off the New Deal. Previous laws allowing unions to exclude members on the basis of race were not overturned.

In Australia, post-war reconstruction brought imperfect progress. Infrastructure development  in South Australia required massive population growth. Although migration began to foster some sense of multiculturalism, the immigration debate was filled with racist hysterias tied to anti-semitic and anti-communist rhetoric. Jewish people were intentionally excluded from refugee agreements of the time. Immigration was raised out of economic necessity. White immigrants were favoured to avoid having to accept Asian immigrants.

Thuy Nguyen from the progressive community coalition Sydney Alliance challenged the largely white room to include working class and migrant communities in the coalition building project. Past mistakes must not be repeated, Nguyen argued.

The current challenge is significant. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently declared that human society has until 2030 to limit irreversible changes to the climate.

Labor’s policy reaches into most areas of society and the economy, but even on these measures, it falls far short of the urgent change championed by the GND.

The author is a current member of National Labor Students (NLS) and a Young Labor Left Convenor.