Doomed Planet

Labor and the ETS

Blue-collar to green jobs: ETS as Economically Transformed Society 

The National President of the CFMEU, a union covering 13,000 coal miners, recently described the term “green jobs” as “dopey”. “If you are talking to blue-collar workers”, he said, “it is, I think a bit alienating, because they can’t see how they can become green.” 

That’s not surprising. The green movement, newly ascendant over the labour movement, doesn’t care if they “become green”. It’s happy to throw these workers onto the scrap heap. A switch to “green jobs” entails some contraction of non-substitutable “brown jobs”. This is undeniable; in fact, it isn’t denied. 

What does it mean, then, when a union leader raises no more than semantic objections to an agenda aimed directly at his membership? More to the point, what does it mean when the President of the ACTU is one of the most vocal and persistent champions of “green jobs” in the country? 

The CFMEU boss should have been awake to the “green jobs” mantra long ago, just as he should be using more serious language to challenge it now. He isn’t alone, of course. The public silence, at most furtive murmurs, of unionists and Labor MPs representing workers in the firing line has been stunning. 

Climate change has truly exposed the labour movement’s coming of age as a vehicle for political functionaries. Its balance of power shifts ever further away from blue-collar communities to academic and activist networks. 

Consider the dimensions of the population at potential risk of dislocation. Our robust and competitive resource sector, to take one, employs almost 140,000 workers directly and another 550,000 indirectly. Contrast that to the renewable energy sector, which all over the world remains fragile, dependant on state subsidies and tax concessions. 

At a different stage of the movement’s history, alarms wound have sounded about the social equity impacts the climate agenda. The issue would have been social engineering on a massive scale, or the phasing out of whole categories of blue-collar work and related occupations. It would have been about the gentrification of an entire nation, and the pauperization of formerly productive regions. 

What else lies behind slogans like “Green New Deal” or “green industrial revolution”? 

At a different stage of its history, the movement would have hotly debated whether an economy-wide ETS or an RET (Renewable Energy Target) were necessary; whether earnings in directly affected industries would retain their real value over time; whether higher consumer costs would have a regressive distributional impact; whether wealth would be transferred from low to higher income households; whether there would be new opportunities for undue enrichment; whether tax, social security and wage rates would need adjustment; or how industry sectors would be set on a path to future viability. 

There has been little appetite, it seems, for such questions within the unions or Labor. They’ve been content to follow a strategy concocted by the green movement, subject to ad hoc political fixes. Traditional Labor concerns receive perfunctory attention, swamped by hysterical calls to act now or lose the planet. 

We’ve been subjected to a media campaign which maximises the prospect of environmental catastrophe on the one hand and minimises the economic impacts of counter-measures on the other. 

The latter kicked off in mid-2007 with a report by Allen Consulting for the Business Council. GHG cuts of 60 per cent on 2000 levels by 2050, said the report, would reduce GDP by only 6 per cent less than otherwise. This figure was widely celebrated as proof that climate action “won’t cost the earth”. There followed estimates by Nicholas Stern and the IPCC that the planet could be saved for just 1 to 3 per cent of global GDP by 2050. 

These projections, replicated by the hardline Climate Institute, induced a tone of commentary exemplified by AFR columnist Brian Toohey: “Australian households and businesses will barely notice the cost of achieving deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions by 2050” wrote Toohey, adding “we could adopt the 80 per cent target set by California’s Republican Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and still find it a breeze to achieve”. 

That the “barely notice” line came to represent some sort of consensus testifies to the advance of gentrification and elite indifference amongst opinion makers. 

While ABARE and others warned that aggregate projections conceal the real impacts on specific industry sectors and occupational categories, the “barely notice” line served its purpose. Public concerns were effectively neutralised by election day. Greens and the ALP – backed by the unions – were at liberty to whip up fears about prolonged drought, rising sea levels, the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu. 

Despite his elevated rhetoric, though, Kevin Rudd wasn’t keen to bet his future on the “barely notice” sham when it came time to unveil his CPRS. The scheme embraces paltry targets and offers more assistance, at least in the early phases, to trade-exposed and “strongly affected” industries than hardline greens can stomach. Few believe it will have much effect on emissions, but its impact on employment is a live issue. Reports for the Minerals Council and the Coal Association suggest job losses could run into the tens of thousands, while Treasury’s sanguine view has come under attack for its heroic assumptions.

Either way, the CPRS Bill is socially regressive legislation, and more so over the long-term. It hits blue-collar industries, workers and regions harder than others. It puts pressure on the low end of the labour market while opening up bright new prospects for the well-educated. Notwithstanding the compensation provisions, it raises the cost of living for all households, regardless of wealth and income. It wraps employers in reels of red tape. And yet, at the stroke of a pen, it delivers a cornucopia to mega rich merchant bankers and securities traders.  

Assume (for the moment) that there’s a case for Australia to join a global arrangement – early or unilateral action is utterly pointless – to cut carbon emissions. Could the government have called on the array of tools at its disposal, like grants, subsidies, financial instruments, taxes, credits, levies, technical expertise and regulations to design a less regressive framework? Could they have achieved an outcome more consistent with Labor principles than this mishmash of stakeholder buy-offs? There was a way – but sadly, no will. 

John Muscat is a lawyer, ALP member and co-editor of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

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