2001: Annus Horribilis

Frank Stilwell

The Queen of England once used the phrase "annus horribilis" to describe a year in which her family had been beset by a series of traumatic events. "Queen's Bum Year" headlined Rupert Murdoch's newspaper "The Sun".

The phrase (either in the Latin or the tabloid vernacular) seems thoroughly appropriate again at the end of the current year. This is a year in which we've all had to face the consequences of a series of traumatic events. By any standards it has been an awful start to the millennium. That makes it all the more necessary to ask what can be done in the year ahead to deal with the after-shocks - political, social, economic and environmental - and to lay the foundations for a better future. For the labour movement, both worldwide and in Australia, the challenges are particularly significant.

Retreat from Kyoto

The 'sleeper' issue is environmental policy. However, the global environmental challenge is absolutely fundamental. Over the last decade the evidence about the threat posed by global warming has become increasingly clear. So to has the recognition of the need for collective action on a global scale to develop and implement policies to reduce per capita energy-use, and the use of fossil-fuels in particular. Hence the importance of the Kyoto 'summit' of 1997 to engineer the political conditions for that response.

The Australian government's stance at Kyoto put the interests of the coal and oil lobby ahead of any ecological responsibility. In the three years since then, more back-sliding is evident, as Clive Hamilton ably documents in his new book Running From the Storm: The Development of Climate Change Policy in Australia (UNSW Press, Sydney, 2001). This year has seen the government unresponsive to pressures to adopt a more principled position.

More globally significant than the Australian stance, of course, is that of the US government. After all, the USA is responsible, in broad terms, for about a quarter of global resource depletion. That is why President Bush's announcement in March of this year, that he considered the Kyoto agreement "fatally flawed" and that he would not ratify it, was such a major set-back. Bush's decision, as the Japanese Prime Minister said, was "truly deplorable".

The struggle for more sound environmental and energy policies will continue nevertheless - locally, nationally and globally. Indeed, as the ecological crisis deepens, this will surely become an ever more important issue. It is an issue on which the labour movement needs to position itself with the progressives, rather than align with those resisting change.

Jobs will be lost in any restructuring towards ecological sustainability (and the Kyoto targets would be only a minor first step), but other jobs will open up in industries with more ecologically sustainable characteristics. Indeed, Australia could be a significant world leader in the development, production and export of appropriate technologies, drawing on our established expertise in areas like solar energy. etting this issue the political attention it warrants must be a high priority for the future, notwithstanding the recent setbacks.