‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ is a familiar theme on the political right. Drearily predictable calls are currently being made for the government to bring forward the proposed income tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the rich, to raise more revenue from a higher rate for the regressive GST, and to initiate ‘industrial realtions reform’ (code for renewed assaults on organised labour rights).
What about countering these with some policies aiming to create a more equitable and sustainable economy and society? Could the current crisis actually be an opportunity for a progressive policy response? What about a Green New Deal?
This idea of a Green New Deal (GND) has been around for a long time. Historically, its origins are in the policies enacted by US President F D Roosevelt in the 1930s during the Great Depression. FDR’s policies created millions of jobs, some with significant environmental characteristics, such as planting millions of tres as wind-breaks in ‘dustbowl’ areas. Bernie Sanders pushed a modern equivalent, with a strong emphasis on climate change action, during his ultimately unsuccessful bid to become the Democratic Party’s candidate in the forthcoming US Presidential election.
Now, with unemployment soaring here in Australia and no effective climate change policy in sight, a Green New Deal has evident local relevence as a means of tackling both jobs and the environment.
It is the stimulatory, job-creating aspects of a GND that are its greatest potential appeal to the labour movement, of course, and to all who are worried about the consequences of prolonged economic stagnation, growing unemployment and welfare state cutbacks.
But a GND cannot be just a crisis-driven re-embrace of Keynesian stimulus policies. The jobs growth must come through restructuring the economy on a more ecologically sustainable basis.
Indeed, there is plenty of current potential for that – in energy production, transport policies, waste-management, water infrastructure, agriculture, building design and retrofitting, urban planning, and much else besides. A GND must include detailed plans for creation of green jobs across the full array of industries and workers’ skills. This requires a comprehensive policy for industry and trade.
The Coronavirus pandemic has shown that heavy economic reliance on international trade, based on purely ‘comparative advantage’ principles, makes national economies more vulnerable to crises transmitted from elsewhere. Emphasising, wherever possible, ‘local production for local consumption’, would reduce vulnerability and increase resilience. It would also reduce the resources used in transport and the size of ‘ecological footprints’.
This does not mean stopping trade, of course, but it does pose a direct challenge to the ‘free trade’ ideals that are currently accepted across much of mainstream politics. Whenever rival principles operate – such as self-reliance and specialisation – some careful balance must be struck. An active industry and trade policy needs to plan for transition, particularly by fostering the diversification of local production that would make reduced trade dependency possible.
A GND also has to include policies to help workers shift from unsustainable ‘old economy’ jobs like coal mining to the newly created green jobs. This key requirement for ‘just transition’ puts the spotlight on education and training.
Extending this concern with equity, comprehensive tax and welfare reform is also essential to maintaining widespread public support for a GND. Public provision of basic income could have a prominent place on this agenda, because of its capacity to reduce poverty, expand citizens’ options and create a buffer against future recessions.
Beyond economic redistribution, the pursit of equity requires a politics of recognition too. Direct involvement of First Nations peoples is crucial in this respect. As the custodians of the land for upwards of 60,000 years, the sustainability credentials of Indigenous Australians, as effective stewards of a common natural heritage, are second to none! Indigenous Voice can also be potentially valuable on a wide range of GND concerns, such as managing the commons and developing cooperative enterprises.
In summary, a Green New Deal offers distinctive strategies and policies for job-creation, restructuring the economy on a more ecologically sustainable basis, reducing dependence on trade, creating greater equity and engaging with First Nations peoples.
Of course, strong opposition to a GND would come from climate-change deniers, especially those with influential positions in the Liberal and National Parties and from the sections of the mainstream media that routinely back reactionary positions. Similarly strong resistence could be expected from the mining companies, banks and other capitalist institutions that have a direct stake in perpetuating environmentally degrading industries.
Facing these obstacles, the political support and momentum for a GND would have to be broadly-based. Moreover, comprehensive change of this character cannot happen overnight, nor even in a few years: it has to proceed step-by-step. The triple imperative is to get started, have a vision for the future and a strategy for getting there. While the current crisis provides the context, it is effort and struggle that would have to provide the impetus.
The Greens are already strongly on board. The ALP is currently considering the policies that it will take to the next Federal election. The economic effects of the coronavirus crisis will still be lingering then, so public concerns about jobs as well as the need for real action on climate change and inequality will need to be addressed. Inter-party rivalries would presumably make it hard for the ALP to formally adopt anything with Green in the title, but it is the program’s contents, not the label, that ultimately matter. Politically, there is much to be said for seeking common ground between the ALP and the Greens to unseat the conservative Coalition.
A political program offering jobs, greater economic security, a more equitable society and real action on climate change is potentially inspiring in this context. This is not to say that it is free of tensions – what ever is? – but, faced with the choice between a conservative Coalition promising an elusive ‘return to normal’ and an Opposition united in offering a Green New Deal (appropriately re-named, if necessary), we could see a change of government at long last.
To make it happen, the development of a broad, popular movement for change – and plenty of local action – would be necessary. Regarded in this way, a GND strategy – for jobs and the environment – is a potential game-changer.
Frank Stilwell is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Political Economy, University of Sydney, and Vice President of the Evatt Foundation.
A longer version of this article appears in the current special Coronavirus crisis issue of The Journal of Australian Political Economy at https://www.ppesydney.net/issue-85-winter-2020/.