Chris Bowen says Labor will develop a jobs and emissions “compact” to put to voters at the next election, and he has rebuffed Joel Fitzgibbon’s campaign to have the opposition adopt the same medium-term emissions reduction target as the Coalition.
In an interview with Guardian Australia after being appointed shadow minister on climate change and energy this week, Bowen declared Labor could win the political battle to take climate action consistent with the science if it won the argument that ambition was good for jobs and long-term economic growth.
“The Liberals have weaponised climate change quite destructively as an anti-jobs message and I see my key role as winning the debate that good policy on climate change is good jobs policy and good economics policy, which then gives you the ability to prosecute the case for a good, sensible climate change policy,” Bowen said.
“There are some voters who are convinced and satisfied about the moral need to tackle climate change, and there are other voters who aren’t, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t open to be convinced that a climate change policy is sensible, even if they remain unpersuaded about the moral argument.”
Bowen said he would use his time in the portfolio to speak to those voters particularly.
“The jobs argument is so vital in closing the bridge,” Bowen said. “I intend to really focus on the economic argument to close that bridge. I’ll do in my own style, but that’s what I’ll be doing.”
He said a key part of his advocacy would be raising awareness about the vulnerability of the Australian economy if governments bungled the transition to net zero because our economy is structurally reliant on carbon-intensive industries and exports.
“Part of my job is to prosecute that case: the economic upside of climate change is real and the economic downside of not acting is very significant,” he said.
Bowen, a former treasurer and shadow treasurer, hails from the New South Wales right faction. He took the portfolio in a frontbench reshuffle from Mark Butler, a leftwinger, who prosecuted the case for ambitious climate action over seven years in the portfolio.
Fitzgibbon, a veteran rightwinger, ran a public campaign against Butler and the party’s climate policy after the party’s 2019 election loss, arguing that Labor would not win government unless it moderated ambition in emissions reduction. He contended Labor needed to adopt the same 2030 target as the Morrison government to defang the climate debate.
Bowen said Fitzgibbon was wrong to advocate surrender: “I don’t share the view that simply replicating the government is the answer.”
The new shadow minister said Labor would develop a “sensible, strong, science-based, evidence-based and economically focused policy” to take to voters in an election that could be held in the second half of 2021.
“The policy will be consistent with our Paris obligations, and with our Glasgow obligations, it will be based on science and economic evidence.”
He said it would also be underpinned by economic analysis in an effort to neutralise inevitable political controversy about the cost of action.
Bowen said Joe Biden’s policy approach contained some useful ideas for Labor in Australia but his own view was a compact was the right conceptual framework.
“The idea of an emissions and jobs compact is important to me,” he said. “A Green new deal is an amorphous concept that means different things to different people … but to the degree it means we will act on climate change and we will invest in the people impacted, and we will invest in regions and communities as we go – that is what I am talking about.
“A compact means not pretending that we don’t have to deal with climate change but also not pretending that Australians aren’t concerned about job security, vibrant suburbs and vibrant regions.”
He said climate action should be a key part of Australia’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic, and rebuilding from the pandemic, is of course front and centre – resetting the economy after the pandemic is very important, but climate change policy is part of that, investment in renewable energy is part of that rebuilding, and a very important part of that.
“Just as science guided the policy during the pandemic, it should guide our policy on climate change.”
Butler gave a firm commitment that Labor would adopt a medium-term target consistent with the science before the next federal election.
Bowen said Labor would formulate “a roadmap to get to net zero by 2050”.
“There are various ways that roadmap can be constructed. That’s what I will think through in coming weeks and months. Roadmaps are about bringing the community with you as you tackle a wicked problem.”
In terms of medium-term targets, Bowen said: “I’m currently working through all the options and our policy position will be crystal clear before the election.
“The Liberals have said they will have a target for 2035 that they won’t reveal until after the election – it is hypocritical for the government to demand that we produce ours today when they won’t produce theirs for the people’s verdict.”
Bowen said he was keen to work with the environment movement as he shapes Labor’s pre-election policy. But there is also a message for advocates.
He said a range of progressive groups, including the environment movement, “banked a Labor win” in 2019 and campaigned for tougher policy rather than critiquing the Coalition’s position.
“I’m not saying we lost because of that, but I’m saying this was an issue right across the board – lobby groups spent a lot of time lobbying us to strengthen our policies and not much time helping Labor win.”