Labor factions Anthony Albanese
(Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Labor is scrambling to find a position on climate change that will satisfy voters who are more worried about global warming in the wake of this summer’s devastating bushfires. 

Its current position is one that supports the Paris Agreement’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050, while still backing Australia’s coal industry. 

But as Labor walks this delicate tightrope, where do its union backers stand? 

Crikey asked Australia’s largest unions what kind of climate policies they want, and the answers show they are divided. Many lack a position altogether. 

Australia’s biggest union, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, which has 275,000 national members, said it supported a net-zero emissions reduction target by 2050. This in line with Labor’s position and the Paris Agreement.

While it did not have a firm deadline for phasing out coal, it said it did not support new coal projects. 

“It makes no sense to invest in new fossil fuel projects that will close within the next three decades when Australia could instead become a world-leader in renewable energy through investing in research, innovation, and improving existing technologies,” ANMF federal secretary Annie Butler said.

The conservative Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, which represents 200,000 retail and fast-food workers, said it supported a transition to a carbon-neutral economy but did not support a particular emissions reduction target or timeline for phasing out coal. It also would not say whether it supported new coal projects. 

“As the union representing more than half a million mainly lower-paid workers in the retail sector, which is facing unprecedented challenges, the SDA’s primary concern is to ensure that its members do not suffer as a consequence of technological change and the sluggish economy,” national secretary Gerard Dwyer said.

The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) said its national position on climate change was determined by its mining division, which represents around 20,000 out of a total 100,000 members. Around three quarters of its mining members work in coal export mines in New South Wales and Queensland. 

Speaking to Crikey, CFMMEU national president Tony Maher said he acknowledged the bushfires had intensified concern about climate change, including from his members.

“I think they have had a great effect on the national psyche. A lot of volunteer firies are miners and forestry workers; that’s been the case for decades.”

He said the union’s national position on climate change was to support a just transition away from fossil fuels that mimicked Germany’s, but it did not believe in having an emissions reduction target or a deadline for phasing out coal. 

“We don’t buy into the target argument … We’re not environmental activists, that’s someone else’s job. Our expertise is how it affects communities and workforces,” he said.

The CFMMEU’s Queensland mining arm pivoted away from the national body during the election last year when it declared it was not backing candidates who did not support a future for central Queensland coal workers.

Maher said calls to unilaterally phase out coal exports were “unnecessary and counterproductive”, and that the union supported new coal projects. However he acknowledged that parts of the coal industry, like coal-fired power plants, were in structural decline.

“We’ll never come out and oppose a mine that creates jobs. But the truth is they will taper off. It’s just a matter of time.” 

The AEU said it supported strong action on climate change but declined to say whether it supported phasing out coal or if it supported new coal projects. It had no policy on emissions reduction targets but said it supported the ACTU’s position on supporting net-zero emissions reductions via a just transition of workers in the coal-fired electricity sector.

“The transition from traditional energy sources such as coal to a clean energy economy is a crucial element in Australia achieving its emissions reduction targets,” AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe said .

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) did not have a formal policy, and would not say what it believed was an appropriate emissions reduction target, or whether it supported new coal projects. 

“We need bipartisan support for what the science and the experts are telling us, which is bigger emission cuts must be made to ensure long-term environmental, social and economic benefit,” national secretary Melissa Donnelly said. 

Peter Fray

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