Labor front bench joel fitzgibbon anthony albanese
Labor leader Anthony Albanese and Joel Fitzgibbon in the House of Representatives (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

It’s essential that every government initiative, if it is to succeed, has clear targets. The Morrison government’s Hunter Valley gas plan has a clear target: Joel Fitzgibbon, the embattled member for Hunter, whose once safe seat is now marginal after a 21% vote for One Nation last year.

Fitzgibbon is fighting for his life — and his honour. Hunter is a Labor legacy, held uninterrupted since 1910 by Doc Evatt and two Labor father-son teams: the Jameses and the Fitzgibbons. To avoid being the bloke who lost this dusty jewel in the crown, Fitzgibbon has become a de facto independent within the Labor fold, running a relentless war against Labor policy on coal, renewables etc.

Labor could expel or deselect him, but it won’t of course. It’s the usual one-two. Fitzgibbon goes off, playing to the Valley, Labor chastises him, playing to the big city ‘burbs, and on it goes. Eventually this becomes normalised, and might even be a better way of dealing with Labor’s geographical divide than its pre-2019 idea of having Bill Shorten say one thing on coal in Townsville and another in Northcote, as if the telegraph had not yet been developed.

So there’s every advantage for the Coalition in leaning on it. It marks a new stage — or a new stage in the new stage — of its transformation. Landing a state-funded gas boondoggle anywhere would please its corporate donors. Landing it in the Hunter pushes the split between Fitzgibbon and Labor’s leadership. Fitzgibbon duly announced his support and urged Labor to get behind it. What else could he do, realpolitik-wise?

But of course it was perfectly timed to queer Labor’s pitch as it attempted to get away from an emissions reduction-led policy to a production-side one. Labor has adopted the notion of Australia as a “renewable energy superpower” and net exporter, suggested by Ross Garnaut and others, and was just swinging its guns round to this when the Coalition launched its gas attack.

As numerous commentators have noted, the initiative marks a new high point in Coalition hypocrisy about free markets, small government, “backing winners” etc.

The idea of buying up the wheezing, dying Liddell Power Station was one thing (Abbott typically over-egged it by saying troops should be sent in to operate it, which rather detracted from the “jobs” message). Creating a whole sector which displaces investment in greener, more efficient equivalents is something else.

There’s no need to ask whether such a policy is donor-driven or image-driven, because it’s both. It’s a further subordination of economic policy to culture wars, which in turn pays off via an increasingly strong relation with a narrow range of corporate donors. The Coalition is not going to suddenly do a leapfrog and become a client of big sun and big wind. The fact that this is unimaginable is a measure of how cultural- and class-defined the politics of energy are.

Yes, it’s the knowledge class again! Pencils at the ready cos this will be on the exam.

OK, when you live in an industrial society dominated by the two classes organised around wages and capital, the relationship between politics and scientific transformation is constrained within those classes — and it’s the organised working class that is often most supportive, because things like hydro dams etc offer new types of power that will help lift us out of capitalist relations and low wages.

It’s the bourgeoisie who want to restrain techno development, to control the falling rate of profit.

When you get a post-industrial economy and society based on rapidly transforming new tech, the political divide changes from the economic to the techno-cultural.

The big economic question is over — Labor won’t offer the socialisation of the 50 largest corporations — and so a struggle for recognition between the old working (and middle) classes and the rising knowledge class takes place.

What represents and signifies and extends the power of the knowledge class is the abstract capacity of science. For knowledge class people the idea of solar power — that its yield rate keeps climbing from repeated redesign, that energy comes from invisible abundance — is exciting and class-affirming. For some working people it may be the opposite: it’s a black box technology that abolishes work, and a way of being in the world through working, largely of an embodied physical character.

It reminds millions of people that they are now surplus to requirements.

So in this class-culture struggle, the settings switch. It is the working and some middle classes who come to identify with relatively more concrete activities — digging or piping stuff out of the ground — against the “exciting” world of new technologies.

Look across the world — at Trump, at Brexit, at the new right in Europe — and you’ll see that the great political divide is between the concrete and the abstract. The right understand this, even if it doesn’t have the language for it; the left does not, and it will continue to lose on such terrain until it learns a whole new way of thinking about it.

One hi-tech “bid” after another ain’t gonna do it; it’s a failure to understand the several things that pushing brown industries appeals to. The right comes into crisis with this politics — witness Trump on COVID and Brexit now — but that of itself will not bring it down.

Labor can only be the party of the big picture against such nihilistic politicking by posing the rational alternative. One sympathises with Fitzgibbon, but the light on the hill has to rise higher than the lit fart in the valley.

Peter Fray

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