Most people seem to think that the Coalition parties are so enthusiastic about the continuation of the fossil fuel industry solely because, firstly, that industry gives them bucketloads of money to act as mouthpieces, and secondly because they are wedded to climate change denial. While these are prominent reasons, there is also another one and that is because it provides a political wedge.
The term ‘wedge politics’ is often attributed to the tactics of Ronald Reagan’s political adviser, Lee Atwater, who used a more divisive and aggressive form of campaigning in American politics. These tactics involved targeting unpopular social issues or stigmatised groups as a way of defining ‘mainstream politics’ and linking political opponents to their support of these issues or groups. By doing so, the tactics of wedge politics deliberately aim at undermining the support base of political opponents as a way to gain political ascendancy or to control the political agenda. In racially and socially divided America, the climate for pursuing wedge tactics has been very favourable for the Republican Party. Elsewhere, too, social and economic divisions have created new opportunities for political tacticians to harness resentment towards minorities as a means of extracting political advantage. While the tactics of ‘divide and rule’ in politics aren’t new, wedge politics, represents a more calculated and sophisticated means of achieving division1. It has been used in a sophisticated way by the Liberal Party in Australia ever since the prime ministership of John Howard, and it is now being used by the Morrison government by using coal mining communities.
If the Australian federal government was genuine and looked at all the statistics about the decline of coal, they would very quickly realise that coal is finished, and this does not only include thermal coal, which is used to generate electricity2. Metallurgical coal (also called coking coal), which is used to make steel, is also under threat, as the Hybrit initiative in Sweden has recently produced 100 tonnes of iron using hydrogen, thereby eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from the steel-making process3,4.
The federal government has made a feeble attempt to indicate we will have a gas-led recovery from the ‘Covid-19 recession’ (it began long before the pandemic hit), and as part of that, it announced a gas-fired power station for Kurri-Kurri. However, this is not so much a wedge, but a way of handing taxpayer funds mostly to Liberal Party donors, as it will eventually employ very few people5-8.
While everybody knows that the government is replete with climate change deniers, it is becoming clear that it is the National Party which is the most strident in that denial, especially now Barnaby Joyce has regained the parliamentary leadership of the party. This is because the National Party are even more dependent on money from those involved in the fossil fuel industry, having long ago jettisoned any concern for the future of farming families. This is made clearer in recent times by the divergence of attitudes to climate change between the National Party and the of the National Farmers Federation9.
While the government often refers to jobs in coal mines and coal mining areas, their concern for coal jobs is only a façade. It is consistent with their denialism and their refusal to embrace renewables or to have a transition plan for coal-mining communities in New South Wales and Queensland, it has an extra benefit for the government. Making the coal communities more uncertain about employment and deeply worried about their future is a perfect way to wedge the Labor Party. The Labor Party are hardly likely to say coal is dead and that your employment is in terminal decline, when there is no plan to transition these coal communities from coal mining to something else, such as renewables. That is why the Labor Party keeps vacillating with regard to coal mining, and Joel Fitzgibbon constantly makes a fool of himself.