This morning, as a new parliament begins sitting in Canberra, some of the oldest living organisms on the planet (a stand of majestic, 500-year-old Douglas fir trees) are dying. One of those trees first germinated in 1538 and a vivid pattern of yearly growth rings reveal its subsequent life. These have, however, now shrunk to their lowest level ever, strangled by as the stress of the changing environment around it. America's west is drying; the lakes are running out of water; and the plants are dying. Today.
For this tree, promises to cut emissions in a decades time are already irrelevant, even if they were even vaguely plausible.
This environmental crisis is now, it is unprecedented, and it is existential.
Britain is recovering from the highest temperatures ever recorded while mainland Europe remains locked in the grip of dry heat. Glaciers that were laid down in the Alps thousands of years ago, before civilisation began, are melting. Drought is strangling Africa while the hottest temperatures on earth are now being recorded in Asia.
Without recognising this it's impossible to understand the new political world that begins this morning in Canberra. This is the reason the coalition lost the last election. Not because Anthony Albanese's plodding, pugilistic style somehow outmanoeuvred the dancing footwork of Scott Morrison, and not because the electorate wanted some new shiny policies promised by Labor. Underlying the voters' determination to boot out the former government was a realisation that climate change is here, now.
In the two months since that vote an understanding of this reality has crystallised in the minds of the voters. This offers Labor a chance to seize this new political mood and introduce new policies to banish the climate wars forever. There is, however, no indication Albanese has the political courage and dexterity to do this, because he still doesn't appear to realise the package of half-measures it took to the election isn't going to be enough to deal with the new world he's inheriting.
Today, with pomp and pageantry, parliament will sit for the first time since the election. It will be Albanese's moment. That positive vibe will, however, quickly vanish because the challenge this government faces is existential. Climate change is no longer simply a great moral challenge - it's a practical one. It's shifted from the realm of the abstract to become the reality of our daily lives. It won't be solved by adopting targets for a vague date sometime in the future when the government will have changed. It demands action now. What's missing is any evidence that Labor recognises this.
The reality of what occurred on May 21 is about to register for three very different groups of people.
It will be worst for the opposition. The next six years will be, for them, a purgatory, as they come to grips with this new reality. With the props of government kicked away from under him, Peter Dutton will not survive. He will quickly shrink into irrelevance. The scorched-earth strategy of complete opposition adopted under Tony Abbott will not work to return them to government again. Both the Liberals and, quite separately the Nationals, will need to discover what they actually stand for.
The parties will undergo a fierce reckoning coming to terms with the reality that they have lost the climate wars. Their old answers, based on simple denial, will no longer cut through to an electorate that can witness for themselves how the environment is undeniably changing. Without an effective policy addressing climate change the opposition represents nothing more than a collection of irrelevant placeholders.
Yet there is no guarantee that Labor has come to terms with this reality either.
The reservoir of support the new PM currently enjoys will rapidly bleed away with every successive misstep. Based on his past performance these will accumulate quickly. His career so far hasn't been marked by a capacity to manoeuvre. Because he's naturally slow and careful, Albanese risks being perceived as a plodder, stuck in the past. Unless he can rapidly demonstrate the ability to come up with plausible answers to the problems of today, he too will need to watch his back. He didn't so much win the election as (barely) fall over the line, as the numbers will show when the House sits.
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Being Prime Minister is not just about being a lovely bloke.
Labor has three others who will be similarly attempting to make their mark as future leaders.
Jim Chalmers will face a excoriating baptism as he sits on the government benches for the first time as Treasurer.
His predecessor in that job, Chris Bowen, is still ambitious for himself and will be out to prove that he's worthy of a bigger job.
Albanese's long-time factional enemy, Tanya Plibersek, will similarly be effortlessly demonstrating that she is capable of putting together detailed policy and worthy of a bigger job. In harness together these three form a powerhouse capable of pulling the PM ahead. If they head in different ways, however, any divergence will become rapidly apparent.
This is why policy agreement is so important.
Unless the government achieves a coherent approach to dealing with climate change the new parliamentarians; the people that actually decisively won the last election - independents and Greens - will rapidly expose the fractures in Albanese's antiquated approach. His challenge is to find a way of incorporating them into his world. This will go against every fibre of his being and all his past political experience but, as a glance at the temperatures being recorded around the world shows, this is a new world. It's a new reality. It requires a new sort of politics.
COVID, war, inflation and rising food prices are the new horsemen of the apocalypse. They are inextricably linked to the changing climate. Attempting to solve these problems without dealing with this underlying cause will be futile and tangential.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
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