What would President Bernie Sanders mean for Australia?

lorne franks
Feb 3 · 8 min read
“Bernie Sanders” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The US general election is scheduled to take place in November of this year, and the Democrats are about to begin their process for selecting their candidate for president. Polls close in the first contest of the season, the Iowa caucuses, at 12pm on 4 February AEST.

The front-runner Joe Biden is now running a dead heat with Bernie Sanders, the progressive senator from Vermont who ran a close race against Hilary Clinton for the nomination in 2016.

Sanders has surged in recent polls, and the Democratic Party establishment is increasingly worried, even “freaking out”.

He is now poised to win upset victories in one or both of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. These victories would likely build Sanders’ momentum against Biden, who is leading nationally, primarily on the grounds that he is the most ‘electable’ — a notion which will be undermined by losses in early states. Sanders may very well be the Democrats’ 2020 nominee, an outcome Trump reportedly fears.

In a year’s time, a self-professed socialist could be inaugurated as President of Australia’s closest ally.

Even if Sanders becomes President, won’t he be unable to pass any of his policies?

It is true that Sanders’ ability to implement these policies may be limited by forces outside his control. Even with the power of the office of President in his hands, Sanders would face massive resistance from not only Congress and the Supreme Court, but entrenched corporate interests, from the media, Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry, who are not shy about openly exerting their power against governments they perceive as a threat. Just ask Kevin Rudd about his attempt to introduce a modest tax on mining profits.

However, Bernie’s candidacy is more than an electoral campaign: it is a movement, one that will continue after his victory and support his agenda in office. Sanders, whose campaign slogan is “Not me, us,” says he is “gonna be organiser-in-chief” in the White House.

As Daniel Denvir recently wrote:

Sanders’ critics who say he would never be able to get much done simply haven’t been paying attention.

OK, but why should Australians care?

Firstly, let’s dispense with the argument that it doesn’t matter who is president of the United States. The Trump presidency shows that that is manifestly not the case, with the “Trump effect” writ large in foreign policy and in Australian domestic politics.

A Sanders presidency would have similarly far-reaching effects globally, not least in Australia — more so than the other Democratic candidates for president.

One obvious point of difference between Sanders and the other Democratic candidates is on foreign policy.

Australia has always been a willing partner to the US empire, and our soldiers now find themselves on the brink of yet another US-led “forever war” in Iran. Already, our Navy is assisting the US to patrol shipping lanes near Iran, and Prime Minister Morrison has as good as said he would agree to any requests to send troops to the region.

Bernie Sanders is the only Democratic candidate who has consistently opposed US war and intervention. This is perhaps why Sanders has attracted the most donations from military personnel of any presidential candidate, including Trump.

But arguably the greatest effect of a Sanders presidency on Australia will come through the up-ending of the stagnant politics of climate change, at home and abroad, through his bold suite of climate policies called the “Green New Deal”.

The Green New Deal involves a ten-year mobilisation and investment in building a green economy and dismantling the fossil fuel industry. It includes a plan not just to reduce domestic emissions but reduce emissions in the developing world, including through funds to transfer sustainable technology and assist in transitioning to renewable fuel sources. By ending fossil fuel exports from the US and funding and supporting the efforts of developing countries to shift to renewable energy, Sanders’ plan would reduce global demand for coal.

The Green New Deal is intended to not just address the climate crisis but also the crisis of inequality faced in the US. This will be achieved through a massive public investment in renewable energy, public housing construction, retrofitting existing homes, high-speed rail and other public transport, and public amenities like parks, reforestation and conservation efforts, and increasing the pay and numbers of people engaged in low-carbon care work; all of these issues will be ameliorated, creating a more liveable and equitable society for all.

Australian climate politics under President Sanders

Climate change is now front and centre in the minds of Australians due to the dry summer and catastrophic bushfires across Australia, making Australia ‘ground zero’ in this crisis.

Morrison’s response to the multiple bushfires currently burning across the south-east of the country has been deeply incompetent. Meanwhile, the government he leads, and much of the country’s media, are actively attempting to impede global efforts to combat climate change, as well as steer debate away from culpability or productive action.

Australia is enabling the continued fossil fuel dependency of developing countries. We are the world’s biggest exporter of coal, and the third-largest exporter of fossil fuels, worldwide; thanks in part to huge government subsidies for the mining industry. This needs to end if we are to stop the worst effects of climate change within the next 10 years.

For many, including myself, there is a strong temptation to give into climate despair as hope of a solution to this crisis is fading. If you feel this way, the prospect of President Bernie Sanders should give some hope that we may halt the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere at levels which will enable us to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

“Australia now is suffering from a terrible drought,” Sanders said in an April 2019 interview.

Every country on Earth is suffering. And it’s only going to get worse. It also is an opportunity to say, you know what? We gotta work together.

Scott Morrison might call this “negative globalism”, but a US president leading these efforts would make his government’s negligent actions even more politically untenable.

Whether or not Sanders is ultimately elected president, and whether or not he is successful in implementing all of his climate policies, Australia’s extreme weather will continue to worsen if drastic action is not taken right now. The costs of inaction are now due and payable.

Some have argued that it will be sufficient for us to use renewable energy at home, while continuing to mine and export huge quantities of coal to be burnt in other countries, including Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese. This is clearly nonsense. An existential, global threat requires a massive, global response; such as the one Sanders is proposing.

Critics will say that the relatively modest climate policies that Labor brought to the last election caused a huge landslide against Labor in Queensland electorates. How then is it politically feasible to achieve a more radical response?

Certainly, many working-class communities are understandably suspicious about the effects on jobs and livelihoods of all these grandiose-sounding plans. Labor has sought to bring these voters back into the fold by shifting to the right.

Sanders has a different response to win over voters who rely on fossil fuel production and exports for their livelihoods — he plans to ensure that these communities are not left behind by offering a “just transition”, which includes the payment of five years of affected workers’ current salaries, housing assistance and priority job placement. And his message is resonating amongst coal mining communities in Appalachia, already decimated by the increasing costs of coal-fired energy compared to renewable sources.

An Australian Green New Deal?

Australian needs to respond to this unprecedented crisis with a massive response akin to Sanders’ Green New Deal.

The idea of the Green New Deal, first proposed by popular 29-year-old Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, has spread to Australia. However, many of the proposals which have so far been floated by the mainstream actors in Australian politics are not likely to be effective either in stopping climate change or attracting widespread support.

Both former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and some in Labor have invoked the Green New Deal as the way forward for Australia. The Greens have also recently announced they are working on an Australian Green New Deal. However, they face a credibility gap in the electorate on any ‘just transition’ policies they may propose due to the damage done by the 2019 ‘Stop Adani’ caravan and their recent attacks against the left within the party

However, none of the Green New Deal proposals floated by the main parties proposes anything like the sort of structural changes to our economic system that are needed. In contrast, Sanders — an avowed socialist — has clearly drawn his Green New Deal model from ecosocialist climate policies. There should be no doubt on this point — the changes that have been wrought to our planet’s climate are a result of the massive growth of the capitalist world economy, particularly since the mid-twentieth century.

The appetite for climate action is palpable. The massive September climate protests and the IMARC blockade show that the movement was already building before the fires, and those demonstrations have started again in earnest in 2020. This massive domestic and global response to the government actions during the fires has already forced Morrison to (ever-so-slightly) soften the government’s position on climate change.

Leftists are beginning to grapple with how the movement will be constituted and what its aims will be, including whether the Green New Deal goes far enough or is merely a ‘greening’ of old systems of exploitation and repression.

Of critical importance is that any climate change response will need to closely involve Indigenous communities, for whom climate change is, as Philip Winzer writes in Overland, “merely the latest chapter in a long history of dispossession and destruction of our lands, waters and bodies”. Indigenous people are not only particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change but whose knowledge and stewardship of this country will be crucial to building climate change resilience.

The lessons of GetUp’s campaign to unseat conservatives and the trade union movement’s ‘Change the Rules’ campaign are that you cannot merely cater to an appetite for change without a clear goal and a strategy on how to achieve it. For a movement like this to succeed, it will need a clear, credible and radical vision for addressing climate change, that will restructure and democratise our economy, improve the lives of all Australians and leave no-one behind.

If Bernie Sanders is elected President, his greatest impact in Australia may be by providing a clear example of how this can be achieved.

lorne franks

Written by

Class actions lawyer based in Melbourne, proud Dad. Interested in politics, law, foreign policy and climate change.

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