Climate Could Change the Course of Australia’s Election

Giant billboards featuring the face of Australia’s treasurer, Josh Frydenberg of the Liberal Party, loom over busy intersections across the affluent electoral division of Kooyong, which covers several inner Melbourne suburbs. An army of volunteers has begun door knocking in support Monique Ryan (an independent candidate). Monique, a pediatric neurologist, is promising to reduce emissions even more as she approaches the federal election on May 21. Ryan campaign signs can be seen outside most homes. Many dogs wear bandanas that have her name on. Teal is used to combine Liberal Party blue with the Greens Party’s color.

The battle in Kooyong will be repeated among electorates across the country as independent candidates—who promise to tackle climate change—vie with members of the Liberal Party. The major party in Australia’s ruling coalition stands accused of failing to take meaningful action on the issue.

“I would really like to see a number of [independents] get in and hold whichever party gets into power to account,” says Stacey Cleary, a 35-year-old research physiotherapist, who has been wearing a Ryan t-shirt to drop her kids off at school and pick up groceries for the last few months. “When we’re talking about climate change, it’s an emergency.”

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About 20 so-called “teal independents” are running in seats traditionally held by Liberal politicians in some of Australia’s richest electorates. They are overwhelmingly women and have been supported by community members, who handed out flyers and knocked on doors. They’ve also received millions of dollars in funding from individual donors and Climate 200, a group set up by Simon Holmes à Court, the son of Australia’s first billionaire and a clean-energy investor. According to the organization, it will support candidates who are dedicated to science-based responses to climate crises, as well as restoring political integrity and gender equality.

The 20 potential candidates may shake up Australian politics. “The more independents that have a progressive platform on climate policy in parliament, the greater the chances for good climate change policy outcomes,” says Frank Jotzo, a professor at the Australian National University, where he directs the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy.

Australia is behind in climate action

The Australian political landscape is controlled by the two main parties, the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. Whichever party gets a majority—76 of 151 seats in the House of Representatives—forms a government, and the party’s leader becomes prime minister. One party must form a coalition to get a majority if it does not win. The coalition currently in power is the Liberal Party with the small, conservative National Party. These parties typically represent farmers and voters from the region. The Greens currently have one seat in this House.

The government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison—who is a member of the Liberal Party and in 2017 brought a softball-size lump of coal into parliament to taunt the opposition party over its renewable energy plans—has pumped tens of millions of dollars into new gas projects and has steadfastly supported the continued use of coal, even as much of the developed world focuses on transitioning away from fossil fuels.

Australia is one of the world’s leading exporters of coal and natural gas. Tallying those exports with domestic consumption makes the country responsible for about 5% of global emissions—the world’s fifth-largest emitter, according to Climate Analytics. It set a net zero goal for 2050, but it refused to establish a more severe interim target due to the apocalyptic floods and bushfires that have decimated the country over recent years. Malcolm Turnbull of the Liberal Party was a former Prime Minister and is a strong advocate for climate change.

Learn More Australia’s Bushfires Burned an Area Twice the Size of Florida. Climate Change Means That’s Just the Beginning

Anthony Albanese’s opposition Labor Party has pledged tougher climate goals than the Liberal Party and stated that it would support grid investments and tax reductions on electric cars. Albanese, however, has promised support for new coal mines, as a way to win blue-collar votes.

Some polls have shown that Australia’s number one concern is climate, but it’s not something the major parties mention during campaigning. “It’s become politically unpalatable for either of the major parties to actually take any action. I think the only way we’re going to see action is through independents,” says Kate Chaney, who is running as an independent in the electoral division of Curtin in Western Australia.

In many of the electorates for which teal independents are running, voters “would never vote for Labor, but they might vote for these people who look and present like old school Liberals—concern for business, concern for general living standards and maintaining the capitalist system—but they’re concerned about climate,” says Stewart Jackson, an expert on Australian politics at the University of Sydney.

Gender, Integrity and Climate Policy

Many of the independent candidates also promise to do work on gender equality and integrity if they’re elected. In 2021, anger swelled against the Morrison government’s response to accusations of rape and sexism in governement, leading to large marches across the country.

“Every woman is secretly seething underneath, because the current Liberal-National government is so revolting with their attitude towards women,” says Traude Beilharz, a 54-year-old biomedical research scientist who will be voting for Ryan in the Kooyong electorate.

There are also deep-rooted issues of integrity at national politics. Transparency International placed Australia at the bottom of its Corruption Perceptions Index in January 2012. It was ranked number 77, which is a measure of global anti-corruption efforts. An IPCC report from earlier in the year pointed out Australia’s success with climate change lobbying.

Learn More Mike Cannon-Brookes: Australia could be a green superpower

“If we had real integrity in politics, we would have good climate policy,” says Holmes à Court. “On issues like climate change, we basically know what we need to do, but we’re not doing it…. Because of the vested interests controlling the political system.”

Climate ActionAnd Australian politics

Current government leaders worry that the race between Labor Party (Liberal) and Labor Party will prove close. Frydenberg stated that he is fighting for his political life. Morrison has warned that voting for independents could throw parliament into “chaos and uncertainty.”

Indeed, polls suggest that independents have a chance to knock Liberal politicians out of several seats—and climate change might be why. “Climate is definitely one of the most important—if not the most important—issue in the electorate,” says Zoe Daniel, a former Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist who is running as an independent in Goldstein in Melbourne’s southeast. Some 6 in 10 Australians say “global warming is a serious and pressing problem,” and that the country “should begin taking steps now, even if this involves significant costs,” according to a 2021 poll by the think-tank the Lowy Institute.

It’s possible neither of the major parties will get a majority, and deals will have to be struck with independents or other minor party candidates to form a government.

“If independents end up holding the balance of power, then I think there’s an opportunity to really bring [climate change] to the fore in terms of commitments, as a prerequisite to form government,” says Chaney. “But even if independents don’t hold the balance of power, I think it can change the conversation by having those voices in parliament, asking questions, and setting the agenda.”

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