Climate-Focused Independents Upended Australia’s Election

Ballots are still being counted from the May 21 election, but it’s already clear that Australians delivered a stunning rebuke of the ruling conservative Liberal-National coalition government, which had refused to take meaningful action on climate change.

Not only did voters replace Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the Liberal Party with Anthony Albanese, of the center-left Labor Party, who has promised tougher emissions targets, but they also put in power several so-called “teal” independents. The name of their party combines both the conservative fiscal policies of the Liberal Party with which many of them shared and the green of climate change action.

About 20 teal independents–mostly women–ran in seats traditionally held by Liberal politicians in some of Australia’s richest electorates. They promised their constituents that they’d take a science-based response to the climate crisis. Teal Independents demand stronger emission reductions than Labor Party. They campaigned with a pledge to cut national greenhouse gas emissions 43% by 2030.

Australians live on the frontlines for climate change. In recent years, the country has been hit hard by deadly floods and devastating bushfires. The teal independents have had remarkable success in this context. The teal independents, which included high-profile politicians such as Josh Frydenberg and Josh Smyth, won at least five seats.

The change in government offers a glimmer of hope for Australia’s climate policies. The Morrison government pumped tens of millions of dollars into a “gas-led” recovery from the pandemic, and said that coal power stations should run “as long as they possibly can.” Morrison even brought a lump of coal into parliament in 2017 to promote the dirty fuel. His government’s commitment to a 2050 net-zero target was viewed skeptically by many around the world, with critics saying it was too little, too late.

“Climate action is the winner of this election,” advocacy group the Climate Council wrote in a post-election analysis. “Millions of Australians put climate first at the ballot box, and the politicians who dragged their heels on the most important challenge of our time are paying a price for that.”

While it might take some time to establish the final makeup of parliament, however, the Liberal/National coalition government remains in power. While the Labor Party holds 74 of the total 151 House of Representatives seat, it’s not certain if it can secure a majority of 76. The Labor Party will be forced to combine with other minor parties or independents if that happens. The outcome will determine just how much influence the teal independents will have on the country’s climate policies.

Either way, it’s clear that Australians will no longer stand for a government that won’t act on climate change. TIME spoke to businesswoman Allegra Spender, a teal independent who won the seat of Wentworth, covering Sydney’s wealthy eastern suburbs. Here’s what she has to say about how Australia can go from a climate laggard to a renewable energy superpower. This interview has been edited to ensure clarity and length.

TIME: What made the teal independents win this election?

Spender. They succeeded because they were truly community-led, and really listened to community concerns. People were dissatisfied with government for many reasons. Teal Independents did listen and developed policies that truly reflected those views. Climate was a part of that, it wasn’t the only part of it, but it was a very significant part.

Was there anything you heard from your voters about climate action they would like to see?

They demand climate action over the coming decade. The government in Australia had committed to net-zero by 2050, but many people didn’t trust them. And I think the science has been very clear that it’s actually the next decade that really counts. Climate action was needed now, and people wanted to be accountable for it.

There were some huge storm surges at Bondi Beach. We had one in the lead up to the campaign, where effectively there wasn’t a beach. The whole beach was destroyed by the hurricane. … Wentworth, which covers Bondi and Bronte Beach, is very much a coastal electorate. People have seen it live, there’s a real impact in Wentworth.

Australian voters clearly stated that they desire to see climate change action taken. Now what?

A goal for myself and some other independents and the Greens Party is increasing the Labor Party’s ambition. Labor’s ambition is to cut emissions by 43% by 2030. This should be increased. By 2030, it should have a minimum of 50% decrease.

It’s not just ambition, it’s the policies that underpin it, which are actually more important because that will determine ultimately what happens. For instance, I would like to see them adopt new policies like emission standards for vehicles, because currently Australia doesn’t have emission standards for vehicles, which means that we get some of the dirtiest vehicles in the world sent to Australia.

Australia’s political hot topic is climate change. several prime ministersClimate issues have thrown them out of their place. In his victory speech, Albanese said that Australia now has an opportunity to end the “Klimakriege.” Is this time really different?

It is, I believe. If you examine the math of the House of Representatives, it is clear that every vote lost by the Coalition went to the Left. The crossbench now includes independents that demand strong climate action from traditional Coalition seats. These seats won’t go back in the next election if the Coalition doesn’t move on climate change.

Labor will need to have a small majority to keep government in place. It will have to also work closely with all crossbench members.

The Coalition will have to either work with me or get them back if it wants to form government. Strong climate action will also be required if it is to make a future coalition.

What else needs to happen for Australia to become a “renewable energy superpower”?

Confidence and being able to seize the moment are key components of this approach. Australia is equipped with the necessary natural resources and quality to accomplish this. We need more ambition and commitment.

We will be a superpower in clean energy if we can unlock business investment. Business is desperate for policy certainty, but I believe it’s not possible.

What was the moment you decided to run for office?

It was in the lead up to COP26 that it became very clear that the Coalition wasn’t willing to do what was required. For me, that was the final nail in my coffin. If they had done something reasonable, I probably wouldn’t have run. The fact they were unwilling to make any changes was what it was. They wanted to stay with the old targets. There was no strategy or credibility behind this. I just thought, “It’s unacceptable and I have to run.”

Your grandfather and dad were Liberal Party members. What motivated you to become an independent candidate?

My honest opinion is that the Liberal Party has moved on from its former position. That’s what my father says as well. There’s no reason climate should be an area that is left or right. It’s a question of science. It is also a matter of economics. It isn’t a matter of ideology.

In this country, we’re incredibly lucky that the economics is actually with decarbonization, and the science is unambiguous. We’ve gotta take it out of being a culture war and back into a conversation of just how we do this.

Also, there just aren’t enough women in parliament, and that is a big driver for me as well. I’m the daughter of a feminist who ran her own business when women didn’t have businesses. The conservatives, over 25 years, they’ve never had more than 25% women in the House of Representatives. It’s basically been stuck at 23% for the last 25 years. I just think that’s unacceptable in this day and age. It’s time to create a Parliament that is representative of our country.

Do the Australian events have to be interpreted as a warning signal for other governments about their inaction on climate change?

Some of my team members have been contacted by people from other countries saying, “Can we replicate this?” So I believe that there’s an opportunity for this idea of proper community representation, really listening to the community understanding it, I think there’s a significant opportunity for that.

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