Climate Could Change the Direction of Australia’s Elections

GA large billboard featuring the face of Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg of the Liberal Party looms at a busy intersection across the affluent electoral division of Kooyong, which includes several suburbs of inner Melbourne. But an army of volunteers is knocking on doors to rally support for independent candidate Monique Ryan, a pediatric neurologist who promises tougher emission reduction targets as the May 21 federal election approaches. Ryan’s campaign signs are hung outside many homes, and some dogs even wear bandanas with their names on them. The fabric square is teal, combining the Liberal Party blue and the Green Party colours.

The battle at Kooyong will repeat itself among voters across the country as independent candidates, vowing to tackle climate change, compete with members of the Liberal Party. The major parties in Australia’s ruling coalition are accused of failing to take meaningful action on the issue.

“I’d really like to see some [independents] step in and hold any party in power to account,” said Stacey Cleary, a 35-year-old research physiotherapist, who has worn Ryan’s t-shirt to take her kids to school and pick up groceries for the past few years. month. “When we talk about climate change, this is an emergency.”

Read more: Window for Adapting to Climate Change ‘Quickly Closing’, warns IPCC

About 20 so-called “teal independents” are running for seats traditionally held by Liberal politicians in some of Australia’s richest voters. Most of the candidates are women, and they have received a wave of support from community members who have distributed flyers and knocked on doors. They have also received millions of dollars in funding from individual donors and Climate 200, the group formed by Simon Holmes Court, son of Australia’s first billionaire and clean energy investor. The organization says it supports political candidates committed to a science-based response to the climate crisis, restoring political integrity and advancing gender equality.

These 20 candidates could destabilize politics in Australia. “The more independents who have a progressive platform on climate policy in parliament, the greater the chance for good climate change policy outcomes,” said Frank Jotzo, a professor at the Australian National University, where he leads the Center for Climate and Energy Policy.


Australia lags behind in climate action

Australian politics is dominated by two major parties: the centre-right Liberal Party and the centre-left Labor Party. Whichever party has a majority—76 of the 151 seats in the House of Representatives—forms the government, and the leader of the party becomes prime minister. If no one gets a majority, then they must form a coalition with a smaller party. The current government is a coalition of the Liberal Party and the smaller conservative National Party, which usually represents farmers and regional voters. The Green Party currently has only one seat in the DPR.

The government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is a member of the Liberal Party and in 2017 brought a lump of coal the size of a softball to parliament to mock the opposition over its renewable energy plans, has poured tens of millions of dollars into new gas projects and steadfastly supports the sustainable use of coal. , even as most developed countries focus on transitioning away from fossil fuels.

Australia is one of the world’s leading exporters of coal and natural gas. Counting those exports against domestic consumption makes the country responsible for about 5% of global emissions—the world’s fifth-largest emitter, according to Climate Analytics. Despite setting a net zero target of 2050, he has refused to set a tougher interim target, despite apocalyptic bushfires and floods ravaging the country in recent years. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, of the Liberal Party, who is an advocate for climate action, said this month that moderate voices in the Liberal Party had diminished on issues such as climate action.

Read more: Australian Wildfires Burn an Area Twice the Size of Florida. Climate Change Means It’s Just the Beginning

The opposition Labor Party, led by Anthony Albanese, has promised tougher climate targets than the Liberals, and said it would support investment in the power grid and tax cuts on electric cars. But, in a bid to win over blue-collar voters, Albanese has also pledged to support new coal mines.

Although some polls show climate as the number one issue for Australian voters, it was rarely mentioned by the major parties during the campaign. “It becomes politically inconvenient for one of the major parties to actually take any action. I think the only way we’re going to see action is through the independents,” said Kate Chaney, who is running as an independent in Curtin’s electoral division in Western Australia.

In many electorates elected by independents, voters “would never vote for the Labor Party, but they might vote for these people who look and appear like old school Liberals—concern for business, concern for the general standard of living, and maintenance of the capitalist system. —but they worry about the climate,” says Stewart Jackson, an expert on Australian politics at the University of Sydney.


Integrity, gender and climate policy

Many independent candidates have also pledged to work on gender equality and integrity if they are elected. In 2021, anger swelled at the Morrison government’s response to allegations of rape and sexism in government, leading to massive marches across the country.

“Every woman is quietly boiling under him, because the current Liberal-National government is so rebellious with their attitude towards women,” said Traude Beilharz, the 54-year-old biomedical research scientist who will vote for Ryan in the Kooyong electorate.

Furthermore, there are deep integrity issues at the national political level. In January, Transparency International gave Australia its worst rating since 2012 on the Corruption Perceptions Index, a global measure of anti-corruption efforts, for its failure to establish a federal anti-corruption commission (although each state does run one). Meanwhile, an IPCC report earlier this year named Australia as a country where lobbying by the fossil fuel industry has succeeded in tackling frustrating climate action.

Read more: Australia could become a green superpower, says Mike Cannon-Brookes

“If we have real integrity in politics, we will have good climate policies,” said Holmes Court. “On issues like climate change, we basically know what we need to do, but we don’t do it…. Because vested interests control the political system.”


Climate Action and Australian politics

The fight between the Liberals and Labor is likely to be intense, and current government leaders are worried. Frydenberg said he was in the political battle of his life. Morrison has warned that voting independently could expose parliament to “chaos and uncertainty.”

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

There is a chance that neither of the major parties will get a majority, and an agreement will have to be reached with independent candidates or other smaller parties to form a government.

“If the independents end up holding the balance of power, then I think there’s a chance to actually bring [climate change] comes to the fore in terms of commitment, as a precondition for forming a government,” Chaney said. “But even if the independents don’t have a 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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Write to Amy Gunia at amy.gunia@time.com.

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