The climate could change the course of the Australian elections


gGiant billboards featuring the face of Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg of the Liberal Party dominate busy intersections in the affluent constituency of Kooyong, which spans several inner suburbs of Melbourne. But an army of volunteers is going door-to-door to rally support for independent candidate Monique Ryan, a pediatric neurologist who is promising tougher emissions reduction targets ahead of the May 21 federal election. Ryan’s campaign signs hang outside many homes, and some dogs even sport bandanas bearing his name. The fabric squares are teal in color, combining the Liberal Party blue and the Green Party color.

The battle in Kooyong will be repeated among voters across the country as independent candidates – who promise to fight climate change – compete with members of the Liberal Party. Australia’s main ruling coalition party is accused of failing to take meaningful action on the issue.

“I would really like to see a number of [independents] come in and hold the party that takes power to account,” says Stacey Cleary, a 35-year-old research physiotherapist, who wears a Ryan t-shirt to drop her kids off at school and run errands lately. month. “When we talk about climate change, it’s an emergency.”

Read more: Climate change adaptation window is ‘closing fast’, warns IPCC

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

These 20 candidates could shake up politics in Australia. “The more independents who have a progressive platform on climate policy in parliament, the greater the chance of getting good results on climate change policy,” says Frank Jotzo, a professor at the Australian National University, where he directs the Center for Climate and Energy Policy.

Australia lags behind on climate action

Australian politics is dominated by two major parties: the centre-right Liberal Party and the centre-left Labor Party. Whichever party wins the majority – 76 of the 151 seats in the House of Representatives – forms a government and the leader of the party becomes prime minister. If neither of the two obtains a majority, a coalition must be formed with a minor party. The current government is a coalition between the Liberal Party and the smaller conservative National Party, which generally represents farmers and regional voters. The Greens currently hold only one seat in the House.

The government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison – who is a member of the Liberal Party and in 2017 introduced a softball-sized lump of coal into Parliament to taunt the opposition party over its renewable energy plans – has injected tens of millions of dollars into new gas projects and has strongly supported the continued use of coal, even as much of the developed world focuses on the transition from fossil fuels.

Australia is one of the world’s leading exporters of coal and natural gas. If these exports are added to domestic consumption, the country is responsible for around 5% of global emissions, the fifth largest emitter in the world, according to Climate Analytics. Although he set a net zero target for 2050, he refused to set a stricter interim target, despite the apocalyptic bushfires and floods that have devastated 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 within the Liberal Party have declined on issues such as climate action.

Read more: Australia’s bushfires have scorched an area twice the size of Florida. Climate change means it’s just the beginning

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

Although some polls show the climate to be the number one issue for Australian voters, it is rarely mentioned by major parties during campaigns. “It has become politically unpalatable for either major party to take 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 Curtin constituency in Western Australia.

In many electorates for which teal independents are running, voters “would never vote for Labour, but they could vote for these people who look and present themselves as old-school liberals – concern for business, concern for the level of general life and maintenance of the capitalist system”. – but they are concerned about the climate,” says Stewart Jackson, an Australian policy expert at the University of Sydney.

Integrity, gender and climate policy

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

“Every woman is secretly bubbling under, because the current Liberal-National government is so revolting with its attitude towards women,” says Traude Beilharz, a 54-year-old biomedical researcher who will vote for Ryan in the Kooyong electorate.

In addition, there are deep-seated integrity issues at the national political level. In January, Transparency International gave Australia its worst ranking since 2012 on its Corruption Perceptions Index, a global measure of anti-corruption efforts, for its failure to establish a federal anti-corruption commission ( although some states operate such commissions). Meanwhile, an IPCC report earlier this year called Australia one of the countries where fossil fuel industry lobbying has succeeded in thwarting climate action.

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

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

Climate action and Australian politics

The race between the Liberal Party and the Labor Party promises to be tight and the current leaders of the government are worried. Frydenberg said he was in for the political fight of his life. Morrison warned that voting for independents could plunge Parliament into “chaos and uncertainty”.

Indeed, polls suggest independents have a chance of toppling Liberal politicians by multiple seats – and climate change could be the reason. “The climate is certainly one of the biggest, if not the biggest, issues in the electorate,” says Zoe Daniel, a former Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist who runs as a freelance in Goldstein, in the south-west. east of Melbourne. According to a 2021 poll by think tank Lowy Institute, around 6 in 10 Australians say “global warming is a serious and urgent problem” and that the country “should start taking action now, even if it means significant costs”.

It is possible that none of the main parties will win a majority, and agreements will have to be reached with independent candidates or other candidates from minor parties 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] in the forefront in terms of commitments, as a precondition for the formation of a government,” says Chaney. “But even if the 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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Write to Amy Gunia at amy.gunia@time.com.


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