A climate laggard no longer? Election result signals new momentum for climate action in Australia and region
The election result
Earlier this week, Australia elected a new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, and his centre-left Australian Labor Party (ALP). The historic result – only the fourth time the ALP has won government from opposition since World War II – ended nine years of rule by the conservative Liberal Party and their right-wing coalition partner, the National Party.
The election is a significant win for the Labor party, which at the time of writing received a 3.64% swing nationally and an astounding 10.2% swing in Western Australia. But arguably the most important dynamic was the high levels of support for the Greens party and for so-called ‘teal independents’: a group of independent candidates who campaigned for stronger climate action and integrity in politics. This group of candidates were described as ‘teal’ in recognition of the mixture of their blue ‘small-l’ liberal values and green environmentalism. The teal independents, most of whom are women, competed predominantly in inner-city seats traditionally held by the Liberal party.
Nine of these teal independents won their seats on Saturday and the Greens recorded their most successful election win to-date, gaining two seats in the lower house of parliament. Support for independents and the Greens marks a major shift away from the major parties, which both recorded record low shares of the first-party preferred vote (numbered first on the ballot in Australia’s preferential voting system).
The end of the climate wars?
When Albanese claimed in his victory speech that he would “end the climate wars”, he referred to the deep polarisation that has characterised Australian climate policy over the past decade. A major fossil fuel producer and exporter, Australia has struggled to reconcile the need for climate action with its economic reliance on fossil fuels. Australian politics is strongly influenced by a well-organised resources lobby, which has collaborated to stymy climate policy. Several political leaders from both parties lost their jobs while attempting to implement climate policies, which were highly politicised and often reversed. Australia is the only country in the world, for example, to have implemented and later repealed an emissions trading scheme.
After the last election in 2019, it seemed the climate wars were far from over. Dubbed the ‘climate election’, Labor offered a package of ambitious climate reforms, but was defeated in a surprise victory for the Coalition (of the Liberal and National parties). Labor’s unclear stance on the construction of the controversial Adani thermal coal mine became a key issue in the campaign: it prevaricated in support for the mine in an attempt to please both inner-city voters and workers in coal regions. Labor later lost support in fossil-fuel dependent regions, particularly in Queensland, and the Adani issue was seen by the party as having alienated blue-collar voters.
Climate was therefore a wedge issue – dividing progressive and working-class voters – for the Labor party in the last election. But now, climate change has also wedged the Liberals: in their commitment to fossil fuel production, they alienated inner-city voters while trying to appeal to mining communities. This election result better reflects the results of several national surveys, which found widespread support for stronger climate policy across all parts of Australia. A consensus may be emerging on the need for climate action, to prepare for the transition, and to seize economic opportunities in a decarbonising global economy.
Next steps for climate policy in Australia
Until now, Australia has dragged its feet on climate policy on the global stage. It was the only developed country to fail to increase its 2030 emissions target at COP26 in Glasgow and was one of the last countries to set a target of net zero emissions by 2050. Australia’s policy to achieve this target have been criticised for several reasons: the plan relies emissions abatement from technologies not yet invented and was developed alongside plans to increase production of coal and gas.
Drawing lessons from its 2019 loss, the Labor party did not bring strongly ambitious climate policies to the 2022 election. Nevertheless, it will introduce a 2030 target to reduce emissions by 43% on a 2005 baseline. This is major improvement on the Coalition’s 26-28% target, but is less ambitious than 2030 targets by other advanced economies. Labor’s plan to achieve the target, called ‘Powering Australia’, includes $20bn investment in grid upgrades to support the rollout of renewables, a subsidy for electric cars, and using the existing Safeguard Mechanism policy to reduce emissions in industry.
Arguably, the 2022 election result provides a mandate for Labor to increase the ambition of this policy agenda and it may come under pressure to do so. Teal independents, who campaigned for a 60% reduction in emissions by 2030, are likely to lobby the government to move harder and faster. It is also likely that Labor will need the support of the Greens to pass legislation in the Senate (the upper house of Parliament). Greens Senators may seek to leverage stronger climate action in exchange for support for non-climate legislation.
Implications for the Pacific region
Albanese comes to power at a time of heightened tensions in the Pacific region and when relations with China, Australia’s biggest trading partner, have reached a low ebb. Since 2019, China has imposed an informal import ban on Australian exports. During the campaign, it was revealed that the Solomon Islands had signed a security pact with China, that could allow China to send military forces to the Solomon Islands and would have serious implications for any future conflict between China and the US. Australia, through mechanisms like the AUKUS agreement and the Quad alliance, is seeking to fortify its alliances in an increasingly competitive region.
Stronger climate action could be a means to do so. Before the election, Albanese commented that “one of the ways we [Australia] increase our standing in the region, and in particular in the Pacific, is by taking climate change seriously”. Australia’s Pacific neighbours, many of whom face existential risks from climate change, have been sharply critical of Australia’s lack of climate policy. In 2020 a group of fourteen Pacific leaders sent an open letter to former Prime Minister Scott Morrison, urging Australia to commit to a net zero target. Australia was also accused of trying to water down the language of the Boe Declaration, which describes climate change as “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the people of the Pacific”. Albanese has already signaled a change in posture on climate and the Pacific. His government aims to establish a Pacific Climate Infrastructure Financing Partnership with Pacific countries and will bid to host a future UN climate change conference in partnership with Pacific neighbours.
Australian climate policy over the past decade has been beset by political vitriol, misinformation, and missed opportunities – and this is unlikely to end overnight. The next years will be fraught, as Australia grapples with the challenge of implementing climate policy in a context of inflationary pressures on the cost of living and higher interest rates. Nevertheless, this election marks a tectonic shift in Australian climate policy, towards a shaky consensus on the need for action. With any luck, Australia can mend its international reputation as a climate laggard, and begin to work more closely with its Pacific partners on this existential challenge for the region.