The climate champions hoping to play kingmaker in Australia’s election
When record-breaking bushfires tore through much of eastern Australia in late 2019, Melbourne resident Carolyn Glascodine suffered a severe bout of depression. “I was in despair,” the 58-year-old editor says. “I literally couldn’t get out of bed.”
For years she says she watched Australia’s conservative Liberal-National government brush aside warnings of climate scientists and continue to back fossil fuel extraction and carbon-intensive industry.
The bushfires, which destroyed towns and cloaked Sydney and Melbourne in smoke for weeks, showed her what was at stake in a country that is both rich in fossil fuels and unusually exposed to the worst effects of global warming.
“Nothing was changing,” she says. “I’d never been involved in politics before, but I had to do something.”
Glascodine, who lives in the wealthy electoral district of Goldstein on the edge of Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay, joined a local group of like-minded people and began searching for an independent candidate to run at the next election.
A gruelling interview process led them to Zoe Daniel, a former television journalist, who was persuaded to run on a platform of strong climate action, anti-corruption and gender equality. Now, with a general election set for May 21, polls suggest Daniel is a serious contender in this once safe Liberal seat.
Daniel is one of more than 20 climate-focused “teal independents”, so-called for the colour of their branding, a shade somewhere between conservative blue and environmentalist green. These mostly female independents hope to win in wealthy, traditionally conservative seats and end a decade of what they see as inaction on climate change in Australia.
For many critics, Australia has been a laggard on climate issues. The country’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are among the highest in the world, on a par with those of Saudi Arabia. It has no national carbon price, electric vehicle incentives or fuel standards. It has continued to expand its huge fossil fuel extraction sectors, promoted coal and gas power over renewables, and undermined international climate negotiations.
Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction targets, at 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels, are among the least ambitious of any developed nation. The UK’s 2030 target, by comparison, is 68 per cent, the EU’s is 55 per cent and the US’s is 50 to 52 per cent.
This perceived negligence comes not only from the ruling Liberal-National coalition, whose ranks of lawmakers and supporters are riddled with climate change deniers, but also from an opposition Labor party whose current environmental platform has been criticised by activists and business leaders as unambitious.
Yet after years of record heatwaves, extreme droughts and wildfires, Australian voters of every stripe increasingly see climate change as a priority. A recent poll by the Lowy Institute found overwhelming support for strong climate action, even in the coal-rich regions of New South Wales and Queensland. Three-quarters of Australians agreed the benefits of taking action on climate change outweighed the costs.
“It’s a majority view in rural Australia in every state that [the country] needs to take urgent and pressing action on climate change,” says Natasha Kassam, director of the Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program at the Lowy Institute. “This is one of the examples where political rhetoric is out of step with the public.”
With polls suggesting a hung parliament is likely, the teal independents could become “kingmakers” for the next Australian government if they take enough seats. They see this election as an opportunity to alert the major parties that the political winds have changed on this crucial issue.
“The current government’s emissions targets are woeful, but I think it’s more than that,” says Daniel. “Climate change has been weaponised as a political issue in this country for so long, I think the government has lost the capacity to see that it is a huge issue for our future prosperity and safety.”
The right’s climate wars
The sustained offensive waged by Australia’s conservative parties on climate action has come to be known as the “climate wars”.
A key warrior has been the Liberal politician Tony Abbott, who as opposition leader about a decade ago relentlessly attacked Julia Gillard’s Labor government for introducing a “carbon pricing mechanism” — a complicated policy that was designed eventually to become an emissions trading scheme similar to the EU’s ETS.
Abbott, an open climate sceptic, branded this policy a “carbon tax” that would push power prices up. Rightwing media promulgated Abbott’s view, and it was widely seen to have won Abbott the 2013 election. His government, a coalition between the centre-right Liberal party and its smaller, agrarian partner the National party, quickly repealed Gillard’s carbon pricing mechanism.
The climate wars continued with the Liberal-National coalition in government. In 2017, Scott Morrison, then Liberal treasurer, brought a lump of coal into parliament and taunted the opposition with it, saying: “This is coal, don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you. It was dug up by men and women who live and work in the electorates of the members that sit opposite.” The coalition has now won three elections in a row and Morrison rose to become prime minister.
Under pressure from business, voters and the international community, Morrison committed Australia to net zero by 2050 last October, following an intense battle within the Liberal-National coalition. However, since announcing that target, Morrison has proposed no new policies to achieve it.
“At the federal level in Australia there is no meaningful climate policy,” says Frank Jotzo, a professor of environmental economics at the Australian National University and a lead author of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
Indeed, some members of the Liberal-National coalition have continued to use it as a wedge issue, often employing the language of the US culture wars. Matt Canavan, a prominent pro-coal National from Queensland, refers to decarbonisation as the “radical green agenda” of the “western woke elite”.
This level of inaction, says Jotzo, is a growing concern for big business and its industry body, the Business Council of Australia. “There’s pent-up demand from investors to invest, and we’re seeing clear signals from business associations that they want stable, predictable climate policy because that is a necessary underpinning for the investments they want to make,” Jotzo says.
“That lack of policy signalling to investors really is the biggest problem that has arisen.” He says state governments — both Liberal and Labor — have stepped in to fill this vacuum, but it is no substitute for a coherent national policy.
Many in the business community say the government has failed to exploit Australia’s potential as a clean energy producer and exporter, given its significant solar and wind resources.
Andrew Parker, chief sustainability officer at airline Qantas, says Australia could be a leading producer of sustainable aviation fuel, particularly emerging power-to-liquid technology that mixes renewably generated hydrogen with carbon dioxide to manufacture a synthetic alternative to traditional aviation fuel.
“Australia is a laggard on policy,” he says. “Australia could be a leader, and could export these [fuels] into Asia, as an example. But we need to mirror what other countries are doing, particularly in the US and particularly the UK and Europe.”
Jotzo says a national carbon price must be a central part of a serious climate policy, but says explicit proposals for carbon pricing have all but disappeared from the debate in Australia — even from the pro-climate independents — because Abbott turned it into such an effective political weapon.
In the 2019 election, the leftwing Labor party lost crucial seats in coal regions of Queensland and New South Wales as the Liberal-National coalition hammered its relatively progressive environmental agenda on the way to an unexpected victory.
Since then, Labor has become more cautious on the issue. Ahead of the May election, the party announced emissions reduction targets of 43 per cent by 2030 — more ambitious than the government’s but lower than the target they announced in 2019. At the same time, leader Anthony Albanese said a government under him would not phase out coal earlier than planned, or even oppose the construction of new coal mines.
Robin Williams, a Mining and Energy Union leader and a Labor supporter, says he believes both Labor and the coalition would support new coal mines. “Both sides of politics are saying to us that, provided environmentally it stacks up, then they effectively don’t have any opposition to coal mining,” he says.
However, Labor has also thrown its support behind an emissions trading scheme originally proposed by the Australian Business Council that would set a cap on emissions and force companies that breach it to buy carbon credits.
Those that emit less than their limit would be granted credits that they could trade. Every year, the emissions limit — called a “baseline” — would be reduced, reaching zero in 2050.
It’s a much less comprehensive plan than the EU or UK emissions trading schemes, under which emitters must buy permits for all their emissions, not just those over a certain level. Labor insists it does not represent a carbon tax, branding it a “safeguard mechanism”. But it would nevertheless reintroduce the concept of carbon pricing to Australia.
In April, miner Whitehaven Coal — one of a diminishing number of anti-climate voices in corporate Australia — branded this policy a “carbon levy by stealth”, while Morrison called it a “sneaky carbon tax”.
But in a sign of how the political conversation over the environment is shifting, Labor’s adoption of this policy has not drawn sustained attacks from political opponents.
Kevin Rudd, the former Labor prime minister who attempted to legislate an emissions trading scheme in 2009, argues this shows a decade of climate wars may be coming to an end.
Rudd says that when he was prime minister between 2007 and 2010, the anti-climate movement was formidable. A coalition of fossil fuel producers, manufacturers, conservative politicians and rightwing media convinced voters, he says, that “to act substantially on carbon was to destroy the Australian economy and its global comparative advantage”.
But now, Rudd says investors and the business community no longer accept this position, forcing the media and fossil fuel industry to stop campaigning against climate action and adopt a “neutral position” on climate change.
“The political environment and parameters are now different, having been now through 10 years of, frankly, soul-wrenching politics on the subject.”
A teal order
The climate issue could cut both ways in Australian politics, with fringe parties on the right of the spectrum also expected to have a potentially significant influence in this year’s election.
Those include the United Australia party, which is funded by billionaire Clive Palmer and led by former Liberal MP Craig Kelly, who is a long standing critic of climate policies, and One Nation, whose leader, Pauline Hanson, a senator, openly questions climate science and attributes rising carbon emissions to subsea volcanoes rather than human impact.
But Australian conservatives who are concerned about the environment face a dilemma. Many view the Labor party as hostile to business and likely to raise taxes. But just as many are frustrated at the National-Liberal intransigence on climate change.
It’s this slice of the electorate that the teal independents are hoping to capture in May. One of the most competitive is Allegra Spender, a 44-year-old Sydney businesswoman running in the harbourside electorate of Wentworth, the wealthiest in the country and until recently a safe Liberal seat. Its mansions are home to billionaires, chief executives and former prime ministers.
“Wentworth is a very socially progressive electorate, it is a very business-focused electorate, and it’s an electorate that cares deeply about the environment and climate change,” Spender says. “But the problem is our electorate is not having an influence in Canberra because we have a member of the [Liberal] party here who is not able or not willing to stand up and make a difference.”
A recent poll of Wentworth residents found climate change was by far the top issue. Similar polls of other wealthy urban electorates have revealed a similar preoccupation with climate change. The message is clear: educated, urban, white-collar voters are losing patience with Liberal prime minister Morrison and his party.
The rise of the teal independent candidates has caused panic at the very upper echelons of the Liberal party as more moderate candidates have been challenged on their voting record on climate issues.
This has included Josh Frydenberg, the treasurer and deputy leader of the party since 2018, who is under serious threat of losing his seat to an independent candidate in what was the ultra-safe inner Melbourne seat of Kooyong.
The teal independents are pushing the idea that Australia, with its vast tracts of land and endless supply of sunshine and wind, can transform itself from a fossil fuel economy into a clean energy superpower, using renewables to manufacture green hydrogen, ammonia and steel for export, creating new industries for the kind of business-minded people who live in Wentworth and Goldstein to invest in.
“Australia is one of the sunniest, windiest places on earth,” says Spender. “A solar panel in this country creates two to three times more electricity than it does in Europe. We have an enormous economic opportunity in a decarbonised world, both for renewable energy and clean hydrogen, but also in terms of lithium and rare earth metals.”
Spender and Daniel, the Melbourne candidate, have managed to convince many in these blue-ribbon electorates that they are both pro-business and pro-environment, and some polls now have them as favourites.
In the case of a hung parliament, neither has said which party they would be inclined to support. Other teal independents are also keeping their options open. But strong climate action would be near the top of their list of demands — and quickly, Daniels says. “There has been so much dithering for so long — largely to do with powerful influencers in the fossil [fuel] industry — we have to speed up to catch up.”
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