Australian Voters Have Demanded Action on Climate Change

Thanks to its stubborn inaction on climate change, the conservative coalition was trounced in this weekend’s election in Australia. With Greens and independents set to hold the balance of power, it’s time for the climate movement to step up its demands.

Climate activists march through Sydney during the "Strike 4 Climate" actions of May 6, 2022. (Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images)

Despite a campaign period derided as boring, election night in Australia served up seismic political change. While votes are still being counted, it now seems undeniable — this was Australia’s first major climate election.

The right-wing coalition government was decisively thrown out. It lost a series of crucial inner-city seats to “the Teals,” a loose grouping of independent candidates focused on climate change. There were huge swings, particularly in Queensland, toward the Greens, who have overall managed to win at least two, and possibly four, seats in the House of Representatives. The opposition Labor Party lost votes nationally and will possibly fall short of the required seventy-six seats needed for a parliamentary majority. But even so, with the Coalition unlikely to win more than fifty seats in total, it can be said with certainty that Labor’s Anthony Albanese will be the next prime minister. Labor might need to turn to the Greens or climate independents for support in order to govern.

While some commentators have declared the climate wars to be over, it would be a mistake to assume this guarantees government action on climate change. It’s satisfying to see Scott Morrison banished as a result of his sneering denialism. But if we are to halt our march toward climate catastrophe, the environmental movement must seize this rare moment and escalate its demands.

The First Real Taste of Apocalypse

A series of climate-related disasters has devastated much of the country over the past three years. This is the glaring context for the massive shift in voter behavior.

The Black Summer bushfires of 2019 and 2020, and the accompanying scenes of otherworldly ruin, deeply unsettled the country as a whole, but they also personally affected larger swathes of people than any fires in Australian history. Rural Australians have long lived with bushfire devastation, but now city dwellers too have found themselves living in apocalyptic settings. Major urban centers like Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra were shrouded in thick black smoke for weeks in the Black Summer; the hazardous air quality across much of the country killed hundreds, forced millions to stay inside, and caused a huge rise in hospitalizations for asthma attacks and breathing difficulties. While conditions in the cities paled in comparison to the destruction elsewhere, it drove home the immediacy of the climate crisis to millions for the first time.

Eighteen months later, climate change–related extreme rainfall on the east coast caused widespread flooding. Tens of thousands were evacuated, many towns and homes were destroyed, and supply chains — including for COVID vaccines — were severely disrupted. The conservative New South Wales premier at the time, Gladys Berejiklian, exasperatedly declared, “I don’t know any time in the state’s history where we have had these extreme weather conditions in such quick succession.” But in less than a year, an event labelled a “tsunami from the sky” hit Brisbane with 80 percent of its annual rainfall in just six days. These rivers in the sky smashed many areas in Queensland, then moved south and partially destroyed the prominent regional town of Lismore.

Ordinary people have well and truly begun paying the price for government inaction on climate change. Alongside the deaths and injuries, homes in huge sections of the country were declared uninsurable — so prone are they to burning and flooding each year. In Queensland alone, 6.5 percent of homes will fall into this category by 2030.

“Don’t Be Afraid, Don’t Be Scared”

The ruling coalition badly misjudged the public’s anger at this chaos. Even before he became the Liberal Party leader, Morrison was already well-known for his smirking climate change tomfoolery, waving coal around in Parliament and joking with his friends about rising seas. His government’s obfuscation on climate policy over the last four years, using accounting tricks and confusing messaging to stall on the issue, has come as no surprise.

But there were clear signs that the public had had enough. Morrison was heckled by furious bushfire victims during the Black Summer, and videos of these incidents went viral. The public’s enjoyment of Morrison’s public dressing down should have been a warning that they had tired of his sniggering tone. When he attempted to tour a flooded Lismore, he was confronted by protestors brandishing signs like “This isn’t strange — it’s climate change!” He half-heartedly tried to strike a reasonable tone, admitting that “Australia is getting hard to live in because of these disasters” — before blaming developing countries for climate change.

Two electoral forces have been able to take advantage of the public’s discontent on this: the Greens and the so-called Teal independents. But these are very different political formations, and each have their own contradictions that will impact their potential to enact real change.

Climate Kingmakers?

The Greens emerged as a party from the grassroots environmental movements of the 1970s and ’80s. Their vote has risen slowly but fairly steadily since its formation, so that now it has a share of about 13 percent of the primary vote. The party was traditionally controlled by its right faction, but the left faction seized control for the first time in 2017, and leader Adam Bandt has since entrenched a fairly bold social democratic line. Their 2022 campaign was centered around public ownership and control of industry and services, and the expansion of housing and health infrastructure. Invoking the language of a Green New Deal, the Bandt leadership has been explicit that climate action will require a confrontation with the superrich.

Supporters of the Greens celebrate the election results in Brisbane, Australia, May 21, 2022. (Dan Peled / Getty Images)

The party’s candidates spoke throughout the campaign of how “people have lost faith in a political system that puts the interests of a few big corporations ahead of the rest of us,” and of “making the billionaires and big corporations pay their fair share.”

While the party’s only federal MP up until now was based in Melbourne, the biggest new surge for the party has been in flood-ravaged Queensland, a state stereotyped in the media as being wholeheartedly in favor of new coal projects. Now with four potential seats, the Greens could find themselves in a kingmaker position, and could be invited into some kind of governing arrangement with the Labor Party. Even if Labor somehow manages to get a majority of seats, the Greens will still most likely hold the balance of power in the Senate.

A week before the election Adam Bandt laid down some conditions of such a deal — including an end to new coal and gas projects. But it was unclear if these were nonnegotiable red lines or a wish list. On election night, “action on climate” was declared to be the priority for evaluating any potential power-sharing deal. It’s now imperative that the Greens make their demands ambitious and explicit — and stick to them.

The last time the party entered into such an arrangement was with Julia Gillard’s Labor in 2010. Gillard had become party leader less than two months before the election in a bloodless coup orchestrated by mining industry bosses in response to a proposed tax increase. It is not a promising precedent that the Greens guaranteed confidence and supply for such a government in exchange for basically nothing.

If the Greens do insist on their demands, Labor can always reach out to the so-called Teal independents. A loose grouping of CEOs, small-business owners, and white-collar professionals, they were funded in part by the political action committee Climate 200. Founded by Simon Holmes à Court, son of Australia’s first billionaire — as part of his very public feud with his former Liberal Party allies — Climate 200 aimed to support “pro-climate, pro-integrity, and pro-gender equity candidates.” The group’s chosen color — combining green and Liberal Party blue — hints at the more conservative economic agenda they couple with their environmentalism.

Unlike the Greens, the Teals are explicitly pro-business. They link climate action with productivity gains, fiscal responsibility, tax incentives for business, public-private partnerships, and so-called regulatory relief. Their natural home is the Liberal Party, but genuine discontent about climate and corruption has driven many of them into the arms of Holmes à Court. Among countless corruption scandals, for example, the minister for industry, energy and emissions reduction himself is being investigated for his company’s suspect sale of water to the government at an inexplicably inflated price.

On election night, Holmes à Court praised the Teals for having snatched so many “heartland” — wealthy, inner-suburban — seats from the Liberal Party, but he denied the existence of any coherent Climate 200 movement. How much these independents will operate as a block in the new Parliament, and what they might insist on if they do, remains unclear. The morning after the election, they hinted that any power-sharing deal would hinge on a commitment by Labor to an emissions reduction target of 60 percent by 2030. Time will tell how flexible they really are on this.

The worst-case scenario for the climate is if Labor manages to secure a majority and has no need for either group. This would allow the party — which receives donations from the fossil fuel industry — to coast on its inadequate climate election pledges.

Mass Action: More Important at All Times

Really existing climate catastrophe and government arrogance helped shape the outcome of this election. But the crucial third factor that galvanized public opinion around the need for climate action were the climate strikes. The largest, in September 2019, saw three hundred thousand students and workers walk out of class and off the job across Australia. Largely leaderless and self-consciously boisterous, this mass action was the largest mobilization in the country in almost twenty years. While COVID-19 stalled a lot of their momentum, the global strikes had a measurable impact on wider sentiment. Many of the three hundred thousand eighteen-year-olds who enrolled to vote in this election will have been either a part of this movement or deeply sympathetic to it, and their participation has swayed countless others to prioritize the issue.

But this is not sufficient. Rather than simply channeling mass action to the ballot box, the climate strikers must insist that those it has brought to power answer to the movement, not to the mining bosses, and that they be held accountable for their decisions. Rather than relax, the climate strikers should put maximum pressure on the Greens and Teals to draw ambitious red lines and refuse to cross them in any upcoming interparty negotiations. And once the question of government is settled, and the fossil fuel industry inevitably begins to exert pressure on its operatives in Parliament, the environmental movement must use its timid foothold to hit back forcefully.

It spells trouble for the climate if Labor ends up being able to govern outright. But if they end up needing Green support in the House or the Senate, this is an opportunity. It’ll be the first moment that environmentalists have had anything close to the upper hand since the mining industry bosses’ coup in 2010. To save us all, it must be seized.