Words by Izzy Hamer and Maggie Leung
Action towards climate change defined the 2022 election as the biggest vote-switching issue. A significant change from the last decade of negative public opinion. Also indicating an end to Australia’s history of domestic politicisation of climate policy towards climate change. After the ALP’s win of seventy-seven seats declaring Anthony Albanese Prime Minister on May 21st, Albanese made a promise to “end the climate wars” – subverting climate rhetoric from one of political strife to transforming Australia into a “renewable energy superpower.” However, climate policy was majorly underscored by the historic sixteen seats won by non-major or independent candidates within the House of Representatives. Defined by a group of independents denoted the ‘teal independents’ whose campaign platforms circumvolved around climate action and an unprecedented increase in support for the Greens Party – electing four seats into the House of Representatives and twelve to the Senate.
Whilst climate change as a major election issue may not seem like a paradigm shift from an outsider’s perspective, contextualised within a two-decade-long domestic politicisation of climate policy has been argued as having stagnated Australia’s progress towards achieving our commitments agreed within the Kyoto and Paris Agreements. In the last fiscal year of Morrison’s Government, Australian federal, state and territories’ Governments provided $11.6 billion of subsidies to coal and fossil fuel industries. Current contributors to Australian industry said subsidies were not offset by significant investment into renewable energy industries or research and development in new technologies. Under the last three Liberal Governments, the central domestic climate policy was through the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), a $2.5 billion scheme that incentivises switching to cleaner and renewable practices for firms, organisations, and individuals. Under this scheme, said stakeholders earned Australian carbon credits per metric tonne of CO2 they saved from emitting through the usage of adopting renewable technologies and practices, which can then be sold to generate income, either through the Australian Government in a carbon Abatement contract or in a secondary market by which the Government would select to fund renewable projects based on who could cut emissions most efficiently. However, the fund has had multiple critiques for not solely sufficing reduction targets. Prior Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull proposed reform to climate policy beyond the ERF, considering 80% of its funding was towards vegetation, yet agriculture attributed only 13% of GHG emissions in Australia. However, Turnbull’s aims to align Australia’s climate policy with the International community, such as enshrining target emissions within Australian legislation through the National Energy Guarantee, was a contributing factor to his fall as Prime Minister within a polarised internal party political environment.
This represents a broader picture of Australia’s swings back and forth in climate policy due to domestic pressures, ultimately leading to action remaining intangible. At the 1997 Kyoto climate negotiations (the first Global and multi-lateral conference to tackle climate change), Howard demanded special treatment for Australia, allowing emissions in 2012 to be 8% more than in 1990. Yet, other developed nations such as Norway and Iceland agreed to cut down on emissions. Whilst Australia’s demands were met – alongside the US, the Kyoto Protocol was not ratified under the Howard Government. Subsequently, the Rudd Labor Government ratified Kyoto in 2007 and attempted a carbon price through the carbon pollution reduction scheme, which was heavily criticised by the Greens for doing too little, and the bill ultimately failed. Australia’s first major domestic climate action came in 2011 under the Gillard Government through the Clean Energy Act establishing the ‘Carbon Tax’ – a highly contentious and unpopular policy – establishing a cemented party-polarisation of climate change. Post Gillard’s action, the 2010s demarcated limited action from Abbot’s pledge to ‘axe the tax’ reappealing of the carbon price as well as the expert Climate Commission to Morrison’s contentious climate record.
Whilst within domestic politics, climate can be seen as extremely polarising, this has not correlated to growing concerns of various stakeholders – most importantly, a growing call for action by Australians. Lacking sentience in policy has led to a lack of investment clarity from businesses and industries, as well as questioning from the International community. Particularly our Indo-Pacific neighbours (a cornerstone of Australia’s foreign policy strategy), who have been increasingly affected by climate-induced natural disasters, such as Tuvalu’s Prime Minister, who blamed the Morrison Government for climate-related issues.
However, most importantly and significant to domestic sway lies the increasingly concerned Australian public opinion, situated within three years of devastating natural disasters with little support or change. Following the 2020 bushfires, two years of widespread flooding, and the sixth year of coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef – Australia is increasingly starting to see the effects of climate change. The Lowy Institute (an Australian Political think tank) has surveyed Australians on their opinions on climate change over the last fourteen years, from high periods of public support in 2006 to drastically falling attitudes in 2012 due to the carbon tax, and since a growing concern and a calling for action. In 2019, 61% of Australians polled denoted climate change as “a serious pressing problem” to which Australia should be “taking steps now even if this involves significant costs”. In 2021, 91% said they would support the Australian Government in “providing subsidies for the development of renewable energy technology”. Comparatively, the Annual Climate of the Nation Benchmark report has tracked, since 2007, Australia’s attitudes on climate change. The isolation of federal policy from community sentiments was emphasised in 2021 through its findings of 82% support for the phasing out of coal-fired power stations. According to ABC’s Vote Compass, Australians are listing climate change as their most important issue this election – a result that occurred in every single Australian electorate, excluding Longman and Flynn.
Who are the teal independents? In what ways was the election a ‘greenslide’?
Whilst the Government stands as a Labor majority, the Albanese Government will likely face a greater mandate for climate action than intended under his proposed policy due to the sweeping win of the Teal Independents and the Greens, defining how climate action is community lead and not partisan. The majority of the teal Independents have received funding from Climate 200, a group focused on supporting independents who could match their election funding and centre their campaigns around climate change, political transparency, and gender equality. All the teals elected were women, with grassroots campaigns focused on highlighting the moderate’s inability to sway change on prior climate inaction from the National party collation. In the 2022 election, more than twenty seats could loosely be characterised as ‘teals’; however, not all received funding from Climate 200 – notably excluding Zali Stegall, who unseated former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s seat of Warringah. The election of six new teal independents and the re-election of Stegall and Haines was a feat considered implausible in many of said safe liberal seats only a few months ago. In Sydney, two Northern beaches electorates of North Sydney and Mackellar were won by teal independents: Kylea Tink and Dr Sophie Scamp, and the Wentworth Eastern Harbour electorate fell to Allegra Spender. In Melbourne, the electorate of Kooyong, held by the now former treasurer Josh Frydenberg (the proposed next leader of the Liberal party), fell to Dr Monique Ryan, and the seat of Bayside was also won to former ABC journalist Zoe Daniels. Lastly, in WA, the seat of Curtin was lost by Celia Hammond to Kate Chaney, the niece of former Liberal Minister Fred Chaney. The teal’s campaigns circumvolve around the Zali Steggall Climate Bill, which is rallying for 60% cuts to emissions below 2005 levels – higher than Albanese’s commitment to 43%, and furthermore mandates a framework for greater action through extensive scientific research and development.
Comparatively, the Greens also experienced their most successful election result, defined as a ‘Greenside’, adding three seats to the lower house alongside their leader, Adam Bandt, in Melbourne. Stephen Bates, Max-Chandler-Mather, and Elizabeth Watson Brown, respectively, won the inner-city Brisbane electorates of Brisbane, Griffith, and Ryan, whilst obtaining six new seats in the senate to a combined total of twelve thus representing growing their strength within the seventy-six-seat upper house. Bandt described the win of the Greens and the wave of teal independents as due to the fact that “politics needs to be done differently”, affirming the Greens will position banning the creation of new coal and gas projects as a priority. The Greens’ policy has set a target of 74% emissions reduction by 2030 as consistent with limiting the increase in temperature to a 1.5-degree parameter in the Paris Agreement – which would enable the Great Barrier Reef and Australia’s other tropics to survive.
What climate policy has the Albanese Government proposed, and how is the increasingly dispersed lower house moving forward?
Comparative to the Morrison Government, Albanese has affirmed a target of 43% compared to the prior 26-28% reduction below 2005 levels. This has been extended further through the ‘Powering Australia Plan’. Firstly, this involves a $20 billion investment to upgrade Australia’s electricity grid to facilitate renewable energy generation, such as switching existing fossil-fuel infrastructure to hydrogen energy, which Albanese could be extending to $58 billion through private investment.
Secondly, it will strengthen the stringency and monitoring of the prior collation Government’s “safeguard mechanism”, which places a cap on the amount of pollution permitted by Australia’s main emitters. Lastly, they will support the funding and creation of widespread electric vehicle charging infrastructure paired with tax breaks for those choosing electric vehicles. Additionally, on June 1st Albanese declared he would establish the new Government Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment, and Water to implement and advise the new Government’s climate policy.
In his visit to Indonesia, Albanese pledged to create a “green trade” partnership with the state to bilaterally promote renewable trade investment opportunities through achieving reduction targets. However, Bandt has been critical of Albanese’s domestic target reduction focus, considering Labor’s support for the creation of multiple new coal mines and the development of new gas basins such as the Beetaloo in the Northern Territory. Nevertheless, in a poll post-election by the Lowey Institute, when Australians were asked in 2022 whether Australia is heading in the right direction regarding climate, 48% stated we are moving progressively – up 8% from prior polling – and 27% stated we’re on the wrong track – comparatively down 15%. These results reflect an air of more optimistic public opinion under the Albanese Government. Though combined, both the Greens, teals, and other independents have the power to shape legislation within the lower house and pull leverage in shaping Labor’s climate offerings.