Despite 29% of Australians identifying climate change as their top ballot box issue—up from just 9% in 2016—Scott Morrison’s climate-denying Liberal-National Coalition eked out a victory in a weekend election that the opposition Labor Party was widely expected to win.
“Do not despair, do not retreat. Continue your work, with objectivity, integrity and dedication,” tweeted a defiant 350 Australia in the aftermath of the vote. “The opportunities in the global shift to clean energy are compelling, and coal is not the future.”
In a longer blog post, 350 acknowledged that “this isn’t what we wanted to write today. The pro-fossil fuels, anti-climate action Coalition will form government again. But while they have managed to hold onto political power, there is a power they do not have.”
The organization attests that “all across Australia, from Shark Bay to Brunie Island, there is a people-powered movement growing that is more determined than ever to fight for climate justice. This is not the time to give up. This is the time to stand together and escalate.”
Despite the outsized influence of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and the coal interests backing the Coalition campaign, “the rise of independent and micro-parties shows that people are looking for something different,” 350 adds. And Labor “did not present voters with a clear and compelling vision for how they would translate the community call for climate action into substantive policies.”
But after-action analysis aside, an unexpected loss is still exactly that, and Australia is now in for three more years of delay in its response to climate change.
“The polls said this would be Australia’s climate change election, when voters confronted harsh reality and elected leaders who would tackle the problem,” the New York Times reports. “And in some districts, it was true: Tony Abbott, the former prime minister who stymied climate policy for years, lost to an independent who campaigned on the issue. A few other new candidates prioritizing climate change also won.”
But on the whole, “Australians shrugged off the warming seas killing the Great Barrier Reef and the extreme drought punishing farmers. On Saturday, in a result that stunned most analysts, they re-elected the conservative coalition that has long resisted plans to sharply cut down on carbon emissions and coal.”
The electoral upset comes at a time when, even for outright climate deniers, “the effects of climate change are becoming harder to deny,” the Times notes. “Australia just experienced its hottest summer on record. The country’s tropics are spreading south, bringing storms and mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue fever to places unprepared for such problems, while water shortages have led to major fish die-offs in drying rivers.”
In the days after the vote, there were mixed expectations on how much, if at all, the climate crisis would shape the policies of the country’s next government.
“There has to be a reckoning within the coalition about where they stand,” Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie told the Times. “I think it’s increasingly difficult for them to maintain a position where they don’t talk about climate change.”
“This is all playing out in real time, right now,” agreed award-winning climate scientist and writer Joëlle Gergis of Australian National University. “We are one of the most vulnerable nations in the developed world when it comes to climate change.”
But “the path to victory for Scott Morrison, the incumbent prime minister, will make agreeing on a response more difficult,” the Times states. “He and his Liberal-National coalition won thanks not just to their base of older, suburban economic conservatives, but also to a surge of support in Queensland, the rural, coal-producing, sparsely-populated state sometimes compared to the American South.”
Queensland is where the Adani Group, a massive conglomerate from India, is promising thousands of jobs at its proposed Carmichael coal mine, which would be one of the world’s largest if it were built. Over the last couple of weeks, the giant Rothschild & Co. bank opted out of advising Adani on financing or developing the project after multiple requests from Australian environmental groups, and a 40% crash in thermal coal prices since mid-2018 was raising serious concerns about the project’s viability.
The project also faces “fierce opposition” from Australians outside Queensland—a dynamic that appears to have contributed to Morrison’s election win. The controversy has already led to violence, in what the Times calls “a clash of cultures as well as political views.”
“I feel like there’s quite a lot of scorn about the way Queenslanders feel about environmental issues, and that doesn’t help,” said law professor Susan Harris-Rimmer from the state’s Griffith University. “The predominant Queensland characteristic is pride, and you can’t pour scorn on them.”
Morrison’s party “also benefited from deals with two right-wing groups: One Nation, the anti-immigration party led by the Queensland senator Pauline Hanson, and the United Australia Party led by the mining billionaire Clive Palmer, who spent tens of millions of dollars on a populist campaign with the slogan ‘Make Australia Great’,” the Times notes. “Under Australia’s preferential voting system, votes for candidates from minor parties can be used to help allies reach a clear majority in the lower house of Parliament. Nationally, United Australia secured 3.4% of the vote, while One Nation picked up 3%,” far less than the far right has gained in recent elections elsewhere, but enough to make a difference.
In the aftermath, The Guardian says shellshocked environmental groups are “resolute”, and discussing whether campaign tactics focused on climate change and coal had backfired.
Climate “was definitely a top issue in the election,” but “it didn’t convert to votes in all the places it needed to,” said Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Kelly O’Shanassy. But while the “myth” of an either-or choice between jobs and environment was “a very strong part of the Coalition campaign,” she cited the Coalition’s negative campaigning, Labor leader Bill Shorten’s unpopularity, and the “millions and millions of dollars” that coal industrialist Palmer injected into the campaign as other significant factors.
In Queensland, Nationals MPs Michelle Landry and George Christensen were happy to attribute the election result to the Stop Adani campaign, particularly an anti-Carmichael convoy organized by the Bob Brown Foundation, a non-profit conservation group based in the island state of Tasmania.
“Thank you Bob Brown is all I can say,” Landry said in a post-election interview. “He came up here trying to tell Queenslanders what we should and shouldn’t be doing, and it actually drew together the agriculture and mining sectors—I’ve never seen anything like it.”
But O’Shanassy maintained the convoy “doesn’t explain this election result. Some people might want to spin it that way, but we need to look at what really happened rather than look for scapegoats.”
Wilderness Society National Campaigns Director Lyndon Schneiders said his organization saw progress in eight out of the nine seats it targeted, and contrasted the result with another long-ago election loss. “I remember the 2004 forestry election, I know the feeling of ‘oh my god, our issue sunk a party’,” but “I’m not feeling like that today,” he told The Guardian. “I’m surprisingly optimistic—the last six months is the most we’ve talked about the environment for a generation.”
But if environment is high on the agenda, the renewable energy transition may be a different story. On RenewEconomy, Editor Giles Parkinson foresees another three years of “denial and confusion”, as the impetus for the energy transition shifts to state governments and Australia’s national electricity market operator.
“For the past six years, climate denial, the obsession with coal, and the protection of vested interests have combined to deliberately create confusion and uncertainty,” Parkinson writes. “After the 2013 and 2016 federal polls that Labor also lost, the industry felt they could rely on policies that had been put into place by the last Labor government,” even after the Coalition dismantled the country’s carbon pricing system. In the end, “that was how it turned out, and it resulted in an unparalleled A$25-billion investment boom.”
But now, “with a re-elected Morrison government, there is no policy backstop,” Parkinson adds. “The renewable energy target is effectively met, and while the mechanism stays in place for another 10 years, as designed, there is no further investment signal, in price or in purpose.”
And “given the huge surge in support for pro-coal LNP candidates in north Queensland, particularly George Christensen and Michelle Landry,” he adds, “the push for a new coal generator in the region, subsidized and indemnified by the government, will be immense.”
Parkinson says Clive Palmer and anyone who helped fund his “extraordinary media campaign” will “want a return on their investment,” while leading Liberal Party donor Trevor St. Baker will be looking for government subsidies for a coal plant in New South Wales. “Any hope of the Coalition’s ability to suddenly get sensible about energy and climate policy will be restricted by the power of its backbench and the limits of its own ideology,” he predicts. “Labor and the Greens should be able to thwart some legislative disasters, but they will not be able to create anything positive from the opposition benches.”
h/t to Lyn Adamson of Climate Fast for pointing us to the reaction from 350 Australia.