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Australia’s deadlock on climate change action is over – for now

Labor’s win – and the election of more Green and Independent MPs – shows climate crisis is voters’ biggest concern

Kate Walton
23 May 2022, 12.30pm

Anthony Albanese (centre left) reacts after winning Australia's 2022 federal election

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Bai Xuefei/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

It is a shift more significant than any climate advocate could have imagined: Australia’s ruling Liberal-National coalition thrown out of Parliament after nine years amid a clear demand for progressive climate policies.

While the final votes for both the House of Representatives and the Senate are still being counted, the 72.6% counted so far make clear that Australians have voted for change.

The Australian Labor Party looks set to form a majority government, gaining perhaps as many as 78 seats in the House, two more than the minimum required for government. The coalition, on the other hand, has been giving a booting, winning just 54 seats so far.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese was sworn in as Australia’s 31st prime minister this morning, departing soon after for Tokyo with foreign minister Penny Wong for a ‘Quad’ security meeting with the leaders of Japan, India and the United States. The pair will be keen to show there has been a progressive shift in Australian politics.

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Voting is compulsory in Australia, and several big issues dominated. Climate change was cited as many people’s number one concern in poll after poll after poll, and the results have proven this to be true. Other major issues were corruption and integrity, women’s and Indigenous representation, and stronger social welfare.

It now seems Australia may finally be able to take meaningful action to curb the impact of climate change. As Albanese said on election night, “We have an opportunity now to end the climate wars in Australia.”

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The Labor Party wants to see a 43% reduction of carbon emissions by 2030, with net zero achieved by 2050. Its ‘Powering Australia’ policy aims to ensure renewables make up 82% of the National Electricity Market by 2030, creating an estimated 600,000 jobs. Labor also has strategies to support the transition of fossil fuel workers to other sectors.

Such steps are crucial: Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of thermal coal and is among the worst per capita carbon emitters.

However, Labor’s climate policies are not all roses. Albanese has previously said his government will not sign the UN pledge to end coal firepower, for example, and Labor remains committed to coal in at least the short term while the transition to renewables takes place.

At last count, there were 114 new coal and gas projects on the government’s official register, which the new government will now take over, leading to a drastic increase in Australia’s emissions. Its target of 43% emissions reductions by 2030 is also below the expert-recommended level of 50-75%.

This is where the influence of the crossbench – MPs representing neither the coalition nor Labor – will be crucial. The Greens, Australia’s most progressive party on climate action, look likely to increase their current single MP to three or four. Twelve other MPs have also been elected, including many high-profile independents who successfully ran with climate action as their number one promise.

The crossbench will remain influential even if Labor reaches 78 seats. It will push the government to take faster and more significant action on climate change, such as a 60% emissions reduction by 2030, as was backed by many independents.

Labor achieved its lowest-ever primary vote, with just 33% of voters putting a ‘1’ next to one of its candidate

“We will work together with the major parties and with the Greens and all other members of the parliament to effect the change that the people of Australia have told us that they want,” ‘Teal’ independent MP-elect Monique Ryan told the Australian Broadcasting Commission on the morning after the election. Ryan won the inner-Melbourne seat of Kooyong from the sitting Liberal party Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg.

The government will need the help of the Greens in the Senate, whose approval is required for passing proposed legislation into law. The Greens look likely to gain an additional three senators, bringing their total from nine to 12 this year. Independent candidate David Pocock, a climate activist and former rugby player, also appears to have been successful in his campaign.

Labor will therefore find it difficult to push through legislation without the support of the Greens, which have set a target of 75% emissions reduction by 2030. The Greens also want net zero achieved by 2035 or even earlier, and have proposed a total ban on the mining, burning, and export of thermal coal by 2030.

While Parliament’s final composition is yet to be determined, we do know the country’s political landscape has changed. Australian MPs and senators are elected using preferential voting, a complicated system where voters choose candidates from first to last preference. And while the Labor Party has been able to form a government, it achieved its lowest-ever primary vote, with just 33% of voters putting a ‘1’ next to one of its candidates. Meanwhile, there has been a total ousting of the Liberal Party from long-held inner-city seats in Sydney and Melbourne.

Now, Labor must show they’re listening, and move forward with the climate action for which the people voted.

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