[first, a credit to First Dog on the Moon for his fantastic cartoon]

One of the most interesting things in watching the Australian elections over the weekend was seeing the shock of ABC presenters when the results of its post-vote polling showed climate change was far and away the most important issue on voters’ minds – a massive 27% compared with the next most important: the economy, at 14%.

Why was this so shocking to the media, the political analysts?

It hasn’t stopped raining in Lismore for three months, during which time there have been two devastating floods: today, the town barely exists – it’s all been underwater, twice. There’ve been ongoing floods and storms – from North Queensland all the way down the east coast. Western Australia suffered record heatwaves and horrific bushfires last summer. The Great Barrier Reef is undergoing its sixth – and worst – bleaching event.

The terror of the 2019/20 firestorms that turned the sky orange, burning seven million hectares, are etched into people’s minds, and so is the response from Scott Morrison from his holiday Hawaii as Australia was burning: “I don’t hold a hose mate.” Equally, his slow response to call a major emergency after the Lismore flooding disaster (rightfully) enraged locals.

image of scott morrison w the words "I don't hold a hose mate"

ScoMo’s response to climate-related disasters didn’t endear him to the Australian people.

As the election campaign rolled out, Scott Morrison didn’t want to talk about climate, because his position was pretty dodgy; Antony Albanese didn’t want to scare the mining communities he needed the votes from (which he didn’t get anyway), and the Canberra press gallery didn’t want to ask either leader about it – it wasn’t in their minds.

Climate specialist journalists were having the devil’s own job in trying to get analysis on climate change published by their editors.  There were pockets of it, but it simply wasn’t a gotcha front page issue. While the Guardian rolled out a number of good pieces, the vast majority of the media largely ignored this issue, entirely missing the story of what voters really cared about, despite polling telling them otherwise.

But in those communities on the ground, climate change was top of mind. As Greens leader Adam Bandt said on Saturday night, the feedback the Greens were getting in Brisbane was that people from all political persuasions were deeply concerned about climate change. They could see it happening in front of their very eyes,  and they wanted action.  And this was one key reason for the “Greenslide” that saw the Greens gain seats in both the House and the Senate.  And the teal independents win liberal seats.

The trauma of having your house (or that of your family or neighbours) underwater or burned to the ground, your wheat crop ravaged by a mouse plague, seeing your beloved forests – and the animals living in them – torched, your Great Barrier Reef bleached, is not easily dismissed. It lives with people for years.

Labor now looks set to gain a very slim majority, so in theory it won’t have to negotiate with the 16-seat crossbench to get its legislation across the line.  PM Albanese has already stated Labor’s 2030 climate target – a 43% reduction below 2005 levels – is not up for negotiation. The target has been arrived at through detailed modelling of all the party’s climate policies (something that would be good to see the National Party do here in Aotearoa – if it HAD a plan).

That crossbench has a strong climate focus: the Greens want to see a target of 74% by 2030 and the teal independents 60%, both 1.5˚C compatible, according to analysis from Climate Analytics – and Labor’s target is around 2˚C compatible.

The Greens look set to hold the balance of power in the Senate, so that will be one to watch. Will they insist on strong climate legislation, such as independent Zali Steggall’s draft Net Zero Bills (60% by 2030)?

While the fossil fuel industry’s firm grip on government has now been loosened and hopefully will be addressed (this article in Renew Economy spells out just how many fossil fuel industry stooges Morrison and his energy minister Angus Taylor planted in key positions), there’s still a way to go, and a lot of damage to undo. Labor will submit its new target to the UNFCCC, and is likely to re-enter the Global Climate Fund that the previous encumbents walked away from.

Labor still wedded to gas and coal 

But as this great piece in Carbon Brief points out, Labor has not backed off its support of both gas and coal:

“Australia is on track to continue producing fossil fuels in large volumes, with 69 new coal projects and 45 new LNG, gas and oil projects in the investment pipeline, as of October 2021.”

The emissions from those projects, combined, would add at least 8.3% to Australia’s emissions by 2030.

But Albo does not oppose big new gas projects like Woodside Energy’s Scarborough Pluto extension in Western Australia, set to add 1.37 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere by 2055, and he hasn’t named a single coal-fired power station he’d close down early. He’s even said the country could still be burning coal in 2050, 20 years after the date Australia needs to get out of coal as its part in the global action required to keep warming to 1.5˚C.

protest against woodside

Protesters challenge Woodside Energy’s Scarborough Gas project in Western Australia

The fossil fuel industry has been pouring money into the political parties, with Woodside giving the biggest donation – $108,350  – to Labor. The sector donated a total of $1.15m to political parties in the past year, similar to the $1.13m it donated the year before.  It would be good to hear Labor reject that funding.

Sure, Labor does have good, big plans for climate action, and there is certainly scope for its many policies listed in its “Powering Australia” plan to roll out in all the sectors neglected by the federal government: transport, industry, buildings, etc.  Labor had a plan, a plan that it had thoroughly modelled to get to its 2030 target number (something our National Party might want to consider if it wants to be taken seriously on climate change).

But if anyone expects a coal-fired power station to be closed down any time soon – or even a coal mine to be stopped, they will likely be disappointed. We will likely keep seeing coal from the Adani mine continuing to be exported to India. the fight against coal will – and must – go on. [Noting there has been a very long and effective fight against Australia’s coal development, and the Galillee basin in particular].

Perhaps the strong climate signal from the voters, combined with the crossbench in the House that is overwhelmingly in favour of it, will mean Labor will understand it has been given a strong mandate to do more to tackle the fossil fuel production problem – but my bet is that this won’t happen at least until after the next election.  The Climate Wars might be over, but they could come roaring back at any point.

We can only hope that this will bring more of the teal independents and Greens into the House in the next election.

The question that everyone here has been asking is whether the Australian election outcome will have an impact on New Zealand?  It’s probably unlikely we’ll have the same voter reaction based on climate concerns: we haven’t seen quite the devastation that Australians have experienced, even though pockets of the country have (think: Tairawhiti, Westport).

Although I hasten to add we ARE seeing impacts – such as the 40 dead kororā in Northland last weekend, likely because of warming seas.  Our glaciers are shrinking; we ARE seeing more terrible flooding events right around the country.  Recent sea level rise information has shocked the country.   While more of us need to be shouting about climate action as these events are taking place, we’re often told this is “not the time” when we try to.

Other non climate-related takeaways 

While COVID-19 WAS a factor in the Australian elections, I don’t think it was in quite the same way that a lot of the New Zealand media are claiming.  The vote wasn’t a message to an incumbent government from a population fed up with a strong covid response and worried about the rising cost of living. It was a population fed up with a right wing government that didn’t appear to care about its people.

The success of the Australian covid response was largely down to the State premiers, not the federal government. Every time ScoMo did something on covid he did it wrong – and late, he lied about it, tried to blame other people, and messed it up. The loss of liberal seats in both WA and Victoria were, to a large extent, driven by the sledging their premiers got by the Federal government in the face of their strong response. The people of WA didn’t like being called cave people.  Who does?

Aside from pushing back against ScoMo on covid and climate, the other factor was what we’re seeing a lot of here in Aotearoa, unfortunately: misogyny, and the misogyny of the Morrison government had to be seen to be believed. Australia’s women had had enough. They voted for independents – and those who won were almost all women.  This argument is best summed up in ABC’s Annabel Crabb’s fantastic article.