Gordon Campbell on the lessons from Australia’s election

coalmage2Australia’s new PM Anthony Albanese faces an obvious dilemma, barely before he gets his feet under the desk. Australia is the world’s leading exporter of coal. Will the new Labor government prioritise the jobs for Queensland/NSW workers in its mining-dependent communities – or will Labor start to get serious about climate change, and risk the inevitable political backlash from making a major shift into renewables?

In 2019, Labor’s attempt to have it both ways on coal cost it the Queensland seats that threw a surprise election victory to Scott Morrison. Albanese was determined to not make the same mistake twice. On the campaign trail Albanese said that he welcomed the jobs that three mooted new mega-mines (and related rail infrastructure) would create in and near Queensland’s Galilee Basin, and that these new mines could open so long as they met (unspecified) environmental standards. Allegedly, as the war in Ukraine intensifies, Aussie coal would help European nations to wean themselves off their reliance on Russian coal and gas.

More coal plus emissions cutbacks? That was the fudge that Labor felt to be necessary this time, lest it once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. However, the new Labor government faces a different parliamentary landscape in 2022 Right now, it is still unclear – until all the preferences and all the three million postal votes get counted – whether Labor is going to be able to govern alone, or only as a minority government. Even as a minority, it will be able to find enough allies on the crossbench, which has never been bigger in any Aussie lower house before. But at what cost in policy concessions?

Currently, the Greens – who could end up holding the balance of power in the Senate – are talking about forcing a moratorium on further coal mines. Leading teal independents Zali Steggal and Allegra Spender are promoting a private members bill to block approvals for further coal mining projects. Another successful teal MP, Dr Monique Ryan in Kooyong, has said that the new government will have to pursue a 60 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030 — which is much higher than Labor’s current target of a 43 per cent reduction by 2030.

Plainly, it is going to be very difficult to find a solution on coal that’s going to be in any way acceptable to the coal mining communities in Queensland and in NSW’s Hunter Valley and to the urban/suburban voters in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne who have voted so resoundingly for the federal government to take drastic action on climate change.

As yet Albanese has given no clues about how he proposes to resolve the contradiction. There are two clashing worlds in Queensland. In and around Brisbane, there is talk of a “green wave” amid the recently flood stricken electorates along the Brisbane river, where voters have experienced (first-hand) what climate change can do to their lives. In the rest of the state though (and places elsewhere) though, mining still rules.

The Balance

For now, Australia is going to have to wait a bit longer for all the votes to be counted to see if – and by how much – Albanese will be dependent on the Greens and the roughly 10 or so “teal independents” for confidence and supply. The teal independents have two main priorities. They are demanding immediate action on climate change, and they also want an independent commission to investigate political corruption. Labor has said it has no problem in offering them the anti-corruption panel.

Unfortunately for Albanese, he is unlikely to enjoy a honeymoon period, since there was little enthusiasm for him (or for Labor) on the campaign trail. Voters in general – and women voters in particular – felt a visceral dislike for Scott Morrison, but for his part, Albanese generated little in the way of positive enthusiasm. As a result, voters left both major parties in droves.

Ironically, the final outcome in some key electorates is now being delayed precisely because the Electoral Commission commenced its vote count in the age-old fashion by counting the preferences cast for the two major parties. Yet in several key electorates these preferences were not the crucial factor. In Brisbane seats like Ryan and Brisbane itself, it has been the preferences for the Greens that are proving decisive.

Footnote: Despite the cliché, winning obviously isn’t everything in politics after all. Scott Morrison’s victory in 2019 has proven to be a disaster for the centre-right, with repercussions that may last a decade. A generation of centre-right support has been wiped out, and/or has gone elsewhere. The teal candidates were Liberal moderates, and moderate Liberals voted for them. Those voters may never come back – and especially not if as expected, Peter Dutton takes over the Liberals leadership.

Relevance to New Zealand

The different voting systems make it difficult to read direct implications here from the Australian result. Compulsory voting in Oz probably fuelled the voter dissatisfaction with the two major parties. The preferential system also helped to deliver the victories won by the teal (ie blue/green) independents. The crucial ratio needed for their triumph seemed to be a 45 % or below approval rating for the incumbent, in unison with a 30% or higher name recognition fir the challenger.

Under MMP though, it is very difficult – but not utterly impossible – for support for independents in electorate battles to translate into seats in the House. In Australia, it was high profile local candidates – almost all of them professional women who had high public profiles – who won the electorate battles. While (mostly) it was sitting Liberal MPs who were displaced, the toll did include at least one Labor candidate (Kristina Keneally in the Sydney seat of Fowler) who had been parachuted into this Labor seat by head office. The winner though proved to be local deputy mayor Daii Le, who is unconnected to the Climate 200 group that funded the teal independents elsewhere around Australia.

The relevant lesson from Australia is that voters want drastic solutions on climate change, not aspirational policies that merely kick the can down the road, and give another five or ten years of latitude to business-as-usual. Unfortunately, the Greens in New Zealand are not a radical alternative. With James Shaw as their most visible face, they as just as likely to be seen as fellow travellers with business as usual, rather than a source of cutting edge solutions on climate change. .

Both our major parties deserve to come under increased pressure on climate change. So far, Act and National still seem to be living in the 20th century on this issue, and on others. Tax cuts, austerity cutbacks and a denial of urgency on climate change are outmoded responses to society’s current problems. Meanwhile Labour and the Greens – if the Emissions Reduction Plan is anything to go by – seem risk averse to a voter backlash from rural/provincial New Zealand if they dared to pursue sweeping solutions and a more urgent timetable on climate change. We seem stuck in halfway measures, at best.

Women candidates, women voters

As in Australia, women voters may prove to be the decisive voice in Election 2023. As this column pointed out last week, male voters seem to be very susceptible to a man in a business suit delivering a TED talk about the power of positive thinking. Women, though, have to deal with the cutbacks in public services that tax cuts render inevitable. Women also seem to have a keener insight into what climate change is already doing to the planet that their kids, and grand-children will inherit.

Will women voters here, like those in Australia, put crucial pressure on both major parties to lift their game on climate change and on social inequality? We can but hope.