The Politics    Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Green light

By Rachel Withers

Image of Greens leader Adam Bandt addressing supporters in Melbourne at the Greens reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © James Ross / AAP Images

Greens leader Adam Bandt addresses supporters in Melbourne at the Greens reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © James Ross / AAP Images

The Labor Party has a clear directive from the electorate to go further on climate

For those hoping for stronger action on climate change, the news that Labor has just about secured a majority comes as a disappointment. Many had hoped for a hung parliament – with Greens and climate-focused independents holding the balance of power – to force the Albanese government to set a more ambitious 2030 emissions-reduction target (one that could actually keep warming below 1.5 degrees, perhaps). But despite an enormous outcome for those groups, with pundits here and abroad labelling this the “climate election”, the ALP won’t need them to form government – though it will have to deal with an emboldened Greens Senate crossbench. Greens leader Adam Bandt has, unsurprisingly, been claiming a “massive mandate” on climate anyway, while the teal independents are pushing Labor to go further. Speaking to RN Breakfast, Treasurer Jim Chalmers made it clear that Labor wasn’t intending to budge (its targets were “plenty ambitious”, he said), while likely climate minister Chris Bowen has “slapped down” Greens demands for more aggressive decarbonisation, telling the AFR that the government had a “mandate” for its plans. Make no mistake, however. The 47th parliament has a clear mandate to go further on climate – a directive the Labor Party ignores at its peril.

Electoral mandates are, of course, slippery things. It’s often hard to pin down exactly what part of a campaign caused a party to win or lose, and politicians are always eager to spin that to suit their agenda. There are plenty of admirable things Labor can claim to have a mandate on in this election, although much of that comes down to “not being the Morrison government”. But it’s not clear that the new government, which lost its shadow environment minister to a Greens candidate on the weekend, has a mandate on its insufficient 2030 target of a 43 per cent cut on 2005 levels. There is nothing to say that this 2030 target is now “fixed”, as Scott Morrison insisted repeatedly his was, even as he committed feebly to net zero by 2050, and while the world continued to move well past us.

One thing that is clear from this election is that the Australian people want more action on climate – much more. Even if they didn’t win a strict balance of power, the “greenslide” in Queensland (and elsewhere, with the Greens’ primary vote rising as the major parties’ fell) as well as the “teal wave” in the inner cities showed that Australians were overwhelming voting on climate, following a term that saw devastating fires and floods at home, and existential heatwaves abroad. Arguably, the only reason these groups didn’t end up with a balance of power on the numbers, despite such a massive showing, was because the electorate was so jack of the dinosaurs in the Coalition, with even the Nats vote falling in some places (despite their leader’s insistence that all is well). As The Chaser’s Craig Reucassel noted on election night, the Coalition’s likely only gain is in Gilmore, and that would have a lot to do with the candidate having spoken out against the Coalition’s inaction during the bushfires. “It’s the climate, stupid,” Reucassel joked. And it’s simply stupid for the Labor Party not to listen, just because they can scrape their way to 76 or 77 seats.

It’s understandable that Labor is reluctant to go further, despite this massive green light from the electorate. The spooked party had lowered its 2030 target by 2 per cent, along with most of its progressive ambitions, since the 2019 loss, and Labor figures were eager throughout this election campaign to insist that they would not be swayed by the Greens again. But times have changed – clearly. It’s also understandable that the ALP doesn’t want to alienate the minority who didn’t vote for stronger action this election, with Chalmers talking constructively about working with everyone – although when has that ever stopped the absolute minority in the Nationals, who get a small fraction of the vote, dictating the entire nation’s plans? It’s increasingly clear that the increasingly powerless holdouts in the Nationals party room will never get on board, no matter how big or small Labor’s ambitions are, and there is little point pandering to them when much of the nation has voted for transformational change.

Labor’s climate policies are not uniformly terrible, and there’s no doubt that the party is now sharing in the spoils of the climate election by being better than the Coalition’s extremely low bar on climate. But, as many on the right keep (correctly) arguing, Labor’s 33 per cent primary vote is rather low. A large chunk of the vote that has swept the Coalition out of power went to the Greens and teals, and those voters surely deserve some say in policy outcomes, even if their representatives don’t end up with the balance of power. This, after all, could be one of the last elections in which either major party secures a majority, with experts predicting an end to the two-party system. Australians have clearly had enough of one-party rule.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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