Why Greens Are the Winners in Australia’s Elections

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Exactly a month ago, I was driving down a long, empty stretch of road in eastern Australia, swerving around kangaroo carcasses and listening on the radio to Prime Minister Julia Gillard give a policy speech on climate change ahead of the August 21 national elections. It was a stunning day in rural Queensland, with blue skies stretching out over the eucalyptus trees, and almost no other cars on the two-lane country road. Coming from Hong Kong, I felt like I was getting the most peace, quiet and good clean oxygen I had breathed in awhile.

But Australia’s not as pristine as it looked that day. It is, per capita, the largest emitter of carbon dioxide among industrialized nations, with 80% of domestic power still coming from coal-fired plants. Australia is the fourth largest producer of coal after China, the U.S. and India, and it exports more coal than any other nation, padding the Australian economy with $55 billion in 2008-9.

Australia’s former PM Kevin Rudd came to power in late 2007 partly on a platform of reforming Australia’s non-commitment to climate change, calling it ”the greatest moral challenge of our times.” One of the first things Rudd did in office was ratify the Kyoto Treaty, which his predecessor John Howard had refused to do. Rudd also promised to implement an emissions trading scheme, a plan destined to get lost in the political labyrinth of Canberra over concerns that it punished industries bringing much-need cash to Australia. As Rudd’s government hit insurmountable roadblocks — both from the right who said his cap-and-trade plan was anti-business, and from the far left who said it didn’t do enough — this spring the Labor Party deferred the scheme until 2012.

Soon after, the increasingly unpopular Rudd was ousted as leader of the Labor Party and Gillard took over, inheriting the complicated problem of how to move her party’s climate change policy forward. Her opponent in Saturday’s elections, Tony Abbott of the conservative Liberal Party, is a self-proclaimed climate change skeptic who thinks the world is getting colder. He has, to be fair, laid out his own emissions-reduction plan in keeping with Australia’s stated commitment to cut emissions 5% by 2020. But something tells me the guy’s heart isn’t in it.

That afternoon in the car, I listened to Gillard outline Labor’s revamped climate change plan, which included, among other things, increasing funding to renewable energy projects, setting up a committee of scientists to report back to the government on the state of climate change, and this:

And so today I announce that if we are re-elected, I will develop a dedicated process – a Citizens’ Assembly – to examine over 12 months the evidence on climate change, the case for action and the possible consequences of introducing a market-based approach to limiting and reducing carbon emissions… I envisage that those involved would be genuinely representative of the wider Australian public. They would be voluntary participants, but selected through the census/electoral roll by an independent authority.

Personally, I don’t relish the idea of myself or any other average citizen getting involved in cap-and-trade: it is excruciatingly complicated and I think these plans’ architecture is best left to economists and scientists. But more than that, the proposal just seemed kind of waffley, like Gillard was buying time while things cool off enough to go ahead and push the emissions trading scheme in an easier political environment. Evidently some of her audience also found fault in the plan: the speech was interrupted by a Friends of the Earth protester who rushed the podium while Gillard was speaking and was promptly tackled and arrested.

Australia, evidently, was not much more impressed. This weekend, Australian voters went to the polls and declined to give a clear mandate to either major party, leaving a hung parliament that both Gillard and Abbott will spend the next days wrestling for control over. It was, in fact, the up-and-coming Australian Greens that gained the most in these elections, bringing in a record number of votes to their fast-growing party and winning their first lower house seat in a general election. That seat could prove crucial in tipping the balance in the House: if the Greens do join forces with Gillard to form a successful ruling coalition, they could force her party’s hand at developing a more aggressive climate change policy.

With Gillard being the incumbent and off to a strong start, this election was Labor’s to lose. And though it seemed drowned out by issues like immigration control, marriage and constitutional monarchy, a lack of vision on climate change cost both parties dearly. A lot of Australians, it seems, actually want to do something about their place at the top of the polluters’ list. And that writing was on the wall before campaigning even began in earnest: an early summer Auspoll commissioned by the Australian Conservation Foundation found that 45% of swing voters would for Labor if Gillard committed to reducing emissions in the next year. However the new government shapes up, it would be a good plan this time to listen a little closer to what constituents are saying.