In a stunning victory that defied the polls, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s center-right coalition defeated Labor Party leader Bill Shorten to hold on to a third term in office.
Morrison’s win on May 18 delivered a devastating blow to climate activists in Australia and abroad who hoped to see Australia break away from coal and transition to a low-carbon economy.
The climate change election
Climate change took center stage in this year’s election, with nearly two-thirds of voters believing this issue poses a “critical threat” to Australia’s interests, a 25 percent increase from 2012.
Australia is one of the developed countries most vulnerable to climate change. Heat waves, drought, and bushfires have become more extreme in recent years, and temperatures are expected to increase by as much as 5 degrees Celsius by 2090. Heat stress has caused an 89 percent decrease in baby corals on the country’s Great Barrier Reef, and a conservation group has said that koala bears may be functionally extinct, with climate extremes exacerbating their decline.
Shorten offered an ambitious plan to tackle climate change, focusing on investing in renewable energy, boosting clean transport and infrastructure, and working with businesses to help curb pollution. He pledged to reduce emissions 45 percent by 2030 and committed to net-zero pollution by 2050. Labor sought major changes to decarbonize the nation’s transportation sector, calling for 50 percent of new cars sold to be electric by 2030.
Morrison, who relied on the coal-producing state of Queensland to deliver a victory, attempted to brand himself as a moderate on climate change. He touted his plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2030, as outlined in the country’s Nationally Determined Contribution. However, Morrison was quick to ridicule the more ambitious policies proposed by Labor.
“Bill Shorten wants to end the weekend when it comes to his policy on electric vehicles where you’ve got Australians who love being out there in their four-wheel drives,” said Morrison. “He wants to say see you later to the SUV when it comes to the choices of Australians. And this is fundamentally the difference between us and Labor when it comes to these issues.”
In the end, Morrison’s message prevailed.
“The election forced voters to choose between short-term prosperity and longer-term disaster and they chose short-term prosperity,” said Rod Mitchell, National Chair for Citizens’ Climate Lobby Australia.
While the overall result of the election was disappointing, there were signs that voters are concerned about the threat of climate change, with candidates winning on progressive environmental messages.
Perhaps the most encouraging result was the defeat of former Prime Minister and leading conservative Tony Abbott. He lost his seat in Parliament to Zali Steggall, who promised real climate leadership in stark contrast to Abbott’s record.
Steggall’s emphasis on climate action helped swing the election in her favor.
“I will push for real action, so our children and generations to come can enjoy the environment and our beautiful beaches, and our beautiful country, the way we enjoy it,” said Steggall in her victory speech.
“It was very clear that many people in his electorate are really concerned about climate change,” said Mitchell. “He kind of stopped listening to his electorate and many were just fed up with him.”
Will climate action continue?
While Morrison insists that Australia will meet its Paris targets “in a canter,” his coalition has continued to embrace coal and fossil fuels. His proposed emissions cuts fall far short of what is needed, and Australia is not even on track to meet this modest goal.
“The clear indication to me is that the government is deliberately dragging its heels because of the influence of the fossil fuel industry and it is doing as little as possible. But it is using a fair amount of spin to make it look like they are achieving things,” said Mitchell. “There is no way that with the current policies, the government can meet our Paris commitment.”
But Mitchell believes the government is “going to be under a lot of pressure, not just internally in Australia, but overseas as well. They got called out in Paris and at all the other COPs for being laggards and that will continue at the international level.”
Mitchell went on to say:
“Big companies in Australia are saying we need a carbon price and the government is dragging its heels. Much of corporate Australia is demanding action except the coal industry. Even the gas industry is asking for some sort of carbon price and some climate action.”
While Morrison’s scaremongering tactics helped deliver a win for his coalition, his strategy is ultimately a short-sighted one. Voters in Australia and elsewhere are becoming increasingly concerned about the emergency posed by climate change. Morrison’s coalition will have to decide whether they will stand alone with the coal industry or deliver meaningful climate action.