(Photo: Al Jazeera)
By Jude Powell – Regular Contributor
May of 2022 saw the end of a nine-year Liberal-National Coalition government. In what is now the 47th Australian parliament, the Australian Labor Party formed its new government under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Projected to gain 9 more seats than in 2019, Labor’s success (however respectable) was contingent upon the failure of the Liberal/National Coalition which lost 19 seats and resulted in the poorest electoral performance of the Australian right since 1946. Despite attaining the largest first preference vote, what caused the representative collapse of the ‘Coalition’?
Firstly, it must be understood how political circumstances have changed in the past three years. This year, ANU and a plurality of surveys present the cost of living and energy crisis as the most malignant issue facing Australians. Some predictions see energy bills in Australia doubling. In New South Wales, for example, bills are expected to rise by as much as $240 a month. With action from a multitude of nations such as Italy and Germany; Australia has failed to even divert gas exports to domestic supply. In what is touted as the ‘Domestic gas security Mechanism’, the country could allocate some of its 74% gas supply used for exports to ease domestic prices. The Coalition government repeatedly refused such calls, with party representatives expressing to the public that any state interference with the energy market would detract investment and hinder success. In other words, profit before people. Dating as far back as 2017, ‘The Guardian’s essential poll’ on public opinion of energy saw 62% of Liberal and National voters stating the Coalition had not done enough on energy policy. In a time of relative market stability, this neo-liberal perspective can, unfortunately, suppress electoral disgruntlement. Within economic uncertainty, a privation of real terms governmental action cannot.
Labor, on the other hand, revolved its ascendence around the ‘Powering Australia’ plan for energy and climate. An antithesis of Morrison’s climate denial. The plan will (according to the party) create over 600,000 jobs, produce $76 billion of investment, cut power bills by $275 per annum by 2025 and reduce 43% of emissions by 2030. All achievements focused on a long-term renewable strategy. The Liberal-Nationals offered nothing substantial to challenge this. They uttered vague targets such as investing $22 billion into various renewable ‘technologies’ within the next decade and doubled down on a continuation of coal and gas expansion – typified by $10 billion in coal subsidies. Unlike their fellow conservative governments around the world, Scott Morrison’s coalition made no concerted attempt to meet ambitious climate targets. Throughout his tenure, Morrison made it clear he was against environmentalism. At the COP26 summit in 2021, there were few faux gestures that Australia would achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Beyond this, Morrison refused to shut down any coal and gas production or exports stating, “It’s an energy, trade and economic plan, not just an environmental plan”. These conditions coupled with an active refusal of the Liberal/National government to quell their severity in any manner did nothing but catalyse defeat.
Climate change did not unseat the Coalition government in 2016 and 2019, however. What changed in 2022? Subsequent bushfires and floods eclipsed the nation over the past two years resulting in a shift of public sentiment where politicians had not. In early 2020, the bushfires that ravaged the Australian countryside were met with government inaction and more importantly apathy. Scott Morrison was on holiday when the disaster occurred and refused to return saying, “I don’t hold the hose, mate”. It is easy to understand why the general public had become disillusioned with the climate denial the Liberals and Nationals espoused.
Failure of the Liberal/Nationals to respond to the climate crisis in any meaningful way renewably fuelled the growing influence of so-called ‘Teal’ independents across the urban Liberal heartlands as well as the already established Australian Greens. Named for their blue Liberal fiscal policies and green environmental policies, the ‘Teal’ independent candidates gained 6 seats in the ‘House of Representatives’ in the 2022 election. More than doubling their cohort, all of these gains ate into the Liberal majority necessary for another Coalition win. Funded by Australian philanthropist Simon Holmes, a Court, the Teal independents began (much like the Greens) their grassroots campaigning early by establishing a foothold across Australia’s urbanised constituencies. Both political blocks consistently sent aid during multiple climate catastrophes as well as through the Coronavirus pandemic while maintaining a positive presence within target areas. While the Coalition and Labor debated amongst themselves, the Greens and Independents abraded their vote share together. Independent campaigns for climate, integrity, and women’s equality while maintaining the fiscally conservative principles of the Liberal party allowed for candidates to offer more to wealthy moderate conservatives that would typically be taken advantage of by the Liberals.
Interestingly, the usage of preference voting by Australia aided in the ‘Teal’ takeover. The general result of constituencies like North Sydney or Wentworth saw a majority of voters vote independent first as a protest against inaction on climate change or the Cost of living while voting Liberal second so that they felt as if they had not betrayed their worldview. The outcome of this meant that the Liberals lost six of their safest seats which would not have been a catastrophic impact if the Australian Greens had not done so well. The Greens added three more seats to their one, exceeding expectations from forecasts.
In truth, the Australian Labor party did not earn their takeover alone. Achieving a lower preference vote than in 2019, the party holds a majority of three seats across the upper and lower chambers. Without the monumental success of the various ‘Teal’ Independents and Australian Greens, the Liberal-National Coalition of Scott Morrison may have been able to secure a minority government. Beyond political campaigns, the climate crisis typified the swing of public opinion the most alongside fears of both energy affordability and the cost of living. It will be interesting to see how the Liberal and National parties respond to the election of 2022 as with Morrison and Littleproud resigning as Liberal and National leaders respectively, the parties opted to elect Peter Dutton and Barnaby Joyce in their stead. They are even more staunchly conservative politicians who will assumingly not move to the centre on climate policy and take their parties in the wrong direction. If the Coalition does not adapt and accept the reality of renewable energy and climate change, they will be destined to be in opposition for longer than they hope.