How Climate Is Splintering Australia’s Political Parties
By David Fickling | Bloomberg,
If right-of-center politics has a spiritual home in Australia, it’s among the leafy, expansive residential blocks of eastern Melbourne. In an almost unbroken run from 1949 until 1975, three prime ministers from the conservative-leaning Liberal party represented an electorate on one side or another of the Kooyongkoot Creek. The shallow watercourse wends its way between mansions that change hands for A$40 million ($28 million) or more, many built during a 19th century gold rush that once made this city one of the world’s wealthiest.
That solid hold on a political heartland is fraying — and climate change is the cause. An issue that has made and broken Australian governments for more than a decade, climate is set to do so again in 2022 — threatening this time to fracture the voting blocs that have given Labor and the long-standing Liberal-National coalition a duopoly of power since World War II. That carries lessons for governments elsewhere in the world, where rising fossil fuel prices are now making energy a topic as politically hazardous as it’s long been in Australia.
In Kooyong, the electorate of Australia’s longest-serving prime minister Robert Menzies and traditionally one of the deepest blue seats in the country, a barrister campaigning on refugee and climate issues for the Greens party took 44.3% of the vote at the last election in 2019, coming close to unseating Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Polling commissioned for Climate 200, a group backing an independent challenger in the vote on May 21, suggests support for Frydenberg has fallen further since.
It’s a similar story in neighboring Higgins, seat of Menzies’ two successors as prime minister, where Liberal, Labor and Greens candidates are in a tight three-way race. “There’s a mood of change in the electorate,” said Labor candidate Michelle Ananda-Rajah. “There’s a lot of people who don’t feel represented.” An adjacent inner-city seat has been held by the Greens since 2010 on one of the most solid margins in the country.
“Those traditional class cleavages are really breaking down in terms of how people view the world, and climate is the big new cleavage,” said Damon Alexander, a lecturer in politics at Swinburne University of Technology, whose campus sits in the midst of the Liberal heartland. “There’s a fair chunk of the electorate that’s not particularly happy with either party. It’s pretty fertile ground for the independents.”
The main parties won less than 75% of the vote between them at the 2019 election, down from 85% 12 years earlier. Climate is a particularly awkward issue: The Greens won about 10% of the total in 2019, while the Labor opposition blamed its loss in part on perceptions in blue-collar mining regions that it’s opposed to the coal industry. The government, meanwhile, was one of the last among major democracies to sign up to a net-zero target, thanks largely to internal opposition from the Nationals, a rural-interest party which strongly supports the coal sector. The major parties have kept debate on the issue to a minimum.
The difficulty has its roots in Australia’s unique circumstances. On one hand, it’s the world’s biggest exporter of fossil fuels after Russia and Saudi Arabia, with coal, oil and gas bringing in A$194 billion of export revenues this year. On the other, its population is affluent, with an outlook close to counterparts in Europe and the coastal US. A third of households have their own solar panels, and 29% of voters say climate is the number one issue at the election — almost as many as cite the cost of living, the economy, and defense put together.
Bipartisan timidity on climate, as well as gender issues and anti-corruption, has left the Liberal party in particular vulnerable in the swath of affluent inner-urban seats where independents are mounting challenges.
“I’m extremely concerned about lack of action on climate change,” says Trish Ritman, a retired human resources manager at an early-voting station in the suburb of Hawthorn last week. A swing voter who cast her vote for Monique Ryan — who is challenging Frydenberg this time — said she’s not unsympathetic to the incumbent, who sits on the moderate wing of the Liberal party: “I feel sorry for him.”
Formerly a socially liberal party just to the right of the political center, the Liberal Party has remade itself since the 1990s and under current Prime Minister Scott Morrison as a more straightforwardly conservative movement.
“I see myself as a Higgins Liberal. I stand for liberal values,” says Katie Allen, who’s the sixth consecutive Liberal MP to hold the seat of Higgins, traditionally one of the wealthiest electorates in the southern hemisphere. “If you have a strong economy you can deliver the services that Australians deserve and need, but also you can deliver on climate action.” (That promise hasn’t played out yet: Australia added more tons to its emissions between 2013 and 2019 than 33 of the 38 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.)
Professional women have been at the forefront of the political contest. Allen, Ananda-Rajah and Ryan all worked in medicine, while 13 of the 22 independent candidates being supported by Climate 200 are women with a background in either health, law, or business.
“The vast majority of the independents running are women who might otherwise have made very good Liberal party candidates,” says Anika Gauja, a professor of politics at the University of Sydney.
The shift in political values has been accelerated by changes in the makeup of the population. In Hawthorn, a traditionally blue-blooded suburb, the population grew by 19% between 2006 and 2016, and the share born overseas has risen from 28% to 39% of the total. Increasingly, it resembles left-of-center inner-city districts to the west. Millennials in the Kooyong electorate now outnumber baby boomers. Voting is compulsory in Australia, so such demographic shifts can have a bigger impact than in countries where younger people are less likely to turn up to the ballot.
Christine Mwaturura, a Zimbabwe-born DJ and podcast producer in her early 30s, cites policies on refugees, racism, and social and economic inequalities as most important to her. “Most of the Gen Zs and Gen Ys I speak to are a little more left-leaning,” she says. “Sometimes I watch politicians, and I’m like: ‘What you’re talking about doesn’t really matter to me.’”
The opposition Labor Party has a strong lead in opinion polls which may allow it to govern alone, without needing to count on support from independents and minor parties who may end up with a dozen seats in the 151-seat parliament. The challenge for those seeking to remake Australian politics will be how to form a workable governing coalition from this disparate base.
Menzies turned the Liberals into Australia’s natural party of government in the late 1940s by uniting the disparate anti-Labor forces into a single bloc. No such prospect seems likely this time.
“You can’t have a realignment with just one candidate, or even 10 candidates,” says Gauja. “There’s enough similarity in the major policy positions of the independents to give them some sort of a cohesive force, but at some point they will have to address the tough challenges that political parties face.”
Dressed in a houndstooth coat, Monique Ryan spent Thursday morning greeting voters outside an early-voting booth in Hawthorn. “I’m a pragmatist,” she said. “The last thing I want is to slow things down or be a disruption to the political process. But I think people like myself will hold the government to account.”
Across the street, four people in black leaned against the sandwich boards they’d been hired to walk around for the day, warning voters tempted to defect from the government’s candidate and vote independent: “Keep Australia Secure. Keep Josh.”
Ryan’s own well-funded activists wore teal-blue t-shirts and carried branded golfing umbrellas. Their slogan was shorter: “Kooyong’s climate is changing.”
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• What True Conservatives Should Care the Most About: Tyler Cowen
• Will Europe’s Climate Wars Become a Class War?: Lionel Laurent
• Indonesia Can’t Afford Australia’s Carbon Habit: David Fickling
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. Previously, he worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.