Climate change makes it mark on Australian elections

The defeat of the right-wing Scott Morrison Liberal-National government on May 21 indicates that people want change. The election result, which shows a strong mood to act on the climate crisis and inequality, shows the grassroots climate movement has and is having an impact.

At this stage it looks like the Labor party will form a minority government with the support of Greens and the so-called “teal” independents, who were elected in Liberal heartland seats on a climate action, refugee rights and feminist platform.

The Greens and independents could push the new government to go beyond the timid and conservative “small target” platform Labor campaigned on.

Whether the new Labor government will take real climate action and address the growing social discontent will depend in large part on further strengthening the social and union movements.

Morrison’s failure to acknowledge the climate emergency is real, the Coalition’s social conservatism and misogyny combined with an escalation of the cost-of-living crisis helped boot out at least 16 Liberal members of parliament.

Of particular note is the fact that the primary vote of both the Coalition and Labor declined by 5.9% and 0.5% respectively. Only Western Australia (7.5%), Queensland (1.3%) and the Australian Capital Territory (4.1%) recorded net swings to Labor.

The fact that the Liberals lost five seats in WA, following on from their wipe-out in the 2021 state election, guaranteed Morrison’s defeat.

Elsewhere, the two-party preferred swing to Labor flows from the rise in the vote for independents and the Greens.

While the rise in the Greens vote across the country was a modest 1.6%, it surged across inner-city Brisbane, rocketing two more Green MPs in the House of Representatives, joining Melbourne MP and party leader Adam Bandt, who was re-elected for a fourth term.

The result represents a stunning success for the insurgent radical campaigning style of the Greens in Brisbane. In Ryan, Elizabeth Watson-Brown came second in the primary vote with 31.6%, defeating one-term Liberal MP Julian Simmonds thanks to Labor preferences.

In Griffith, Max Chandler-Mather stormed in, winning a 12.5% swing and coming first in the primary vote with 36.2%.

The seat of Brisbane remains a tight tussle between the Greens and Labor, but with the Greens in front at last count.

The rise of the teal independents also matched the media speculation. Campaigning for stronger climate action, a focus on gender equality and the introduction of a federal integrity commission, these candidates have dislodged five Liberal MPs — most significant is former federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s loss to Monique Ryan in Kooyong. 

The teal independents have mostly positioned themselves as being “responsible” on economic issues, meaning they accept the bi-partisan neoliberal consensus — the very cause of the social and ecological crisis wrecking this country. However, their emergence is an important moment because it reflects an understanding that the climate crisis is real.

In the face of cataclysmic bushfires and floods, we saw the increasingly frantic attempts by the Coalition and Murdoch media to delay climate action, through a combination of denialism and insistence that the rest of the world can take action but Australia should get a “free pass”.

That trope has run out of rope.

Similarly, the grubby attempt to distract people by whipping up prejudice against transgender people also hit the rocks.

Senior Liberal Frontbencher Simon Birmingham admitted as much on the ABC’s Insiders, conceding that gender, diversity and climate change were factors in the Coalition’s defeat.

Labor’s arrogance also got its comeuppance, when former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally, who was parachuted in formerly safe Labor seat of Fowler in Sydney’s south west, lost to independent and deputy mayor of Fairfield Dai Le.

Despite the recent emergence of the right-wing “freedom movement” in response to COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates, there was no breakthrough for far-right parties.

One Nation only increased it primary vote by 1.9% to 5% with its leader Pauline Hanson battling Legalise Cannabis for the last Queensland Senate position. The United Australia Party only scored 4.3% despite more than $100 million being poured into it by its billionaire backer Clive Palmer and its attempt to mobilise support from the movement against COVID-19 vaccination mandates and lockdowns.

The handful of socialist candidates across the country all recorded a modest increase in their vote. In Wills, Socialist Alliance’s Sue Bolton (3.78%) and Victorian Socialist’s Emma Black (3.31%) received a combined vote of more than 7%.

Also in Melbourne, Jerome Small in Calwell and Catherine Robertson in Fraser (Victorian Socialists) won 4.91% and 5.42% respectively.

Kuku Yalanji woman Pat O’Shane, running for Socialist Alliance in the Far North Queensland seat of Leichhardt, won 4.3%.

While none of these rate much of a mention in the corporate media, it does indicate a small but growing appetite for anti-capitalist politics.

[Jacob Andrewartha, Sam Wainwright and Sarah Hathway are national co-convenors of the Socialist Alliance.]