How concern about climate change could decide Australia’s election

Climate change has become a key election issue in a country that’s one of the largest exporters of coal and natural gas in the world.

Nearly one-third of the Australian electorate — 29 per cent — rates climate change as the top concern ahead of Saturday’s federal vote, according to a voluntary online survey of 119,516 respondents conducted by Vote Compass last month for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

In 2016, just nine per cent said climate change was the biggest issue.

Other public opinion surveys suggest the economy and health care are bigger issues for voters than climate in the reasonably tight race. But four analysts said there’s no question that climate change is playing a bigger role in this contest than in any other election in the Land Down Under in at least a decade.

“The 2019 election is definitely a climate-change election,” said Kate Crowley, an associate professor of public and environmental policy at the University of Tasmania who studies social attitudes.

Political jousting over climate policy in Australia — a large Commonwealth nation with high per capita greenhouse-gas emissions — holds some parallels for Canada’s October election, observers there said. 

Voters in Australia are angry that the current government has “not acted on climate change, given the unprecedented bush fires, droughts and extreme temperatures that have hit the country in the last year,” Crowley said.

With parts of Canada facing record flooding — and last summer’s wildfires — those concerns may be shared by some voters closer to home.

Tight race

Australia’s opposition Labor Party led by Bill Shorten holds a slim lead over the incumbent Liberal-National coalition headed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, according to a survey released on Sunday, echoing what other polls have indicated. 

In the Canadian context, the Labor Party is similar to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals while the Australian Liberal Party is comparable to Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, said Richie Merzian, director of the climate and energy program at the Australia Institute think-tank.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, and opposition leader Bill Shorten shake hands before a debate in Brisbane on May 3, just over two weeks before the country’s general election. (Gary Ramage/Pool via Associated Press)

Australia also has a Green Party, a host of independents, and the far-right One Nation Party, who are all battling for 151 parliamentary seats. 

The Australian Liberals are proposing to reduce climate-changing emissions of carbon dioxide by at least 26 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Labor says that’s not fast enough. The party has promised to reduce Australia’s emissions by 45 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 and to reach net zero emissions by 2050. 

A heightened concern about climate change generally play well for Labor, along with the Green Party and independent candidates, Merzian said, and recent wild weather has brought that concern to the fore.

Parts of the country’s agricultural belt have been in the grips of a severe drought for nearly a year, and record heat waves have hit other regions, Crowley said. 

The Great Barrier Reef, an iconic symbol of Australian identity, is also under threat from coral bleaching linked to global warming, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“There is a lot more appetite for change — and that comes from lived experience,” Merzian said. “There is a lot more talk about the cost of inaction on climate change.”

Demographic divides

These concerns are unlikely to shift electoral outcomes in the country’s rugged resource heartland of Queensland — Australia’s equivalent of Alberta — where coal-mining jobs and other economic worries are paramount for voters, Merzian said.

But in tight races — especially wealthy suburban ridings around big cities — unease with global warming could swing the balance of power, said Kate Dooley, an energy expert at the University of Melbourne.

A demonstrator at a protest in Sydney on May 3 wears a head in Abbott’s likeness while holding a sign referring to a comment the former prime minister made in 2017 belittling the science of climate change. (Rick Rycroft/The Associated Press)

Merzian said such concern could decide the outcome in seven or eight key seats — enough to potentially determine who wins the overall vote.

Tony Abbott, a former Liberal prime minister, “is facing the fight of his life” to keep the seat he has held for more than two decades in Warringah, a posh Sydney suburb, Dooley said, and “it’s almost all over climate change.”

His challenger, independent candidate and former Olympic skier Zali Steggall, has lambasted Abbott’s record on the environment. Her critiques are gaining traction with fiscally conservative, upper-class voters in what had been a Liberal Party stronghold, said Dooley. 

Dooley said Abbott’s battle shows that even in a country known for “big cars, cities with big sprawling suburbs and under-utilization of public transport,” climate change can rocket to the top of the agenda if politicians frame the message correctly. 

Carbon taxes and Canada

Australia’s past experience with putting a price on carbon, a move comparable to Canada’s carbon tax, also underscores the dangers politicians can face on the file, said Robert MacNeil, a professor of government at the University of Sydney.

“The 2013 election here was, by all accounts, an anti-carbon-tax election,” MacNeil said. Anger over carbon pricing, coupled with other factors, led to the defeat of the incumbent Labor Party. 

A coalition led by Tony Abbott’s Liberals swept to power and repealed carbon pricing in favour of an emissions-reductions fund — a subsidy scheme to entice big polluters to reduce their carbon dioxide output.

Spectators attempt to cool down in front of fans at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne in January, one of the hottest months on record in the country. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

Abbott successfully framed carbon pricing as “a great big tax on everything,” said Dooley.  

Voters generally express sympathy for environmental issues, MacNeil said, “yet when they are confronted with the perceived personal costs of those policies, as framed by right-wing opposition parties, they tend to shy away from them.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government used Abbott’s emissions-reductions fund as a template for its climate policies, MacNeil said. 

Today, with Abbott fighting to keep his own seat, and his party behind in the polls, MacNeil said the dynamics have changed. 

“Less than six years later, the electorate is demanding strong and decisive climate action again,” he said.

“Leaders in Canada should be mindful of this pendulum.”

Read more at CBC.ca

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