Two contenders for PM have very different messages about how to address environmental emergency
— As political leaders travel across Australia to deliver their election talking points in farms, factories and sports fields, they are criss-crossing a country in the grip of a rolling climate emergency.
In the year leading up to the election on 18 May, huge swathes of eastern Australia have endured their worst droughts in a century. There have been apocalyptic scenes along the Murray Darling river system in which up to 1 million fish have died. In Queensland, floods have wiped out half a million cattle and bushfires have burned close to pristine rainforests. In the usually cool southern state of Tasmania more bushfires have raged across 190,000 hectares of land and devastated old-growth forests.
Last year was Australia’s hottest year on record and as winter begins many of the country’s major cities are staring down the barrel of water restrictions with Sydney, Melbourne, Darwin and Brisbane all facing the prospect of dams at just 50% capacity.
But on the campaign trail, through warming cities, blackened bush and scorched outback, the two contenders for prime minister are trumpeting starkly different messages about what, if anything, should be done to address the crisis.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, represents the ruling conservative Liberal party. The slogan-loving former head of Tourism Australia came to power after toppling his more moderate predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, in 2018.
Morrison’s stance on climate change can be summed up by an address to parliament in 2017 while brandishing a lump of coal. In a speech supporting fossil fuels, he goaded the opposition: “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you. It’s coal.”
Scott Morrison brings a chunk of coal into parliament
The idea that many in Morrison’s party consider climate change and its effects to be something to be laughed at is not hyperbole from the left. In 2015, the former prime minister Tony Abbott – who once called climate change “crap” – was caught on camera laughing at a joke about rising sea levels in the Pacific.
The great climate shutdown
In this election, the ruling Liberal and rural National Coalition – or “COALition” as they have been dubbed in attack ads – are pushing for a “climate solutions” fund that pays polluters to lower their emissions, with the aim of meeting Paris commitments of lowering emissions by 28%.
The country’s environment minister, Melissa Price, has been labelled the “invisible minister”, notable for her absence at the sites of environmental calamities, and her refusal to meet environmental groups. The party is also embroiled in a scandal dubbed “Watergate” involving the $80m purchase of water from a company with links to the Cayman Islands that was co-founded by the energy minister.
Morrison himself kickstarted a scare campaign based on the opposition’s ambitious electric car policy as a “war on the weekend”, suggesting that pick-up trucks, which are beloved by Australians, will become unaffordable.
But in rural areas a number of high-profile Liberal and National party MPs are facing independent and minor party challenges on the climate, the conflict between farming and mining, and sheer anger at being ignored on water management, as well as integrity issues. Independents are also chipping away at the Liberal vote in cities.
Meanwhile, the Labor party, which is leading in the polls by 52-48%, has promised significant action on climate change.
In his speech launching Labor’s official campaign, the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, a former union man who has struggled with the perception that he is uncharismatic, said: “If we have the privilege to serve as the next government of Australia, I will not bring lumps of coal to parliament for a laugh while temperatures soar and bushfires rage and flood and drought batter our land.”
Labor has made itself a “big target” in this election campaign, laying out a suite of policies including controversial tax reforms and the target of reducing emissions by 45% by 2030.
Despite this, the party can’t bring itself to fully commit on climate change, and is refusing to say whether it would stop a highly controversial proposed coalmine that environmentalists say will threaten the Great Barrier Reef. Labor’s equivocation on the Adani project led the Australian Conservation Foundation to give the party a score of 56% on its environmental policies ahead of the election. The Liberal party scored just 4%.
Meanwhile, the Greens, the fourth-largest party after the Liberals, Labor and the Nationals, was given a score of 99% by the ACF. The Greens have just one federal MP but are a force in the Australian Senate, with nine out of 76 senators. They are pushing for much more serious action on climate change, but have been accused of strategic blunders after they voted down Labor’s carbon pollution reduction scheme in 2009 on the grounds it did not go far enough, which helped hamstring Australian climate policy for a decade.
Australians are acutely aware of the climate emergency. A poll conducted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation of more than 100,000 voters found that the environment was the number one issue for most respondents, with 29% rating it as their biggest concern, up from 9% in the 2016 election.
Australian social researcher Rebecca Huntley said voters had started to connect the climate change debate with competent governance, or lack of it.
“The focus on climate change comes and goes but there is always a foundational concern around air, water and soil that would unite most Australians no matter where they sit politically,” Huntley said.
“Voters are searching for the party that can provide a pragmatic and tangible approach and they are asking whether the political system can deliver solutions.”
The Wilderness Society’s federal policy director, Tim Beshara, agrees. “The public want action but the level of trust in government is low,” he said.
“So if any political insiders still see the environment or climate as some inner-city non-core voter issue, then they are missing the wider view, which is that it’s an opportunity to demonstrate leadership, trustworthiness and competence.”
Labor wants the election to become a great climate showdown. “On this issue,” Shorten has said, “perhaps above all others, the contrast and the case for change is night and day, black and white.”
Morrison’s conservative government, meanwhile, is trying to frame this as an election about economic management, saying that a vote for Labor is “an economic leap in the dark”.
“What is the cost to the economy?” Morrison asked Shorten about his party’s climate policy in their leaders’ debate. “I mean, if there is going to be a change … Australians deserve to know what is the cost of the change.”
This is not the first Australian election in which climate change has been a defining issue, but last time did not work out well for those demanding action. Abbott rode to power in 2013 on a campaign of three-word slogans, promising to “Stop the boats” (of refugee arrivals) and “Scrap the tax” (repealing Australia’s cutting-edge carbon pricing scheme).
Labor is hoping that Australia – burned from that experience – has moved on.
by Kate Lyons | The Guardian