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Assessing the Federal Election Outcome for Australian Solar and Sustainability

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On Saturday 21 May Australia’s federal election was held. From a renewables and sustainability perspective (among other factors) the outcome of this election had the potential to be immensely historic - be it for the better, or the worse. At the time of writing some votes are still being counted, some seats are not yet declared, and the full significance of what’s unfolded is still being brought into a clear focus. Yet already enough is known for our team here at STC to now touch on what’s occurred, and where Australia can now travel as a result of the poll.

The Result

In this election Australians voted to change the government. The incumbent Coalition - comprised of both the Liberal and National Party - led by Scott Morrison lost their majority, and the Labor Party led by Anthony Albanese claimed victory in the poll. This election was truly exceptional for many reasons. It was the first national vote held since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was one where due to the $80 billion budget deficit that’s occurred during their time in government - and unusually given their traditional approach to campaigning with the promise of a balanced budget if elected - the Coalition were going to an election totally unable to campaign on the promise of a budget surplus, and it was also one where action on climate change firmly dominated the decision of voters in many seats across the country.

Previous to the election, the polls suggested the Labor Party were on track to win. This said, the same was forecast in 2019, only for the Coalition to pull off what was called a ‘miracle’ election victory. Accordingly, more than ever there was uncertainty surrounding who would prevail, and whether it’d be the Coalition back in for another term, or Labor for its first in almost a decade. Yet even though the polls ultimately proved correct in showing the Labor Party would come out ahead of the Coalition, at time of writing they are yet to hold a majority. Numerous outlets have been reporting for some days now that they will, whereas others are holding off for the moment. It’s known that Labor is close - and getting closer - to the magic number of 76 seats they need to hold a majority in their own right.

In turn, even if they ultimately fall short, after having been officially sworn into office on Monday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese indicated he’d had discussions with a number of crossbench - those who are from neither Labor or the Coalition - members of Parliament (MPs) He said from these discussions these MPs indicated they will not support a motion of no-confidence the Opposition could bring if Labor didn’t have a majority - which if more than half of the House of Representative (AKA Lower House) MPs voted in favour of could force Labor to call an early election - and instead will provide support for the government in what’s known as confidence and supply. This means in essence even though these crossbench MPs will vote on specific laws how they wish regardless of what the Labor Government wants, they will in general support the idea of this new parliamentary session running as usual until the next election, and thus the Albanese government running a full term in office.

Yet even if Labor wins a majority, the fact the crossbench will now have many more independent MPs - in addition to the strong performance of the Greens seeing new members of theirs en route - who’ve been sent to Canberra with a mandate from their community for stronger action on climate change means they’ll be substantial pressure on the government to be seen to be responsive to the views of voters in these communities. As a result, just what this could mean for the future of Australia is important to unpack here and now, even while the dust is still settling.

The Teal and Green Ascendancy

Though Australia now has a new prime minister and government (more to be said regarding this shortly), undoubtedly the biggest story of this election has been the ascendancy of the independent candidates who are collectively called the ‘teal’ independents (though the significantly increased turnout for the Greens runs a close second).

A Teal Era Begins in Australian Politics

Allegra Spender in Wentworth, Kate Chaney in Curtin, Monique Ryan in Kooyong, Zoe Daniel in Goldstein, Sophie Scamps in Mackellar, and Kylea Tink in North Sydney. These 6 independents have fundamentally redefined the landscape of Australian politics. It’s no understatement to say that, as while the Senate (AKA Upper House) has always been a chamber where politicians from beyond the major parties could potentially get elected due to a difference in voting systems, in the Lower House since Federation, typically there’s been the dominance of a few major parties with the Labor Party on one side, and Liberals and Nationals on the other.

These 6 independents are now on track to join Andrew Wilkie of Clark in Tasmania, Zali Steggall of Warringah in NSW, and Helen Haines of Indi in Victoria, who are also independent members with a strong focus on climate change action. What the teals - so called because they are running in traditional Liberal seats (a party commonly identified with the colour blue) with more eco-friendly policies (hence the utilisation of green to combine with blue and form teal) - have ran on can leave no doubt of what they expect to see achieved in the next term of government, both as independents for each of their respective communities, and collectively where they may seek to form a bloc and act in unison to pressure the government into action.

The teals have run on a platform that seeks to see stronger action on climate change, the establishment of a federal independent commission against corruption, and the improvement of conditions for women, among other aims. Unquestionably each of these have merits in their own regard, but the latter two are expected to see shared support given to those goals by an Albanese Government. It’s surrounding climate change action that the potential for the biggest parliamentary dispute - yet in turn the greatest progress - between the Labor Party, and the teal independents and the Greens could be seen.

The Greens Have a Historic Election Performance

Speaking of, for their part, the Greens have also had a very successful election. Indeed, it’s held to have been their most successful ever. At time of writing it’s known the party has picked up a Lower House seat in the inner city Brisbane electorate of Ryan off the Liberal National Party (so called as the Liberals and Nationals are officially a combined party in Queensland instead of existing as separate parties in Coalition), and the Leader of the Greens Adam Bandt has won reelection in his seat of Melbourne. The Greens are also presently ahead in the count in the Lower House seats of Brisbane and Griffith respectively. All told, this could give the party four Lower House seats. This result is particularly remarkable given where these seats have come from. Given Queensland as a whole has been a (comparatively) conservative state prior - and was critical to the Coalition winning reelection in 2019 - the fact voters in these Queensland electorates have shifted towards the Green is a remarkable phenomenon. It’s held that the horrific floods seen in Brisbane in recent times have been a key factor, driving people to vote in support of the strong climate change action policies of the Greens.

What’s more, the Greens (as also detailed further below in Why a Majority Government Can’t Ignore this Parliament) are also doing well in terms of Senate voting results, with the possibility they will obtain the balance of power, and ultimately have 12 senators in total. Yet overall, whatever happens in this next parliamentary term, it’s a reality that the strong performance of the Greens - alongside the teals - nationally shows voters have evidently been taken for granted by the major parties. The Liberal National Party clearly lost the support of the majority of voters in many communities, and in turn the Labor Party must now reflect on the fact that they seemingly can no longer presume voters disenchanted with the Liberals and Nationals will simply opt for Labor at the next election, as indeed the Greens are now looming as a strong contender for future elections in other locales where their messaging surrounding climate change has clearly resonated.

There’s no question Labor may seek to more confidently occupy both the centre and left at the next election, given they’ve now sent the Coalition out of government, and this could mean Labor is able to win some seats the Greens now hold. But ultimately - just like with the teals - once the Greens have grabbed seats, there’s no question it’s going to be a very difficult task of winning them back. For many years Labor has felt they could shift to the right in the quest to vanquish the Coalition by picking up Liberal and Nationals voters, but with the strong performance of the Greens - in tandem to the wipeout of the Coalition - a clear signal has been sent by the electorate that they want major action on climate change, and this means Labor may yet need to quickly make the trek back to its more natural territory in the centre and left, in the quest to prevent their loss of more seats at the next election.

What the New Teals and Additional Greens Mean for Labor, Australia, and Climate Change

When it comes to policies surrounding energy and the environment, the Labor Party took to the last election a number of clear-cut policy plans. So what can we expect to see the Albanese government try and implement in the time ahead?

Labor’s Policies and Plans

It claims its Powering Australia policy which promises to “spur $76 billion of investment” will create over 600,000 jobs, with 5 out of 6 of them to be made in regional Australia. Additionally, it claims the implementation of this policy will ultimately drive down the cost of power bills for Aussie homes and businesses by $275 a year by 2025. Labor intends to upgrade the energy grid, install 85 solar banks around the country and 400 community batteries across the country, and to reduce the cost of electric vehicles with its National Electric Vehicle Strategy. Broadly speaking - while the teals and Greens may aspire to tinker with this policy if given the chance, and perhaps oomph it up considerably - it appears clear the Albanese government (as distinct from the former Coalition government) has a real commitment to expanding renewables, and so it can be expected that Powering Australia will likely find its way through the Lower House and the Senate in some way or another.

Labor ambitions for its net zero agenda will be far more difficult to win popular support for across the Parliament. It’s expected the Coalition will oppose it for going too far, whereas the teal independents and the Greens will oppose it for not going far enough. Officially, Labor has indicated prior it would match the former Coalition’s plan of net zero by 2050, and this is disappointing to many Australians, for it clearly is too timid. When it comes to 2030, Labor has said it will aim for Australia to see a 43% reduction in emissions below 2005 levels - and this is better than the former Coalition’s aim of a reduction of 26% to 28% by the same metric. Nonetheless, already the Member of Kooyong Monique Ryan has indicated she will push for that 43% to be lifted to 60%. While the teal independents can certainly act independent from one another on shared aims such as seeing Australia take more effective action on climate change, they will have an incentive to band together. In turn, this 60% target is one that independent Zali Steggall - who was already an MP prior to this election, and thus could not be considered a member of the teal class of 2022 - has sought to champion prior.

Why a Majority Government Can’t Ignore this Parliament

If Labor officially wins a majority, they may try to maintain their net zero policies, at least at first. After all, they’ll have the numbers to get legislation through the Lower House without any obstruction or amendments from other MPs, but ultimately a government needs more than just the votes in the Lower House to be successful and maintain popular support across the country. Accordingly, the Albanese government may recognise that their capacity to get a deal done not only in the Lower House (officially called the House of Representatives) but in the Senate shall be reliant on compromise. At present it’s being reported the Greens will win enough senators to hold the balance of power by the Australian Financial Review. If this indeed officially comes to pass, it will mean Labor will find the Greens intent on using their votes in the Senate to pressure Labor to put forward a policy that is stronger on climate change than what they currently have. The teal independents in the Lower House can also be expected to push the government hard in the regard, and even if Labor gets a majority in the Lower House - and could thus get through legislation without needing the independents to vote in favour of it - certainly these independents can be expected to maintain a significant media presence, and be able to make life quite difficult for the government in terms of its public perception, if it’s seen to be ignoring them.

It’s a reality that Labor were weary going into this election with an appearance of being too far ahead of the Australian public on climate change action. This would’ve made them vulnerable to - baseless, but potentially politically effective - Coalition attacks surrounding the ‘risk’ to the economy and jobs if greater investment in renewables to the detriment of fossil fuels, and stronger action on climate change, were to occur. Yet given the results seen in seats with the teal independents, the Labor Party must also recognise the clear message for change that’s been seen among the public in regards to climate change action, and that in turn if they do not seek to respond to that - and work effectively with these independents - the next election could potentially see many Labor MPs falling to a form of teal candidates, just as the Liberals did this time.

Labor may think that’s unlikely, but the reality is their loss of Kristina Keneally - formerly the Premier of NSW and more recently a senator who was aspiring to make the move to the Lower House - in the once-safe Labor seat of Fowler to independent Dai Le shows otherwise. Ms Le campaigned heavily on a platform that she was a local and not ‘parachuted’ in like Ms Keneally who was from outside the electorate. This outcome illustrates the notion of major parties regarding any long-held seats as truly safe anymore from anguished locals - keen to ensure with their votes that their local views are not being ignored - appears very risky indeed.

An Electorate Calling for Labor to Be Real Leaders

Overall, Labor has had a much better record historically in seeking to support the growth of renewables and to see effective action taken on climate change, in comparison to the Coalition. So there’s little doubt in the minds of political commentators that Labor leaders would ultimately like to be more ambitious in this area - and that the more modest policies they’ve adopted and took to this election were not because many among their ranks are climate sceptics who think it’s appropriate to joke about and deride the seriousness of climate change as many in the former Coalition government did - but that Labor Party leaders were not prior to this election, as a result of a political calculation surrounding what it would take to win office.

With the results of the weekend, the electorate has shown Labor arguably could’ve potentially taken a much more ambitious eco-policy to the voters and still won. As a result, they’re now faced with a difficult political environment, given that they do not want to be criticised for breaking away from their prior policy platform surrounding their 2050 and 2030 targets. Nonetheless, it’s undoubted many in the electorate who voted for teal independents and the Greens are clearly receptive to Labor doing it. In turn, the fact is - while the rise of the teal independents and the greater support for the Greens is certainly cheered by many Australians as being good for democracy even if they would not have voted for politicians in these groups personally - Labor must recognise many of these seats won by new teal independents and Greens perhaps could’ve - granted, even if more unlikely in the teal seats - been won by members of their party. That is, if Labor had taken a more ambitious set of energy and environmental policies to these electorates.

Yet even if Labor now regard it as a missed opportunity, they have to recognise another election will be here before long. They may not want to shift away from a commitment they made to the electorate about 2030 and 2050 as a matter of principle, but if they do not they may find the electorate punishes them next time with (as aforementioned) a new wave of teal independents, or an even bigger turnout for the Greens. This may occur not because Labor would be seen to have broken a promise regarding their current 2030 and 2050 targets, but because instead they were unwilling to respond to the dramatic change in sentiment that’s clearly been seen across the electorate, and one which is now calling for the new government to take Australia in a new direction, and pursue bolder 2030 and 2050 targets.

The Liberals: Going to the Right with What’s Left?

The Liberal Party has seen the moderate wing of their party decimated this election. Although Liberal members will seek to suggest this was a terrible thing to have happened because now the conservative wing of the party will be even stronger, the fact is this is disrespectful to voters in these electorates. Although Liberal MPs may have stood in these seats identifying themselves as moderate candidates, evidently their electorates felt they were not moderate enough, and ultimately many political commentators would say the decline in the moderate voice within the Liberal party - and the capacity for it to be a ‘broad church’ where both traditional liberals (aka moderates) and conservative politicians can exist in the same tent - has been in decline since John Howard’s prime ministership, that this was exacerbated under Tony Abbot’s prime ministership, and the end of Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership showed what appeared to clearly be an inability of Liberal moderates to make their voices properly heard in the party room. It could yet get even worse for the moderates going forward, and by extension Australians keen to see a sensible centre represented in the Liberal Party

For instance, as Josh Frydenberg - widely considered a member of the moderate wing - has indeed lost Kooyong, his prospects of standing for the job as the next Leader of the Liberal Party against Peter Dutton is obviously impossible. Based upon all that’s known of Peter Dutton, if he is the next MP in the top Liberal Party job, he will likely take his team even further to the right of Australian politics. This could pose a substantial challenge for the Liberals in their aim to return to government in the near future. On the facts at hand, it’s hard to see how an even more conservative Liberal Party could possibly appeal to voters in electorates such as Kooyong, Goldstein, and Wentworth (among others, who’ve voted out Liberal MPs who liked to regard themselves as moderates, and yet ultimately who voters felt were not reflective of their more mainstream Australian views. The fact is these former Liberal MPs who said they were moderate - even if they may have sought to suggest to their electorates they were somehow different from their conservative colleagues - voted in support of the former Coalition government’s terrible policies on renewable energy and climate change. So suggesting voters disenchanted with their local MPs were somehow doing wrong by their communities and the country by voting them out, is once again disrespectful to these voters, these communities, and the country - and illustrates why many are calling today’s Liberal Party very out of touch with the Australian community.

Dutton may feel he can cast aside these formerly Liberal-held seats in inner city areas, and perhaps win enough seats off Labor in the middle and outer suburbs to once again get his team back into government. This said, just as it’s usually the case that once an independent has won it’s typically very hard for a major party to win the seat back - or at least do so decisively for many terms, as the result of Wentworth shows, where Dave Sharma defeated an independent 3 years ago, only to lose to an independent in this election - the capacity of the Liberals to rapidly pivot in a way that would appeal to the middle and outer suburbs is far from clear, and won’t be easy.

What’s more, the outcome of this election suggests the Liberals have a very big problem on their hands in Victoria and Western Australia particularly (alongside some very worrying signs elsewhere such as in Queensland and South Australia). In these two areas state Labor Governments remain in power, have sizeable majorities, and remain popular. The latter won a historic election victory last year, and the former is widely expected to win reelection later this year, and it’s in these states where the Liberal Party clearly failed to ‘read the room’ in seeking to rally hard against the lockdowns and Covid-19 restrictions of recent years which - while there’s no disputing certainly had their detractors, and were certainly not invulnerable to some fair critique surrounding certain rules and settings at times - have ultimately evidently been supported by voters in these states, and thus the promise by Liberals that this election would see national Labor candidates punished for the lockdowns their state colleagues imposed has clearly not come to pass.

2022 in History: The Year Australia’s Battle for Good Climate Change Policy Ends?

The Albanese government was not set to deliver (at least in this first term) a response to climate change that many concerned Australians would find acceptable. This is disappointing if they do indeed win a majority, and refuse to budge on their 2030 and 2050 targets. Yet it’s also the case that it’s certainly in the national interest for any new government to be given a fair go to make a fresh start. Especially because there’s presently no expectation that the Coalition government will have any capacity to significantly shift from their previous approach to the issue of climate change, and particularly given the tensions between the so-called ‘moderate’ Liberals in their party who have previously pushed for stronger action - many of whom have now lost their seats, and thus will watch on from outside the Parliament as the Coalition becomes more conservative - and the Nationals who’ve been far more reticent to set and embrace strong climate targets.

If the Coalition was able to somehow form a stronger climate change action policy than Labor and bring it to the next election, then this could very much be a game-changer, but for now given the importance of this issue to Australians - and the unlikely odds the Liberal party will be able to win back any of their seats lost to the teal independents, unless they can convince voters the Coalition as a whole has truly changed on climate change - the Coalition is seemingly facing a very long time on the Opposition benches. Yes, futurology is always an imprecise science, but the fact is the Coalition for more than a decade has been unable to make peace among its stakeholders surrounding a credible climate change policy which would appeal to the electorate. Until they can, it appears clear-cut they will be unable to present a strong and appealing front to voters, especially because they now no longer enjoy the incumbency of government, and the advantages it brings.

Ultimately, even though the Coalition’s lacklustre policies on climate change are clearly not in the national interest, it’s certainly best for Australia that the country does have strong forces holding the government of the day to account, and also able to present an alternative vision that seeks to offers the potential for the nation to be even better. Seemingly, the Coalition won’t be able to do this with the Albanese government when it comes to climate change, but the support seen in this election for the teal independents and the Greens affirms there will indeed be strong voices in the next Australian Parliament, calling for the Albanese government to bring a more ambitious policy to the fore surrounding climate change action, and the growth of renewables. This pressure on Prime Minister Albanese and the Labor Party can’t be expected to yield results overnight, but over the span of the next few years - where we shall see happily the further growth of renewable capacity, a and decline in the cost of renewables, in tandem to the tragic reality that more extreme climate change-linked natural disasters are expected - there will be scope in Australia to advance forward a positive agenda that pushes for greater support of renewables by the government, and a more dynamic approach to driving down the country’s emissions.

Real progress on these two goals won’t be easy, but really, before the last election, under Scott Morrison and his Coalition colleagues, it was essentially impossible. Now the government of Australia has changed, and the Parliament has a very different look. With this change and a new look, can come a fresh approach to pursuing the national interest. There is certainly the need to wait and see - and Australians must be ready to hold to account these same leaders if they don’t succeed - but there’s no doubt Australia’s prospects of becoming a renewable energy superpower, and a responsible global citizen in combating climate change, just got a whole lot better with this election result. In sum, for advocates of solar power and sustainability, this result has brought the promise of a lot more sunshine and clear air in Australia’s future.

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