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Blue Wall Australians voted for climate action; Boris Johnson should take note

Conservatives in the UK and Australia have relied on the same tactics to win power. But Australia’s election results show they need to change tack.

By Richie Merzian

The year 2019 brought success for conservatives in the UK and Australia, with Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison celebrating “landslide” and “miracle” election victories, respectively. Both wins were attributed less to sound policy than with the careful preparation and execution of ruthless campaigning by the same political strategist, Isaac Levido, to highlight the economic recklessness of the left and strike “anger, excitement, pride, fear” into voter’s hearts.

In Australia this fearmongering bled into the climate debate, with the Liberal-National Party (LNP) coalition making the economic cost of climate action a dominant election issue. The LNP coalition used “modelling” that put a price tag of $264bn on the opposition’s climate policies. The modelling was discredited by climate experts, who showed that it failed to consider the economic benefits of investing in renewable energy and new technologies or to quantify the costs of not acting to prevent climate change. But the seed of doubt planted in voters’ minds was enough to secure victory for the LNP.

The UK has at least two more years until its next general election; Australia, meanwhile, has just emerged from the polls. In 2022, the Morrison government employed largely the same campaign tactics, and strategists, that brought success three years ago. However, Australians this week sent the message that, after almost ten years, they had heard enough hollow promises and voted the conservative coalition out of government, unambiguously voting for climate ambition.

Several seats are still in question, but the result in Australia should serve as a lesson for the UK. Not least that when it comes to climate, the public is shifting faster than some politicians and corners of the media realise or give it credit for. Voters want clear, credible leadership that aligns with their experiences.

The past three years in Australia has had catastrophic bushfires and floods, wreaking havoc on the environment and people’s lives. They have been exacerbated by climate change and mismanaged by the Australian government. It was absent throughout the cataclysms – quite literally in the case of the 2019-20 bushfires, as the now-former prime minister, Morrison, holidayed in Hawaii – it failed to respond in time, and has still not assisted communities with recovery efforts.

As climate change impacts are experienced by voters, the need for credible climate action rises in urgency and priority, increasingly competing with, or outranking, other major concerns around the cost of living and regional security. It is no coincidence that the seats affected by the bushfires overwhelmingly voted for climate candidates.

Yet even in the face of these disasters, here and overseas, the outgoing Australian government doggedly continued its decade-long trend of acting as a handbrake on climate action domestically and internationally. It is not that the coalition didn’t hear the ever-more urgent calls for climate action, it was simply at odds with the government’s entrenched material and ideological support for the fossil fuel industry.

The writer and activist Naomi Klein once remarked that, in Australia, you cannot tell where the coal industry ends and the federal government begins. The result of this is that any “emissions reduction” policies devised by the coalition, nominally to placate the masses, were either largely meaningless or transparently designed to facilitate ongoing fossil fuel production.

This unconvincing veneer of ambition was starkly evident in late 2021, just before the UN climate conference in Glasgow, when the Morrison government finally relented and committed to net zero by 2050. However, it only took this step reluctantly after every state government in the country, along with many Australian businesses and other OECD countries, had already adopted the target. Even then it was a last-minute concession announced with no detail, no additional budget allocation, no legislation and no increase to the short-term target.

Not only did the net zero “plan” explicitly state that “Australia’s coal and gas export industries will continue through to 2050 and beyond”, the Australia pavilion at Cop26 a week later heavily promoted gas as part of the country’s climate plans: it included a model of a carbon capture and storage facility.

Even if the government’s net zero plan had any legitimacy, for voters it was probably too little, too late. The government, in partnership with Australia’s mainstream media – dominated by Rupert Murdoch and other conservative interests – underestimated them for too long.

Long-held conservative heartlands in Australia have fallen to the infinitely more climate-ambitious Green and independent “teal” (the blue of the centre right combined with green views on climate) candidates. Australian conservatives have lost support in the country’s equivalent of Britain’s Blue Wall because they took their constituents for granted and put their own interests first. Teal seats are not unique to Australia. Polling shows that 56 per cent of UK Blue Wall voters in Conservative seats think the government should be doing more on climate change.

While UK climate ambition is more credible than the Morrison administration’s ever was, the complacency and contempt for voters by the outgoing Australian government should serve as a lesson for the UK. Levido is tipped to return to London to manage the next UK general election campaign. Voters want credibility and evidence-based action, not policies that serve the narrow interests of industry or a small but vocal minority clinging to ideology. As the recent local elections demonstrated, the Tories risk losing their voter base if their policies are not aligned with what communities want.

Australia's 21 May election results bring hope that the country may be able to shed its reputation as a global climate laggard. The incoming government has already committed to bidding to host a Cop and to increase climate funding to the Pacific. The results also warn other governments around the world that voters will not tolerate spin or a lack of credibility when it comes to climate.

[See also: Labor’s win in Australia isn’t decisive – but it marks a major political shift]

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