Meet the climate independents who shocked Australia’s political elite

Climate Energy

Meet the climate independents who shocked Australia’s political elite

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An epic failure of Australia’s government to address the climate crisis, unleashes a political ‘teal’ revolution. Climate & Capital’s Blair Palese meets the new revolutionaries

This weekend’s Australian federal election sent the world a clear message: Ignore climate change and women at your peril. At least nine independent candidates, mostly women, made Australian history by helping the Labor government take control after ten years in the wilderness. As the results came in, a rising number of seats fell to what has come to be known as a “teal” bath because of the candidates’s shared campaign color.

It was an extraordinary shift away from the sitting conservative government coalition born out deep frustration, fear and anger at years of refusing to even acknowledge climate change, let alone address it. This despite some of the worst fires and floods the world has ever seen.

The world’s first renewable energy superpower

While the regime of Prime Minister Scott Morrison denied climate change, Australia’s new Labor prime minister, Anthony Albanese, promises to make Australia a renewable energy superpower. This is a huge victory for the climate-driven independents, who now hope their message of the need for action and taking up the economic opportunities of solutions will spread. These independents along with a few new Greens members are likely to push Labor to do much more than the party would do without them.  It’s a chance for Australia to step up and rejoin the world in setting real emissions reduction targets and transitioning from fossil fuels.

It may also be a sign of things to come around the world. Australia’s previous boys club, coalition government of far-right parties –– the Liberals and Nationals –– failed spectacularly in this election. In a country dominated by mining, coal and gas, the Murdoch media and toxic vested interest politics, community-backed independents have shown what can happen when the public has had enough. 

‘Enough is enough’

“What Australians proved with this election outcome is that voters are looking for transformation,” community-backed independent Nicolette Boele,  who is still waiting for the final vote count in her electorate of Bradfield, told Climate & Capital. “It’s clear that how we’ve dealt with things in the past is not working. We need people with real-world experience and an ear to community concerns to forge a new way forward. Climate change is the intersectional issue that touches on all aspects of life — our economy, jobs, health and preparing for more of the climate impacts we’re already seeing. We need strategic and long-term thinking to address it and we we have not seen that from the major parties of government.”

Boele said older women and young people stepped up in their hundreds to get involved in this election and brought about the radical shift away from the sitting government.

“Grandmothers have been saying ‘enough is enough’. Younger voters are angry and tired of privileged, older men in government not hearing their voices and not acting in their interest.”

The rise of Australia’s climate independents

So who are these newly-elected independent women? A pediatric neurologist, a foreign correspondent who has covered global conflicts, the founder of a major cancer foundation and a former business consultant, most in Sydney and Melbourne electorates, are on their way to the government seat of Canberra. All have had successful careers outside of politics and all ran with community, not political party, support, including funding. 

Virtually all of these candidates list the government’s failure to address climate change –– as devastating fires and floods ravaged the country –– as their reason for running. Collectively, they signed up tens of thousands of volunteers to support their campaigns from all walks of life, many completely new to election politics. While Labor looks to gain enough seats to govern in its own right, the independents are likely to put strong pressure on them to deliver stronger policy outcomes and not just on climate change but on government accountability, integrity and equity for women. 

Australia has no national climate policy

“Every single issue we face is interconnected with climate change in some way, whether it’s national security, food security, energy costs, economic productivity or the mental health of our children who have watched millions of animals burn to death in fires,” Boele said. “This issue is not going away. It will be impacting permeates families and communities  for decades to come.” 

Australia’s per capita emissions are some of the highest in the world and its emissions reduction targets are some of the lowest. The country currently has no national climate policy for reducing emissions, no price on carbon, no policy to electrify the country’s ageing energy systems and transition to electric vehicles. The previous government was using taxpayer money to fund new gas projects and expensive, untested carbon capture and storage technologies that were a direct benefit to the fossil fuel sector. Analysis by independent think tank Climate Analytics showed that the previous government’s approach on climate would lead to 3 degrees Celsius of warming. The newly arriving Labor Party’s plan, left unchallenged, would lead to to 2 degrees of warming. 

“This government has done nothing good for us in the past nine years.”

Prior to the election, a number of independent candidates showed the country what was possible. Independent Zali Steggal successfully ousted former prime minister, and blatant climate denier, Tony Abbott in the last election and put forward strong climate bill that is now ready for real consideration by the new government. It would legislate a strong 60% emissions reduction target and, thanks to Steggal’s efforts, has far-reaching support from a wide range of businesses and interest groups around the country. Labor comes to government with the pressure of new independents, their stronger legislative bill and public expectations for real action. 

“The [previous] government has done nothing good for us in the past nine years,” said independent Dr. Monique Ryan, who successfully won her seat against long-serving Liberal and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, in the country’s biggest upset. She called the government’s legacy a “toxic miasma of division, disappointment and debt.”

Businesses and voters alike were embarrassed by the country’s behavior at COP26

International media covering the independents has largely missed that, while the biggest upswell of climate independents is happening in Australia due to the scale of the government’s climate policy failure, it is likely to spark a growing trend around the world. 

So how did it all start in Australia?

“Engaged Australians are deeply frustrated that we are not making progress on the issues that matter … We are frustrated that so often our government has been found to be either lying or incompetent, sometimes both,” said Simon Holmes à Court, who founded a fund called Climate 200 to support climate-focused candidates, at a speech prior to the election in Canberra. “We have had a government more interested in winning elections than improving our great nation. A government that seeks power without purpose.”

Having lived through the utter frustration of more than a decade of government climate inaction in Australia myself, I can attest to the catalyst effect this has played nationally. By way of full disclosure, I have volunteered to support many independent candidates prior to the election. Like many who want Australia to just get on with addressing the issue, it seemed like the only way to break the complete policy deadlock. Also, Australia’s mandatory voting requirement, vote or be fined, is actually a great advantage. While Americans often bristle at the idea of being required to vote, mandatory democracy means just that, and in this election, voters voted for climate action and a move away from government playing politics on the issue. 

“Climate change has been weaponized.”

“Climate change has been weaponized as a political issue in this country for so long, I think the government has lost the capacity to see that it is a huge issue for our future prosperity and safety,” newly elected member Zoe Daniel told the media before the election.  

Business leaders, investors, economic and security experts, Aboriginal communities whose lands are being impacted by fossil fuel extraction, young people who will suffer more extreme weather in the future and even some coal-dependent communities wanting transition support all expressed frustration and deep worry about climate change long before the election. 

Heady times

From joint letters by scientists and famous writers including Kate Grenville, John Coutzee and Di Morrisey to state and local governments taking the move to renewable energy into their own hands, the previous federal government has been seen as dangerously out of touch. It’s an open secret that the leaders in the country’s two biggest economic states, Victoria and New South Wales, were negotiating behind the back of the previous federal energy minister despite hailing from opposing political parties. Businesses and voters alike were embarrassed by the country’s laggard behavior at COP26, where Australia famously allowed the gas company, Santos to park its logo on the country’s national exhibit as French President Macron called Prime minister Scott Morrison a liar. Heady times. 

Even former Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, a Liberal whose seat of Wentworth was just won by a teal backed the independents before the election. “Even if the members of a political party cannot escape from the thrall of the dominant faction, their traditional supporters in the electorate can do so by voting for an independent who has a real chance of success,” he said. 

Around the world, signs of this break-free independent movement are showing. From Mayor Michelle Wu in Boston and “sunshine socialist” Richie Floy in Florida to Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb and BankFWD CEO Vanessa Fajans-Turner running for Congress in New York, climate-focused candidates are on the rise. Add to that Jane Fonda’s new climate change PAC, organizations like Give Green to help donors find climate candidates to back and a growing number of renewable energy and climate-tech PACs, climate is likely to top the election agenda in the U.S. Elsewhere, the Greens continue to play an important role in European politics, the Canadian government has just launched its first national consultation with voters on climate impacts and adaptation, and the U.K. and New Zealand continue to see the issue as a bi-partisan imperative. 

The question now in Australia is whether the new Labor government will seize the opportunity of working with climate-focused independents to deliver the kind of real climate policy the voting public just demanded. 

Written by

Blair Palese

Blair Palese is a writer and project manager on a range of climate change projects. In 2009, she cofounded 350.org Australia and was its CEO for 10 years. Previously, she was a communications director for Greenpeace International and Greenpeace USA, head of international public relations for the Body Shop, editor-in-chief of Greenpages magazine, and worked at Washington Monthly and ABC.