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The same is not safe: the independents on a mission to put climate action first this Australian election

Photography By Conttonbro, Bernard Wright
Published 16.05.22

The upcoming Australian federal election offers an incredible opportunity for climate action.

So far, this campaign has seen both major parties refuse to set science-based climate targets, while continuing to back coal and gas into the future. Australians want better, and they will be voting for it on May 21. The latest Vote Compass figures show climate change is the number one issue for voters, with 60 per cent believing “much more” must be done to cut emissions.  

Despite these stats, the Liberal and Labor parties have responded to the push for stronger climate action by avoiding the topic entirely. Climate change has taken a back seat to other issues this election, with cost of living, housing, health care and defence dominating debates. We’ve also seen Labor soften its stance on climate by lowering its emissions reduction target by 2 per cent and coming out in support of the continued use of fossil fuels. 

Thankfully, there are other options, with independents across Australia stepping up this election to fill the climate void left by the major parties. Grassroots community groups known as “voices of” or “voices for” have emerged around the country, rural independents are challenging the Nationals in regional areas and a cohort of Climate 200–backed candidates are campaigning for key inner-city seats. The one commonality between these groups: stronger action on climate change.  

“These candidates have been pushed to nominate largely because of the perceived incapacity of the current Australian political system to achieve meaningful action on the issue [of climate change],” writes journalist Margaret Simons in a deep dive for the Monthly.  


Teal independents challenging key Liberal seats  


Perhaps the most hyped of these groups are the teal independents (named for the blue-green shade of many of the candidates’ campaign materials), running with support from Climate 200 – a political funding organisation established by businessman and activist Simon Holmes à Court. Of the 22 candidates backed by Climate 200, a handful of women challenging safe Liberal-held seats have captured the most attention with their calls for climate change legislation and integrity in politics.  

In Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Allegra Spender is advocating for smart economic policy bolstered by renewables and an evidence-based transition to zero emissions. She hopes to unseat Liberal MP Dave Sharma. Nearby, Zali Steggall, who brought a climate bill before parliament last year, is running for re-election in Tony Abbott’s former seat of Warringah. In Melbourne, Dr Monique Ryan is campaigning for the safe Liberal seat of Kooyong held by treasurer Josh Frydenberg. And in Goldstein, former ABC journalist Zoe Daniel is going up against Liberal MP Tim Wilson with the campaign slogan “same isn’t safe”.  

Image of Zoe Daniel by Bernard Wright

All four candidates hope to swing long-time Liberal voters in wealthy electorates with campaign promises of climate action, better economic management and restored government integrity. Speaking to RIISE from her campaign office in Goldstein, Zoe explains why the next three years are a critical time for change.  

“We’ve wasted so much time already and anyone who’s looking at the science would know that our chances of keeping global temperatures at a reasonable level are slipping away. So we really can’t waste another three years on a situation where whoever’s in government doesn’t take swift action,” Zoe says.  

She’s already got a clear idea of what that action would look like: push Zali Steggall’s climate change bill through before the end of 2022, put legislative targets in place, set up an independent climate body to monitor targets and guide policy, start implementing an upgrade of the national grid, move quickly into renewables and provide incentives for businesses to invest in green energy.  

Zoe’s ability to communicate dense information in a clear and concise manner is a skill honed over 27 years spent working as a journalist. As a foreign correspondent in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, and ABC bureau chief in the United States during the Trump era, Zoe has witnessed both climate change and political upheaval first-hand.  

“I’ve covered superstorms in the Philippines, bushfires in the United States and Australia, floods in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia, as well as cyclones and hurricanes in the Pacific and the US. I’ve also been to the Arctic, so I’ve seen the melting permafrost and the changes to communities that are happening in that part of the world,” she says.   

Zoe is not intimidated by politics, and she has the skills required to analyse policy, ask the right questions and, perhaps most importantly, listen to the priorities of her constituents and advocate for them in parliament. Voters in her area want strong action on climate change to safeguard Australia’s future prosperity, and Zoe is addressing these concerns by pushing for economically sound climate policy that drives broader economic growth.   


What happens if neither major party wins the election? 


Pollsters and political analysts are saying a hung parliament is a very real possibility this election, with Liberal and Labor on track for their lowest primary vote ever. In short, this means neither major party looks set to win the necessary 76 of 151 seats to rule independently. If this happens, the party with the highest number of seats will need to do a deal with crossbenchers – minor parties and independents – to form government.  

There are no set rules for this process, but it usually requires parties to negotiate with crossbenchers who will demand certain policy commitments – say, stronger action on climate change – in exchange for their support. 

This isn’t a scenario the LNP want to end up in, with both Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg claiming a hung parliament will lead to “chaos”. This kind of hysterical response isn’t grounded in fact and we don’t need to look far for an example of a functional minority government. The Gillard government was one of Australia’s most productive in terms of legislation and served a full three-year term.  

As Zoe points out, minority governments provide a forum for robust debate. “As an independent, there is a role to play as a bit of an honest broker from the crossbench,” she says. Another key role of independents is to raise the “uncomfortable issues” the major parties don’t want to discuss “because they’re really geared towards populism and short-term decision making and getting re-elected”.  

Crossbenchers have the ability to get specific policy issues, like climate action, on the agenda. Recent examples include Zali Steggall’s climate bill, which failed last year but now has the backing of many new independents, and Helen Haines’s push for a federal integrity commission. “Those two independents have been able to elevate those issues to the extent that they’re now the top two issues as we go into this 2022 election,” Zoe says.  

These examples show that independents can have a big impact even when policy doesn’t get up. “It’s not just about what legislation gets passed: it’s about the whole tenor of parliament; it’s about changing the conversation,” Guardian Australia news editor Mike Ticher says. 


Who will independents side with and what will they push for? 


We don’t really know who independent candidates will form alliances with if they are elected, with most preferring not to disclose support for a specific political party. Ultimately, these candidates are running on particular issues and will side with the party that can deliver the policies they are pushing for.  

For voters, the best things to look for when deciding if you want to support one of these candidates are the issues they are advocating for. While climate and integrity are at the fore for most, specific policy demands vary from candidate to candidate.  

Zoe says her promise to the people of Goldstein should she succeed is this: “I would look at every piece of legislation rigorously – take a look at what the holes are in it – and then work with the government of the day to actually make that legislation better”. 

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