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How the Greens or independents winning the balance of power could change Australian politics

Photography By Fanette Guilloud
Published 03.05.22

With less than a month to go before the Australian federal election on May 21, we’re releasing a special series looking at the policies, candidates and potential outcomes that could make a difference for the climate. Consider this your way to get up to speed before you head to the booths.

We started off with the climate policies we want to see action on this year, and where the major parties stand on each. Now, we’re looking further ahead at possible outcomes, discussing what will happen if the election results in a hung parliament where the balance of power is held by the Greens and independents, not a major party. And, most importantly, what this will mean for climate action.

The numbers

Before we get into all of this, let’s start with a quick recap of how a government in Australia is formed. 

When a federal election is held, “the party or coalition of parties with the support of the majority of members elected to the House of Representatives becomes the government”. At the most basic level, there are 151 seats in the House of Representatives (often referred to as the lower house). To win a majority government, either the Labor Party or the Liberal-National Coalition (Australia’s two major parties) needs to secure at least 76 of the 151 seats in the lower house to gain the balance of power, allowing it to govern in its own right and form government. Like only needing 51 per cent to pass your class assignment. 

The greater a majority a party holds, the more power it has and the less reliant it is on independent and Greens MPs, who are also known as crossbenchers. Even though crossbenchers’ political ideologies can span from someone like the Greens’ Adam Bandt to the United Australia Party’s Clive Palmer, all of the crossbenchers sit together as a group on the floor of parliament (it’s kind of weird, we know).

Because of growing distrust towards major parties and the rising popularity of the Greens and teal independent candidates backed by Climate 200, many political experts are saying that reaching the magic minimum number of 76 could be near impossible for either major party, and that a hung parliament where Labor or the Coalition must work with the crossbench to form government is increasingly likely.

As it currently stands, the Coalition government will need to lose only one seat, and Labor would need to fail to pick up seven for there to be a hung parliament. Both the Greens and teal independents are aiming to retain their existing seats and pick up an additional three seats respectively, which could see a total of 11 crossbench seats in the lower house, something Climate 200 executive director Byron Fay says is possible. “We know this strategy can work because we’ve seen it work before. In 2019, Zali Steggall defeated Tony Abbott, a former prime minister and notorious climate skeptic.” 

Steggall’s win came months after another independent, Dr Kerryn Phelps, won the seat of Wentworth from the Liberal Party, effectively kicking off the teal independent movement across the country that we’re seeing now.

While it’s impossible to know for sure before election day, pollsters across Australia estimate the next parliament could include anywhere from six to 11 independent crossbenchers that Labor and the Coalition will have to negotiate with to form government and make it to or past the magic 76 number.

How more Greens and independents in parliament could influence climate policy

Both the Greens and teal independents are running strong climate campaigns calling for significantly greater action on climate change. Any party hoping to form a government with the support of crossbenchers will have to address these demands ahead of anything else. 

As Guardian Australia environmental reporter Adam Morton says: “If we have a parliament where [the independents] have a say, where neither major party has a majority, I think it’s going to be a very interesting debate. We’re going to see climate change really back at the forefront of the national conversation again and who knows what sort of deals would have to be done, but I imagine we’ll be seeing the independents and the Greens pushing hard for a more significant policy agenda and deeper cuts [to carbon emissions] than what either party has on the table right now.” 

Fay agrees, saying the addition of more climate-ambitious independents would see the government “forced into a race to the top of climate policy”.

Marlen Stahlhuth

The long game

While Scott Morrison has said a hung parliament would lead to “chaos and instability”, history shows that isn’t always true.  

On election night in 2010, the Labor Party won just 72 seats. Without a majority, Labor leader Julia Gillard was forced to work collaboratively with the Greens and a number of independent MPs on the crossbench to negotiate policies and agreements so that the Labor Party could form government.

Because of these deals, the independents and Greens were able to demand greater climate action and oversee the introduction of carbon pricing, the establishment of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and a one-off national levy to support victims of the devastating 2011 Queensland floods. 

But even with an unprecedented level of grassroots support behind them, it can still be incredibly hard for the Greens and teal independents to win on election day. Because of this, it’s worth looking into any preference deals your Greens or independent candidate may have made so that, if they don’t win, you know who your vote will be passed on to.

The new normal

So what would the day-to-day look like under a minority government? The short answer is a lot different to what we’ve seen over the last three years, something one former independent MP says is a great thing. 

Having worked with Gillard in 2010 to form government, Tony Windsor says a hung parliament not only “takes some of the power away from the executive and the prime minister’s office” but also transfers it back to “the parliament itself” – a change that can greatly benefit Australians in the long run.  

“In a hung parliament the issue [of climate action] will be resolved, and that’s the great thing that the independents will be able to put to their name,” Windsor, who is now a member of the Climate 200 advisory council, says.  

“That group [of crossbenchers] will articulate the need for environmental change, climate change issues, renewable energy, all of those issues to such an extent and do it in such a logical fashion that their voice will be heard not only in the parliament, but in the community.”

Both Morrison and Anthony Albanese have said they’re looking to form a government in their own rights and aren’t planning to do any deals with the crossbenchers, but Windsor says voters shouldn’t be fooled. “They will do it to get into power if that’s what’s got to happen,” he says.

This is probably the most important election in recent history and now is the time for all of us to vote for our future. While we hope to see both major political parties agreeing to science-backed environmental policies and greater climate action, as we edge closer to election day, it pays to remember which parties actually have the policies to match. And to remember that bold climate action will only be possible with Greens or independents holding the balance of power.

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