How Australia’s electoral system allowed voters to finally impose a ceasefire in the climate wars

Climate was not the only issue in the Australian election – it never is – but it was the dominating policy issue and all of the winners – Labor, the Greens (who won two more seats in the lower house) and the teal independents – were campaigning for stronger action and higher targets.

For the first time in a long time, climate action had a good election. It’s instructive to ask why. Certainly, the enduring legacy of the “black summer” was part of it. But we must not understate the role that the rise of the teal independents – and the tectonic shift in Australian politics that it represents – played here.

The Labor party government, led by Anthony Albanese, is committed to a 43% reduction in emissions by 2030 (from 2005 levels). As prime minister, one of the co-authors of this piece, Malcolm Turnbull, committed to a target of 26-28% at Paris in 2015, in the expectation that the target would be increased. His successor Scott Morrison’s refusal to do so at the 2020 Glasgow COP was bitterly resented by Australia’s closest allies, including the United States and the United Kingdom.

It seems hard to believe today but there was a time when both major parties agreed on establishing an emissions trading scheme (ETS). It was first proposed by prime minister John Howard in 2006 and the first piece of legislation to set it up was introduced by Turnbull as environment minister the following year.

At the 2007 election Howard and Labor leader Kevin Rudd had a lot of things to argue about, but an ETS was not one of them.

After the election, Rudd retained the same team of public servants who had been working on the ETS under Howard and they produced what Rudd called a carbon pollution reduction scheme (CPRS).

By this time Turnbull was Liberal leader and Opposition leader. His goal was to maintain the Howard-era policy in favour of an ETS and negotiate with Rudd on the terms of it.

However a growing insurgency on the right of the Liberal and National parties, supported by the coal industry and the Murdoch media, resulted in a party room coup that saw Turnbull lose the leadership to Tony Abbott, who then went on to wage a shamefully dishonest, but highly effective, campaign against the CPRS. (There is some poetic justice in the fact that Abbott would later lose his seat to one of the leading independent climate champions, Zali Steggall.)

Now, 13 years and five prime ministers later, any form of ETS has become a political third rail and it does not feature anywhere in Labor’s climate policies.

During the last election Morrison sought to present Labor’s modest 2030 targets as dangerous economy wreckers and he was backed up by the Murdoch media with a campaign that exceeded any before it.

If you saw the election as being one where a climate laggard government was replaced by another with a more activist approach, you would miss the real story.

Sure, Labor won, we have a new prime minister and that will enable Australia – the only developed country not to increase its 2030 target at Glasgow – to rejoin the global effort to cut emissions with credibility.

In a parliamentary system like Australia, winning government means winning the support of a majority of members in the House of Representatives or its equivalent. So typically a political party will have electorates in which its members have large majorities and others where the majorities are slender – a few percent. Government is won or lost in these marginal seats, they can be lost at one election and won back at another.

That means the bedrock of a political party’s parliamentary power lies in its safest seats – the ones they can always rely on winning.

But in this latest election, the “teal” independents, so called for the colour of their campaign livery, succeeded in winning six of the Liberal party’s safest seats, including Turnbull’s old electorate of Wentworth, which he had held with a 67% majority.

Together with three others won in earlier elections, this meant that nine of the Liberal party’s safest, wealthiest seats were now held by independents, all women, who had persuaded thousands of lifetime Liberal voters to defect.

In Australia, once an independent wins a seat they are generally very hard to dislodge.

What lessons does all of this have for the fraught climate policy debate for the world’s largest cumulative carbon polluter, the United States?

How, for example, did Australia manage to defeat the Murdoch climate disinformation machine, which has so effectively waged war on climate policy in the US for years? Murdoch outlets such as Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial pages have almost single-handedly created the asymmetric polarisation of the American political right that today serves as such a formidable obstacle to meaningful action on climate.

Murdoch has an even greater stranglehold on the Australian media. Yet several features of Australia’s electoral system made it resistant to Murdoch’s influence. The boundaries of parliamentary districts are set by an independent electoral commission and have been for generations – there are no gerrymanders. Voting is compulsory and participation is always well over 90%.

Both policy goals are laudable, but they’re an uphill battle in the US, likely to be fought out bitterly along red state/blue state boundaries.

Finally, and most importantly, though, Australia has preferential or ranked choice voting, where electors have to write a number against each candidate’s name indicating the order in which they are preferred. Right now, ranked choice voting is the law in only two US states, but interestingly, they aren’t blue states: they’re purple (Maine) and deep red (Alaska). This may explain why the two Republican Senators from those States – Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins – are more centrist than most of their Trump-dominated caucus.

A growing number of cities and municipalities have implemented ranked choice, which experiences levels of bipartisan support that are unusual in today’s hyperpartisan American politics. And 29 states are now considering implementing it.

The teal independents in Australia were running against Liberal incumbents, most of whom would normally get a first-preference vote of 50% or more. However if they could take a substantial part of that and get the incumbent’s primary vote down to 40% or less, and if they ran second, they would probably win with the benefit of Labor and Green preferences. And this is more or less what happened.

So a big tent political party was captured by the political right and on several issues, especially climate, and dragged to a position that did not reflect the values of many of its lifetime voters. But the flexibility of preferential voting meant that an independent could come through the middle, offering voters policies and personalities that they wanted.

People power trumped Murdoch. Perhaps it can do so in the US.

Americans have nothing to lose and everything to gain, including a return, like Australia, to a position of global leadership on climate

Michael E Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University. He is author of The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet

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