As the polls closed on Saturday night, most election commentary focused on the dispiriting campaign where both major parties avoided any substantial division on policy issues and instead focused on negatively framing the opposing leader.
Even to many seasoned political minds, the most likely outcome seemed to be a reversal of the last parliament, with Labor winning enough seats to form a narrow majority, and one or two more seats falling to independents. As we all now know, the outcome was utterly different. The Liberals lost many of their crown jewels to climate challengers – teal independents and the Greens.
This means the new Labor government now has a different challenge on climate. Rather than trying to keep check on concessions to the cross-bench, Labor must now find ways to pursue more ambitious climate policies. Labor can’t pull the most effective lever available – a carbon price – after the Liberals successfully poisoned the well. But there are other ways to accelerate Australia’s shift to cleaner and greener, such as through public investment in large-scale solar and wind.
The next three years will be challenging economically and politically. But the transformation wrought by the election has opened up the possibility of a similar transformation of climate policy. With bold action, a bright future awaits.
Climate proved critical
Labor’s path to victory was unusual. The party taking government will do so despite its primary vote slumping to a postwar low, far below the level of routs seen in 1996 and 1975.
Outside Western Australia (where the result was driven largely by the success of the McGowan government’s Covid policy), Labor barely moved the dial. So far Labor has taken five seats from the Liberals (with some Labor-held seats still in doubt) while losing Fowler to an independent and Griffith to the Greens.
The big shock in this election was the loss of a string of formerly safe Liberal seats to Greens and “teal” independents. All of these candidates campaigned primarily on climate change, an issue the major parties, and most of the mainstream media had agreed should be put to one side as too dangerous and divisive.
During the campaign, the possibility of a hung parliament drew attention. In response, both major parties vowed (not very credibly) that they would never do a deal with Greens or independents to secure office. Realistically, it seemed possible that Labor might offer a slightly more ambitious program on climate policy in order to make minority government easier.
In retrospect, it’s clear that this type of analysis assumed Australia’s long-standing political pattern would continue: a two-party system, with a handful of cross-benchers occasionally playing the role of kingmaker. All of the media commentary leading up to the election took this for granted. The “teal” independents were seen as a possible threat to two or three urban Liberals and the Greens were, for all practical purposes, ignored.
What we have instead is a shock to this system. Australia now has a radically changed political scene in which the assumptions of the two-party system no longer apply. Even if Labor scrapes in with a majority, it is unlikely to be sustained at the next election, given the challenging economic circumstances the incoming government will face. As for the LNP, unless they can regain some of the seats lost to independents and Greens, they have almost no chance of forming a majority government at the next election, even with a big win over Labor in traditionally competitive seats.
Adapting to political change
Labor’s challenge now is to adapt to this new world. They will have to find ways of delivering what the electorate clearly wants on climate, after ruling out most of the obvious options in the course of the campaign. The new leader of the LNP will have the unenviable task of winning back lost Liberal heartlands while placating a party room dominated by climate denialists and coal fans.
Having ruled out a carbon price, Labor will need to be much more aggressive with the safeguard mechanism it inherits from the LNP. By itself, this won’t be nearly enough.
The real need is to promote rapid growth in large-scale solar and wind energy, and to push much harder on the transition to to electric vehicles. Some of this could be done through direct public investment, on the model of Queensland’s CleanCo, or through expanded use of concessional finance using the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the new Rewiring the Nation Corporation. The great political appeal of this approach is that all of these agencies are off-budget and therefore won’t count in measures of public debt, which is bound to grow in coming years due to pandemic spending.
Democracy, however imperfect, works through the possibility of renewal and change. What this election has shown us that the political system can change. Now comes the task of applying politics – the art of the possible – to the challenge of switching our energy systems from fossil fuels to clean power. It’s our best chance yet.
Of the 50-odd nuclear plants currently under construction, around 1 in 3 are Russian VVER designs, being built by Rosatom. Sanctions on the supply of all kinds of electronics mean that few of these will be completed on time, if ever. in promoting sales, Russia has relied heavily on concessional financing through Sberbank, which is also sanctioned. That’s going to make future sales just about impossible, and create big difficulties in fulfilling existing commitments.
With the exception of the EPR money-pit, the only remaining large reactor design still in the market is China’s Hualong One. Given the experience with Russia, buyers outside China may well be cautious about this option.
So, if there is any chance for new nuclear, it rests with Small Modular Reactors, none of which actually exist (there are small reactors, but they aren’t modular, that is, mass-produced).
At the end of The Thirty-Nine Steps (the John Buchan novel that largely created the spy thriller genre), the hero is about to give the signal for arrest of a ring of German spies. But their pose as ordinary middle class Englishmen is so convincing that they persuade him to join them as a fourth for bridge. Fortunately, a sudden movement alerts him to their true identity and he comes to his senses, blowing his whistle to call in the waiting police.
I’m reminded of this whenever I look at the political scene in the United States. The Republicans have made it obvious that if the votes in the 2024 election go the wrong way for them, the result will be overturned and their candidate (most likely Trump) will be installed. If they win under the existing rules, they will change them to ensure that no Democrat is ever elected again. Yet everyone is pretending that the situation is normal, trying to work out whether (for example) Roe v Wade is a trump card, and if so, who holds it.
The obvious question is: who, if anyone, will blow the whistle? Unfortunately, if there ever was a moment to do it, that moment has passed. Perhaps Biden should have invoked the Insurrection Act immediately after taking office, and arrested Trump and the Republicans who voted to overturn the election. But that was never going to happen, and would have failed in any case.
Nothing is forever. That includes democratic governments and the autocracies that have so often replaced them, only to fail in their turn. At some point, the whistle will be blown, but that point could be a long way off.
Meanwhile, there’s time to take a few more tricks before the game is called off.
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