Australian PM will hopefully overcome existing challenges

Published : 07 Jun 2022 08:42 PM
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This latest Australian election has upset the regular roll-call and focused this time also on more than a few minor parties and Independents who were fed-up with the two-party system. After almost a decade of conservative leadership, Australian voters have turned their back on the ruling coalition and created a left- leaning government. They have instead backed those who campaigned for more action on climate change, greater gender equality and political integrity.

Election results showed particularly a strong swing towards Independents who campaigned on issues relating to climate change and climate variability- the need for mitigation and adaptation. The candidates -- many first-time entrants to politics – did not hesitate to reiterate that they were seeking cuts to emissions of up to 60% , more than twice as much as promised by the ruling conservative coalition (26-28%) and also more than Labor (43%). Known as teal candidates, they targeted traditionally blue Liberal seats with more green-leaning policies.

This focus on climate change had its own critical dimension because Australians till now have always referred to themselves as a fortunate country- partly due to its wealth of coal and gas, as well as minerals like iron ore, which have driven generations of economic growth. This feeling has however undergone a change over the last few years because they now realize that they are staring at an evolving climate crisis where fires, floods and droughts have already scarred their country and that scenario is expected to become more extreme as the Earth warms further.

It would be correct to point out here that the previous ruling conservative government had been called a climate "holdout" by the United Nations Secretary-General after outlining a plan to get to net zero by 2050 by creating massive new gas projects. Incumbent Scott Morrison at that time apparently had said he would back a transition from coal to renewable energy, but he had no plans to stop new coal projects. This was not appreciated by a large majority of the Australian population.

On the other hand, the then Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese, now the new Prime Minister had promised to end the infighting that had emerged within Australian politics and civil society and was aggravating efforts to push for stronger action pertaining to climate change. Labor took the bold step of pledging to reach emission net zero by 2050, partly by strengthening the mechanism used to pressure companies to make cuts.

However, in this context research institute Climate Analytics has observed that Labor's plans are not consistent with suggested efforts to keep the global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius, as outlined in the Paris Agreement. Instead, Labor's policies are more consistent with a rise of 2 degrees Celsius. There is also another aspect that emerged during the election process. Labor’s opponents pointed out that though Labor has been affirming that they will, if they come to power, speed up the transition to renewable energy and roll out solar banks and community batteries, they are also willing to approve new coal projects if they're environmentally and economically viable. This was viewed as unacceptable by a section of the climate activists within civil societies. 

Hillary Whiteman and Hannah Ritchie of CNN  have reported that on his first full day on the job, Australia's new prime minister mentioned the words "climate change" four times within two minutes of his maiden international speech. Fresh from election victory, Anthony Albanese sought to present a new Australia to the world, one that takes climate change as seriously as defense, after decades of inaction. Subsequently, at the Quad meeting in Tokyo Albanese told his counterparts from the United States, India and Japan that climate and the security of the region were among the biggest challenges of their time. "The new Australian government's priorities align with the Quad agenda, taking action on climate change and building a stronger and more resilient Indo-Pacific," Albanese said, in words broadcast around the world.

However, experts have said that it will not be easy to turn around a coal-powered ship that has for years been chugging in the wrong direction, partly fueled by a government earning billions of dollars in export revenue. CNN has however indicated that the cohort of Greens and climate-motivated independents who have made big gains in the vote should be able to facilitate the required measures that will have to be undertaken by the new government.

Frank Jotzo, Director of the Center for Climate and Energy Policy at the Australian National University (ANU) has also noted that the new government has to explain to the population that the climate crisis presents an opportunity, not a threat to jobs. Jotzo has also underlined that "what the government should do is to talk deeply about climate change as an opportunity to help create better economic opportunities for the younger generation." He has nevertheless also drawn Albanese’s attention to the fact that if this is "a government that wants to change things, it needs to establish a narrative that is overwhelmingly strong against the inevitable lobbying by powerful vested interests."

Bill Hare, founder of Climate Analytics and a leading climate scientist has also told CNN that it is still unclear if Labor will cut subsidies for fossil fuels, potentially affecting the viability of some projects."My impression is that these companies are still in a powerful position to push ahead with pending projects, and there's a very strong gas lobby inside the Labor party," Hare said. Analyst Ben Oquist has also indicated that pressure is likely also to be exerted on the government in the other direction, by parties and the public who do not want new coal and gas projects to go ahead. Unless tackled carefully it might hurt the new government politically.

It would however be important to remember at this point that, till now, most of the inroads Australia has made on cutting emissions have been driven by the States and territories. In the absence of leadership from the federal government, they have undertaken the task of introducing their own policies and targets. Jotzo, in this context has correctly observed that the challenge for Albanese will be to pull together the separate State-based strategies into a single, united national plan. He has also added that "if you just let States do their own thing, then you end up with State versus State competition and a truly horrible patchwork of different rules and regulations in different States, which is really not what you want. You can see the mood has changed since 2019 in coal regions, they want a plan. They have worked out coal is being phased out, and they want to start seeing the alternatives."

One has to believe that such a essential shift in climate strategy after nine years of conservative rule will take time to unfold, but that could eventually work in Labor's favor.

There was also another dimension that affected the popularity of the previous Prime Minister Morrison. An increasing percentage of women accused him of lacking empathy pertaining to allegations of sexual assault that were supposed to have been carried out by members of the political elite. This led to the media reporting that thousands of women had marched around the country calling for stronger measures to ensure women's safety - which subsequently snowballed into demands for greater gender equality. Albanese correctly understood this evolving dynamic during the electoral process and promised to improve gender equality. This effort on his part was also not only endorsed by his former leader, Australia's first and only woman Prime Minister Julia Gillard but also led to her statement that she was "very confident" an Albanese government will be a "government for women."

During his election campaign, Albanese also did not hesitate to astutely show his support for enhancing the role of indigenous voices. Subsequently, the media reported that among the first words Albanese uttered when he walked onto the stage to claim victory in the election was the promise that he and his Party would work actively to protect the voice of the Indigenous people in Parliament. This was reflected in his statement- "I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. And on behalf of the Australian Labor Party, I commit to the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full”. This has brought a lot of solace to Indigenous groups across Australia who, for some time, have been calling for the Australian constitution to be changed so that they are formally consulted on legislation and policies that may affect different social aspects of their communities. Adopting this measure in the future will however not be simple or easy. However if this measure can be put in place it will enhance human rights of the Indigenous communities. It may be recalled in this regard that the last time Australians voted in a referendum on Aboriginal rights was in 1967, when 90% of the country supported a move to include Indigenous people in the Census. If Prime Minister Albanese can take this idea of multiculturalism forward he will be part of Australian history.

The last challenge which the new Prime Minister will have to tackle successfully and overcome revolves round Australia’s future engagement with Asia. This matrix assumed priority when he departed after being sworn in for Japan for his first meeting with Australia’s allies including US President Joe Biden. Accompanying him to Tokyo to meet his counterparts from the United States, Japan and India at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) summit was the new Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, a seasoned Labor politician of Asian descent who has long been a respected voice in the Senate. The new Labor government has promised to create stronger ties with Asia. Albanese has said that after Japan, he will focus on Indonesia. He also intends to carefully maintain good relations with China and Pacific States. The world will wait and see what happens.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs