Election result should force Labor to rethink its climate change policies

Climate fail: Independent candidate for Warringah Zali Steggall celebrates her victory over Tony Abbott on Saturday night. Her win was built on the issue of climate change, which failed to sway voters in much of the rest of the country. Photo: AAP
Climate fail: Independent candidate for Warringah Zali Steggall celebrates her victory over Tony Abbott on Saturday night. Her win was built on the issue of climate change, which failed to sway voters in much of the rest of the country. Photo: AAP

The Coalition's stunning re-election victory is obviously a triumph for Prime Minister Scott Morrison. His campaign strategy of making economic management and the Labor Party's big-target, big-taxing, transformative agenda the key election issues was a spectacular success.

Labor did not win the seats it was expected to, and needed to, to form government, in Victoria, Western Sydney, across Queensland, or in Western Australia.

Tax policy appears to have played a decisive role in the outcome. Bill Shorten's focus on promoting greater so-called "equity" through the tax system clearly failed to resonate with many mainstream voters, who rejected Labor's proposed changes to negative gearing and franking credits as an attack on aspiration and self-reliance.

To this extent, the election result can be understood in conventional terms based on the political history of the past 50 years. Labor's "Whitlamite" program was rejected by those middle Australians living in the suburbs and regions who were formerly known as "Howard's battlers".

But the result also suggests that the politics of the nation are being shaped by a new social geography. This is demonstrated, ironically, by the fate of former prime minister Tony Abbott, who lost his seat at an election that arguably vindicated the political strategy he has long promoted for the Liberal Party regarding climate change.

It was Abbott who led the Coalition to a crushing victory over Labor in 2013 by promising to "axe the carbon tax". But when Malcolm Turnbull lost the prime ministership in August 2018, many commentators blamed his fall on an Abbott-inspired coup by the "hard-right, climate change-denying" faction of the Liberal Party.

The conventional wisdom amongst most pundits was that in a nation that had voted Yes to same-sex marriage in 2017, ditching Turnbull's "progressive" approach to dealing with climate change had sealed the electoral fate of the government and made a Labor victory a certainty.

This view appeared to be vindicated when, after Turnbull resigned from Parliament, the Liberals lost the by-election in his formerly blue-ribbon safe seat of Wentworth in Sydney's harbourside inner eastern suburbs. The victor was independent Kerryn Phelps, who campaigned hard - with the assistance of left-wing activist group GetUp! - on the need for action on climate change.

Abbott has now met the same fate. After 25 years in Parliament, he has lost his formerly safe seat of Warringah to Zali Steggall, another GetUp!-backed independent candidate zealously demanding "real action" on climate policy.

As in Wentworth (which the Liberals will struggle to regain) affluent former Liberal voters who live in harbourside parts of Warringah such as Manly and Mosman have turned against the man who they condemn for strangling Australia's response to climate change.

But what the election result has comprehensively shown is that neither Warringah nor Wentworth is representative of vast swathes of the rest of the nation, especially on climate policy. Wealthy voters who can easily pay higher electricity prices can literally afford to treat climate change as a moral issue requiring action regardless of the cost, and to thereby treat the election as a referendum on the issue.

But these sentiments were clearly not shared across the wider electorate. The centre-piece of Labor's transformative agenda - its 50 per cent renewable energy target and 45 per cent emission reduction polices - did not translate into the election-swinging advantage in the key seats that pundits anticipated.

In fact, these policies almost certainly proved a liability, given that Morrison's focus on economic management heavily targeted Bill Shorten's repeated failure to explain the cost of his energy policies - a point the Prime Minister effectively drove home during the leaders' debates.

Moreover, Labor's climate change stance was undoubtedly influential in regional Queensland, where the equivocal attitude Labor displayed to the Adani mine project turned off voters concerned about mining jobs and the long-term future of the coal industry. The overall closeness of the election result suggests that the nation remains divided over climate policy.

But having staked so much on this issue, Labor's election loss can only be viewed as a repudiation of its "progressive" approach.

Since the recently departed Bob Hawke's fourth and final election victory in 1990, the Labor Party has only won two federal elections in its own right: the 1993 GST election and the 2007 WorkChoices election.

In both cases, Labor's victory heavily relied on the political mistakes of the Coalition over tax and industrial relations.

Otherwise, Labor's near 30-year quest to find an election-winning agenda of its own that can form the basis of Hawke-style sustained electoral success has produced a meagre political harvest.

Unless Labor is prepared to rethink the political mistakes that led it to support climate policies that have greater appeal to well-off elites of Wentworth and Warringah than to the battlers of Penrith and Picton, its electoral prospects will remain bleak.

Jeremy Sammut is a Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.