THERE HAS BEEN a good deal of concern over the past decade about the vulnerability of democracies to populist and authoritarian movements. Both the US and the UK come to mind here. The results of the Australian federal election earlier this year offers a different narrative.
In the run up to the election back in May 2022 there was a palpable sense of frustration in the electorate. The Liberal National Party (LNP) Government, conservative in its social policy and neoliberal in its economics, had majored over its three-year term on press conferences, uninhibited pork barrelling and the culture war du jour. It was notably incompetent, with the Prime Minister who notoriously and repeatedly went missing in the face of major climate disasters, not to mention the pandemic.
During the campaign both major parties failed to give attention to climate change, despite clear evidence that this was a priority issue for the community. The LNP said nothing because they had nothing substantial to say. The cautiously centre-left Labor Party was quiet on the issue because they did not want to provide an opening for a scare campaign. The media did little to challenge either party. The results of the election have made it crystal clear that if the parties didn’t want to talk about climate change, then large elements of the Australian community did, and voted accordingly.
Before this election, a return to government by the opposition Labor Party had been suggested by the national opinion polls. The polls proved correct. What they did not predict was the exact shape of that victory. The near monopoly of the two major parties received a severe jolt. The Liberal National Party (LNP) coalition suffered a nationwide swing against it of over five per cent, resulting in it losing seats not only to the Labor Party, but to the Greens and independents. Starting with 76 seats, a bare majority of the 151 seats in the House of Representatives, the LNP ended up with just 58 seats.
The Labor Party finished with only a small majority of 77 seats. The Greens won an additional three seats, all in Brisbane, to end up with four in total. Independents increased their representation from four to twelve seats, almost all gained at the expense of the LNP.
Most of the independents were elected on strong commitments to climate action on a par with the Greens, and exceeding the commitments of the Labor Party. They turned out to be mostly socially progressive and concerned with integrity in government, while remaining economically centrist. The electoral success of both the Greens and the Independents was based on strong local community movements. The hollowing out of the traditional political parties in Australia was highlighted and challenged by both movements.
In what follows, I highlight, in summary form, some of the major implications of the election for both climate policy and for democratic participation in the political process.
First, Australia will now be a positive player (rather than a quiet saboteur) in international debates on climate change. The new Australian Government is still far too cautious in its targets for emissions reduction, though it is committed to taking action rather than doing nothing. It will be under ongoing pressure from both the Greens and independents to meet the demands of the scientific evidence. In the Senate which the government will need to work with a cohort of twelve Green senators to get legislation passed.
Integrity in government and public administration was a critical issue for everyone in the election except the LNP. Legislation to set up a strong and independent Integrity Commission, covering the Australian government and public service, will be passed before the end of the year.
Political structures, particularly voting systems, matter. Australia’s preferential voting system, while limited in some ways, did enable people to bring about political change that was not restricted to a limited choice between the two major parties. The intelligent use of preferences by many voters ensured a greater range of voices were elected despite attempts by both the major parties to limit the political agenda.
Equally, money alone does not guarantee political power. The billionaire mining executive Clive Palmer spent somewhere over $70 million in support of candidates in every seat across the country. This was likely to have been well in excess of the expenditure of either of the major parties. Palmer rang all the changes on economic populism and covid conspiracies in his wall-to-wall advertising. His party (and I write this advisedly) received four per cent of the vote nationally and did not gain any seats in the House of Representatives.
The other populist party, One Nation, similarly received just over four per cent of the national vote and may just hold on to the one Senate seat that it had up for election. Both parties displayed a total lack of electoral traction even in regions where it had previously flourished and where it was suspected that anti-vax sentiment may have lingered.
Party political machines imposing candidates on electorates, ‘captain’s picks’ as they are called, proved to be a losing recipe for both major parties. It certainly cost the Labor Party one of its heartland seats to a strong local independent. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s choice of candidates in NSW electorates seems to have depressed the Liberal Party vote across most of its blue-ribbon seats.
The success of community independents in blue ribbon LNP seats was stunning. Strong local candidates attracted large numbers of people – those who were fed up with lack of action on climate change – to support their campaign. They were assisted by access to seed funding from a fund set up to promote action on climate among parties.
The combination of these factors created an electoral earthquake. Community-based independents were successful in taking six seats traditionally held by the Liberal Party with large margins. The Liberals have now been ejected from large areas of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth by independents. All six of the community independents elected this term were women. The role of women in politics in Australia has taken a quantum leap forward.
Meanwhile, community building also proved a viable electoral strategy for the Greens in Brisbane, where they won seats for the first time at a federal election, two from the LNP and one from the Labor Party. The Greens spent six years embedding themselves in the local community across inner-city Brisbane. Success in winning a city council seat was followed by two seats in the state parliament.
The party did a record amount of doorknocking that was as much about listening to community concerns as about directly canvassing for votes. They suspended campaigning to provide support for isolated people and lead the clean-up in neighbourhoods affected by floods in Brisbane earlier in the year.
Last but not least, the influence and impact of the Murdoch media is fading substantially. The success of the independents and Greens, with their focus on climate change, represented a rejection by the electorate of almost everything that Murdoch mouthpieces had campaigned for throughout the election.
© Doug Hynd is Adjunct Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia. He is actively involved in refugee action, and is an Ekklesia associate with strong Anabaptist connections. He is author of Community Engagement After Christendom (Wipf & Stock, 2022).