New ways forward for climate action



Here's a secret about political communication. Immediately after an election, no one really knows why the winning party got more votes, but everyone still rushes to explain it in a way that helps their cause.

Young environment activists hold protest signs up in front of comedians dressed as Labor leader Bill Shorten and Prime Minister Scott Morrison as part of the anti-Adani convoy led by former Greens leader, Bob Brown. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)It's all propaganda to win the post election 'narrative' before your opponents do. Interest groups will fire off press releases proclaiming a 'decisive victory' of one or two percent means the government now has an 'overwhelming mandate' to implement their preferred policy. If Labor had won, the climate movement would have claimed a mandate for stronger policy to cut emissions. Now the Liberals have won, the coal lobby is claiming a mandate to open the Adani mine. Go figure.

So where does all that leave us? Exactly back where we started three months ago — with some actual data on what Australians think. One independent and reliable survey on Australians' attitude to climate change is the Lowy Poll, and it shows that concern about global warming is the highest it has been in a decade. In other words, most Australians still want action and the government is still ignoring them.

There's a lot to say about the election, and much nonsense doing the rounds. Here's a summary of what went wrong and some ideas for communicating climate change over the next three years.



First, the election probably wasn't won or lost on climate. Scott Morrison scared his way into power with a focused campaign on Labor's ability to manage the economy. Preferences from Clive Palmer and Pauline Hanson got him over the line. Second, previous Labor leaders to win from opposition were charismatic and had high approval ratings. Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd were media darlings at the beginning, then had spectacular falls from grace. Shorten never had that likability in the first place. Perhaps Labor had the right strategy, but the wrong factional stooge?

Third, Labor didn't do a great job of selling its climate policy. A lot of communications research points towards leading with a story about renewable energy and then talking about cutting pollution. With the extreme weather and Murray-Darling fish kills over summer, the time was ripe to talk about climate change more directly.


"Greenhouse pollution has been rising for six years under the Coalition ... their policy is a failure. Yet polls found 38 per cent of voters didn't know which party would be better for reducing emissions."


That was the right approach, but Labor should still have spelled out the benefits of renewable energy to voters. Instead, it ran social media ads focusing on a percentage target.


The media

Australia's total greenhouse pollution has been rising for six years under the Coalition government. By this simple test, their policy is a complete failure. Yet polls found 38 per cent of voters didn't know which party would be better for reducing emissions. Why?

It's partly because Coalition environment ministers — starting with Greg Hunt — have kept the debate focused on technical details. Most journalists have helped them along, writing impenetrable policy analysis with no clear verdict on which party's plan would actually cut pollution.

Journalists at Left-leaning outlets in particular love to call out the Coalition's misinformation, without realising they are falling for their strategy — which is to bamboozle the public with statistics and percentage targets. Next election, reporters need to explain the difference between the parties very simply, and spend fewer words on the technical waffle.


Changing electoral landscape

One interesting result of the election was the swing against the Liberal Party and towards pro-climate independents. Zali Steggall winning Tony Abbott's seat of Warringah was a symbolic example, but in Victoria there was were also big swings against the Liberal party in Kooyong and Higgins. In the Victorian country electorate of Indi, independent Helen Haines won with a focus on climate too.

This is remarkable for Australian politics. In surveys, the majority of Australians say they care about protecting the environment but it does not usually rank above other issues at the ballot box. This is the first election where it has, and in some Liberal and conservative seats too. It shows that voters can be persuaded to switch allegiances with a direct message about acting on climate.

Meanwhile, some political commentators have argued Labor's climate change focus didn't help in outer suburban marginals. I think the problem here was one of emphasis. At the Victorian election, state Labor made big gains in south-east Melbourne with a policy offering rebates for up to half a million homes to install solar. That's a climate policy because it reduces our reliance on burning coal for electricity, but it was sold as an energy and cost of living measure. Sometimes a pragmatic and indirect pitch can be more effective.


Climate conservatives

As I've written before, we need a 'supermajority' of support on climate change, and the current focus on communicating solely through the lens of progressive values isn't enough.

While it's true that western societies have generally shifted to the cultural left over time, with increased recognition of rights for minority groups and a growing environmental awareness, conservatives and 'hard right' values will always be a part of our society. Indeed, a hotter and more chaotic climate could lead to resource wars over water and crops that strengthen conservative values like national security.

Instead of trying to convert people to become more progressive, the climate and environment movement needs to work with conservatives and centrists to create their own solutions and messages.

If this election has taught us anything, it's that you can't rely on just one side of politics to solve a problem. All it takes is a single unpopular leader to bring all those hopes crashing down.



Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears.

Main image: Young environment activists hold protest signs up in front of comedians dressed as Labor leader Bill Shorten and Prime Minister Scott Morrison as part of the anti-Adani convoy led by former Greens leader, Bob Brown. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, Election 2019, climate change



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Existing comments

Thanks Greg for a really good article. I'm very disappointed with the Federal election outcome, disappointed that a pro-coal, pro-Adani party won, and disappointed for the sake of future generations. Thankfully, school students are striking for climate action. Readers, please read the following article:
Grant Allen | 24 May 2019

Thanks Greg for a well balanced article. It’s difficult to solve humanity’s problems through political processes, but it seems the only recourse for us.
John Whitehead | 28 May 2019

Thanks again Greg for your analysis. I see NZ has committed to plant 1 billion Trees: "Led by Te Uru Rakau (Forestry New Zealand) and funded by the Provincial Growth Fund, the Programme will: create employment and workforce development; optimise land use; mitigate climate change; support Maori values and aspirations; protect the environment; support New Zealand’s transition to a low emissions economy. The Government has allocated $120 million through the One Billion Trees Fund for direct grants to landowners – particularly farmers – to include trees on their farms. The Fund does not support whole farm conversions and has a target of planting two-thirds natives." NZ Govt Website. Australia should do the same. The idea to build a concrete channel from the Burdekin, Ross Palmer systems, a distance of approx 2134 km to capture waste floodwater, has been costed at approx $9 billion. That would alleviate the water problems of the Murray Darling system for the next 100 years. Finally the Direct fuel cell that converts any grade coal to energy with zero combustion and a CO2 emission of 2% could be implemented. Continue with renewables. The 30 Carbon batteries perfected at QUT can be fitted to any household.
Francis Armstrong | 28 May 2019

"..focused campaign on Labor's ability to manage the economy.." Surely you mean Labor's inability to manage... People are scared for their jobs, scarred of the banks, scared of the ATO, scared of a flood of the sort of migrants who will never fit in. People want a government with safe hands to manage those threats. That leaves Labor out and they stay out as long as they run primarily for the dilettantes instead of the aspitationals.
ANDREW LUKAS | 28 May 2019

Francis Armstrong, the direct fuel cell method produces just as much carbon dioxide, more or less, as burning the coal. Read: The potential for capturing carbon dioxide produced using the fuel cells is what would help, if that were done. That would be a cost to the producers, so they would not be interested unless government legislated for it. We would all end up footing the bill anyway with either higher taxes or with higher energy charges as producers passed on their costs. Better to use renewable methods so that we would not have to deal with the carbon dioxide in the first place.
Frank S | 28 May 2019

Greg thank you - helpful analysis. Andrew I don't see why 'dilettantes' vote for Labor. More likely such voters feel Labor is less doctrinaire re climate, refugees and homelessness than is the cluster on the Right. I have yet to meet a 'dilettante' Labor supporter.
Karis | 03 June 2019

Do we consider how 300 million Indians will live while we plan?
Patricia Taylor | 16 June 2019


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