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Wanted: A liberal dose of climate action



The Liberal wipeout in inner-city electorates is without precedent in Australian politics. For the Liberal Party, ‘existential crisis’ is not an overstatement. As the party founded by Robert Menzies finds itself in the hall of mirrors, climate policy should be a major focus of critical self-appraisal.

This was a mass extinction event that left the Coalition’s climate dinosaurs largely unscathed, instead taking out multiple actual or purported Liberal ‘moderates’. It’s not hard to see why. Climate regularly polls as a top concern in their former seats. The ‘teal’ independents, Labor and the Greens all identified climate as a key point of difference with Liberal incumbents.

Climate was not the only issue in this election. But in many of the urban seats the Liberals lost, it was a determining factor. For many, the national trauma of the bushfires brought the climate emergency home to Australia. International reports released just before the election campaign and during it underscored the inadequacy of our collective response to this growing threat.

The evidence of this deepening crisis placed the Coalition’s climate record in withering perspective. Overall, the Morrison government acted as a handbrake on climate action. By and large it did not seize the extraordinary opportunities Australia has to prosper in the net-zero economy.

In the face of this, many voters patronisingly dismissed as ‘doctor’s wives’ or the ‘shrieking classes’ decided enough was enough from this government and reached for the ejector button in once-safe Liberal seats.

People hadn’t forgotten the crass vaudeville of senior ministers cradling and passing around a lump of coal on the front bench of Parliament (had anyone forgotten, ‘teal’ advertising was on hand to remind them). What these MPs missed was that people in formerly bedrock Liberal seats want climate policy treated with the deadly seriousness it deserves, not used as the punchline for cheap sideshow stunts.


'The Liberals can learn from this election and do the hard work necessary – on climate and other key policy priorities – to appeal again to the communities that founded the Liberal Party, sustained it for decades and have now rejected it.'


These voters proved unwilling to be fobbed off with risible three-word slogans like ‘technology not taxes’ or with a ‘technology roadmap’ to net-zero that experts and stakeholders declared flimsy. Especially when Coalition colleagues loudly declared that the net-zero target is ‘dead’ or comes with ‘wiggle room’.

They were unimpressed that Australia was one of the few major economies that refused to commit to a strengthened 2030 target. They object to being fed scare campaigns about ‘Labor’s sneaky carbon tax’ and associated nonsense. They look askance at career politicians railing against the evils of market mechanisms. The Damascene conversion of certain politicians to emissions reduction was received as a clear case of too little, too late.

None of this is to discount Australia’s relative success in managing the pandemic and other achievements the outgoing government can claim. But whatever else he did, the prime minister who famously doesn’t hold a hose was more than happy to brandish a lump of coal. The leader who said the vaccine rollout wasn’t a race was in no great hurry to deal with the climate crisis. Voters noticed.

Psephologists can determine whether the Morrison government ‘died of climate failure’ or ‘died with climate failure’. For the new opposition, the bottom line is this: The Liberal Party cannot form government again without winning back at least some of its heartland seats. And it cannot win back these seats without getting real on climate change.

So here’s what the Liberals should do: first, bipartisanship on climate policy. Despite its low primary vote, Labor has a mandate to implement its climate plans. For its own good, the Coalition should take Albanese up on his offer to ‘end the climate wars’.

It should resist the temptation to repeat the wrecking tactics of the Tony Abbott-led opposition. These were electorally successful but fomented a decade of policy chaos which has now boomeranged on the Liberals in spectacular fashion. Such tactics won’t be electorally successful again as the electorate has decisively shifted on climate action.

Second, the Liberals should undertake a thorough study of the science, economics and governance of climate change and consult widely on climate policy. They should pay particular attention to the climate policy success stories and lessons learned of liberal and centre-right parties both locally and internationally.

Third, the Liberals need to compete with their political opponents on climate ambition and the policies to achieve it. There is no law of nature that requires liberal parties to be climate laggards.

This will require the Liberals to ditch the ridiculous taboo on pricing carbon and acknowledge the central importance of market mechanisms to serious climate policy – consistent with longstanding liberal principles.

The Liberals can learn from this election and do the hard work necessary – on climate and other key policy priorities – to appeal again to the communities that founded the Liberal Party, sustained it for decades and have now rejected it.

If they don’t, they don’t. That would be bad for the Liberal Party but also for the country, which needs a strong policy consensus on ambitious climate action in these critical years.




Dr Stephen Minas is a member of the UN Climate Technology Executive Committee.

Main image: Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison arrives after conceding defeat following the results of the Federal Election during the Liberal Party election night event at the Fullerton Hotel on May 21, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Asanka Ratnayake / Stringer)

Topic tags: Stephen Minas, Climate, Environment, AusPol, LNP, AusVotes2022



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Existing comments

Dr Minas refers throughout this article to the Liberals and what they should do. But the elephant in the Liberal Party room is the National Party. The city voters who turfed out the Liberal members were targeting the Nationals as much as the local members. The garbage bin stickers said it clearly: "Bin THEM", with photos of both Morrison and Joyce. Morrison has gone, as PM, and Joyce, as deputy PM, has gone, but Joyce is still there in Cabinet, and Matt Canavan is still the Senate. Until the Liberals either stand up to the Nationals or, better, decouple themselves completely and compete with them everywhere, they will have little chance of convincing the city sceptics they they have changed their spots.

Ginger Meggs | 09 June 2022  

There is yet another factor that need to be taken into account: the baleful influence of the Murdoch Apparat ("apparat" is an old Soviet term for the Soviet bureaucracy, and is a fitting term to use) and others, such as the Institute of Public Affairs on the Liberal Party must be cut out as if it were a malignant tumour. Then, they _might_ have a chance.

Russel | 09 June 2022  

The Teals targeted Liberal Moderates who supported climate change action and beat them (with labor and Greens preferences) on the issue. How bizarre!
The Liberal-National Coalition went along with the World (excepting China and Russia!) at Glasgow COP to adopt the target of Net Zero by 2050 but got no credit for that.
For balanced views on this issue read the sensible Commentaries in The Australian Newspaper and the Institute of Public Affairs.
Now we have to crank up coal fired power stations in Australia as well as in USA and Germany to provide more power to cover shortfalls from gas (even though it is demonised) and unreliable Renewables!
The politicised doomsday fear mongering about anthropogenic global warming (much exaggerated because CO2 is only a minor greenhouse gas) has had a bad impact on government policies and the economics of energy production.

Gerard Tonks | 09 June 2022  
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The Teals targeted Liberal Moderates who supported climate change action because they were ineffective. They may have spoken up in the party room but when it mattered they voted with the Nationals. The Liberal Moderates got what they deserved.

Ginger Meggs | 10 June 2022  

I stopped reading The Australian newspaper on 11th November, 1975.

Janet | 10 June 2022  

I’m not a climate sceptic but before a decision is made to accelerate our approach to reduce emissions we need to really open our eyes and learn from what has happened in other countries who have gone ‘green’ too early! Sadly, Sri Lanka is just one example but of course, the average person won’t read about that catastrophic situation in our media.
We are only 3 weeks into a new government and sadly I have no confidence that Labor will be able to strike the right balance on climate action, while managing the economy, because of the pressure from the Climate 200 groupies. Is it not a scientific fact that until China and India commit to reducing their emissions by at least 75%, anything we do will have an insignificant effect on global warming? Perhaps then, before we get caught up in the ‘Climate 200’ movement and turn everything off, which in turn will reduce our capacity to maintain our AAA credit rating, this is where the focus needs to occur?
Our politicians number one priority right now needs to be finding solutions to reduce our debt; this can only happen by increasing productivity and our export capacity! Anna

Anna | 11 June 2022  
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Where is the evidence, Anna, that Sri Lanka's current problems are a result of it having 'gone green too early'? And where is the evidence that the Climate 200 movement wants to 'turn everything off' ?

Ginger Meggs | 14 June 2022  

You’re correct about Sri Lanka. In 2016, before he became president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, facilitated the setting up of a movement, Viyathmaga, which produced his election agenda, “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” promising to transform society and transition the nation to fully organic agriculture within a decade.
But it seems only organic true believers got a say. Most of the nation’s agronomists and agricultural scientists were excluded, and cronies from Viyathmaga got jobs, including as minister of agriculture.
The ban on fertilizers and pesticides was a disaster. Rice production fell 20% in six months necessitating its importation, and government workers now get Fridays off to grow food.
And while agricultural production collapsed, Rajapaksa touted his policies at the UN Glasgow Climate Change Summit as “in sync with nature”, while wealthy advocacy group Food Tank, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation that promoted a phase-out of chemical fertilizers in Sri Lana, stayed silent.
Romantic ideas about organic agriculture might appeal to Teals able to afford organic products, but half the world’s population depends on the agricultural output that synthetic fertilizers allow.
Real agricultural experts who predicted this disaster were ignored by an alternative food production movement that is essentially ideological.

Ross Howard | 16 June 2022  

Sri Lanka. however disastrous, is a red herring in this debate. The article is about climate and emissions reductions, not fertilisers.

Ginger Meggs | 16 June 2022