As I wrote in The Monthly in July:
“If, on election night, the Greens do win the balance of power in the Senate and gain a toehold in the House of Representatives, the sun will still shine the following day. The major parties will still run the show and vote together on most issues. But we may have taken an important step towards ensuring this country stops avoiding its hardest policy challenges. By providing the political duopoly with some competition, we will have given our democracy a timely impetus for renewal.”
Well, the sun came up on Sunday, the impetus for renewal is here, and while not everyone recognises it yet, this election was a great victory for Australian democracy. Labor deserved this rebuke, the Coalition earned no mandate, and the Greens and Independents are being taken seriously. The number of Green MPs appears to have doubled, including the Senate balance of power and an historic first seat in the House of Representatives, where Independents appear to have the balance of power in a hung parliament.
The message is loud and clear — Australians want something better than what the most rigid two-party system in the world is delivering.
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Not surprisingly, it’s a message the major parties seem inclined to ignore. Both sides still characterise the Greens as left-wing, oblivious to their broadening base. Neither major party yet comprehends how their own policy ineptitude (most obviously on climate change) has contributed to increased Green support. Penny Wong’s performance on Saturday night said it all. She dismissed the Greens as being in an exclusive contest with Labor, as only looking to take votes off Labor, not the Coalition. As it happens, the Greens have taken two Senate seats from the Coalition at this election.
Wong still argues that the Greens vote against the CPRS in the Senate prevented Labor from taking serious action to combat climate change. Lindsay Tanner ran this line ad nauseum, and the electorate has rejected it, most emphatically in the electorate he vacated at the last minute. For Wong and most of her colleagues, the penny still hasn’t dropped that the CPRS would have done nothing to reduce emissions in Australia because it gave the worst polluters over 80% of their emission permits for free, and placed no limit on the number of cheap carbon credits that could be purchased offshore. It paid the polluter, then outsourced the problem.
Meanwhile, though our coal exports already generate more CO2 offshore than our national total, Labor still backs the doubling of coal exports over the next decade. In the lead-up to the election, facing an implicit threat to “change the Prime Minister or we’ll change the government”, coal union bosses ruthlessly installed a Prime Minister likely to be more sympathetic to the interests of the biggest coal miners.
Julia Gillard famously “threw open the doors of the government to the mining industry” and a deal to protect their profits was done in a matter of days. The significance of what was arguably the first successful mining industry-run political coup d’état in the Western world, went largely unreported.
The sad reality is that Labor is as much a hostage to the coal industry as the Coalition, and the difference between the climate policies of the two major parties is negligible. Both parties aim to meet woefully inadequate emission targets through creative accounting — Labor mainly by outsourcing emissions cuts through dubious forest protection deals in PNG and Indonesia, the Coalition mainly by paying farmers for good gardening to retain more carbon in soils.
Both sides are determined to protect the biggest polluters and avoid the essential shift from fossil to renewable energy.
Under the circumstances, little effective action on climate change is likely this term from whichever major party forms the new government. The Labor Party might ultimately agree to brave a carbon levy, but you can bet it will be one that is as polluter friendly as its CPRS. There are, of course, numerous issues to be weighed other than climate change and on many of them, most Greens (me included) loathe the prospect of an Abbott administration.
Even so, taking a long-term view, it’s hard not to wonder whether the national interest and democratic renewal are best served not by propping up the incumbent government, but allowing it to fall, and learn from its mistakes sooner rather than later.
Guy Pearse is a Research Fellow at the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland. A member or the Liberal Party for 19 years, he joined the Greens in 2008.