Conservatives in Australia are licking their wounds after a chastening election defeat for the Liberal-National Coalition, which has governed the country since 2013. Some counts are still to finish, but it’s clear the Coalition lost swathes of seats across the country. They lost not just to the victorious Labor Party but also to the Greens and so-called “teal” independent candidates who ran in Liberal strongholds on a platform of integrity in politics and ambitious action on climate change.
Their success was no fluke. Following devastating bushfires across southern Australia in 2019 and 2020, this year saw huge floods in Queensland and New South Wales, leaving homes uninhabitable and many thousands forced to retreat to their rooftops. While Australia faces significant hurdles in tackling climate change, owing to its large fossil fuel sector, it has been far from immune from its consequences, which propelled climate up the agenda at this election.
In Australia’s largest survey of voter attitudes, people placed climate change as their top election issue, 14 points higher than the cost of living in second place. The survey followed on from a YouGov poll last year, which revealed that climate was an important issue for two-thirds of the population, with majorities in all 151 Australian electoral divisions saying that Scott Morrison’s government should have been doing much more on the subject.
Despite typical conservative polling leads on the preferred Prime Minister and economic competence, the Liberal-National Coalition paid the price for years of infighting and reluctance on the issue of climate change. When voters had their chance to deliver their verdict at the ballot box, the Coalition lost seat after seat in those areas that cared most about climate change, many of which had only ever elected Liberal MPs before.
Therefore, it was no surprise that Labor leader and incoming Prime Minister Anthony Albanese used his first media appearances after the election to declare that swifter action on climate is on its way. While Labor benefited from the Coalition’s collapse in most areas, it also lost vote share overall compared with the last election in 2019. It may still miss out on a working parliamentary majority. Labor’s climate plan, while more ambitious than the outgoing government’s, was criticised for not being strong enough – the Greens and pro-climate action independents were better able to capitalise.
The UK’s Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Green parties will undoubtedly analyse Australia’s election, so British Conservatives must also learn from the Liberal-National Coalition’s mistakes. It’s important not to overstate the comparisons – the UK and Australia are different countries with different politics and very different records on climate change. However, this election is a reminder that centre-right parties will struggle to win without a clear and bold environmental agenda.
No longer tarnished by their role in the Cameron-Clegg coalition, the Liberal Democrats are keen to burnish their environmental credentials, despite lacking any serious policies of their own, to make headway in so-called Blue Wall seats in the south of England. In some areas, the Greens have become players too. Like the Liberals, they are more than happy to play as the protest vote on local issues to win over Tory-leaning voters. The local elections earlier this month saw both parties gain at the expense of Conservatives across our traditional heartlands.
Unlike Australia’s centre-right, British Conservatives have led on environmental issues, from enshrining the UK’s 2050 net zero target in law to bold post-Brexit agricultural payment reform to restore nature and tackle climate change. Under Cameron, May and Johnson, the party has a good story to tell on climate change – not just in cutting emissions while growing the economy, but in making positive action on the environment a central plank of its offer to voters at election time. It is no coincidence that the only centre-right party in the Anglosphere that has been willing to go big on climate is the only one which keeps winning elections.
But opposition parties want to use the environment as a dividing line, and as the local elections showed, their tactic is starting to work. Voters are increasingly worried about the government backsliding on its bold environmental platform, thanks to siren voices seeking to use the Russian invasion of Ukraine to push an anti-net zero agenda.
If net zero is weakened, polling by the Conservative Environment Network has shown that 27 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters would be less likely to back the party. It would also put off 31 per cent of possible Conservative voters and 34 per cent of all Red Wall voters at the next election. And as a new Unchecked UK poll showed, half of Blue Wall voters say they’re more likely to back the party with the most ambitious environmental agenda.
The loud minority on the centre-right who think weakening net zero would be electorally popular are wrong. They only need to look at Australia’s elections to see the consequences of weak environmental policies. Instead, UK Conservatives should continue to embrace an ambitious, positive and market-led approach to tackle climate change that would deliver jobs, create new industries and revitalise post-industrial communities. Such an approach can unite voters across the country, from the Blue Wall to the Red Wall.
In the UK, Australia, and worldwide, Conservative majorities are built on broad coalitions of voters, spanning blue-collar workers and middle-class liberals. Pragmatic, ambitious action on the environment is a thread to stitch that Coalition together; we unravel it at our peril.