Wentworth By-Election: Australia’s Climate Policy Paralysis Is Finally Becoming Electoral Poison


The days of climate denial and inaction wining favour with voters are over. Someone probably needs to tell the Liberal Party, writes Neneh Darwin.

With the Wentworth by-election just days away, voters in the electorate have a unique opportunity to send a clear signal to the Federal government that inaction on climate change will have major political ramifications.

Current polling indicates the Liberal Party could be facing its first electoral loss in the seat in 60 years – and climate change inaction is the number one issue in the minds of voters.

This week saw the release of the IPCC report showing that coal will need to be completely phased out by mid-century and a “global transformation” of all sectors of the economy is required to avoid dangerous global warming over 1.5 degrees.

Since the report’s release the Federal government has been on the defensive and the Australian coal industry in denial.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has tried to deflect Australia’s responsibility stating that the IPCC “does not provide recommendations to Australia”. The Deputy prime minister Michael McCormack insisted that Australia should continue to exploit its coal reserves and fobbed of the IPCC emissions report as just “some sort of report”.

Such obfuscation will no longer wash with the Australian electorate. Australia is as much in the lens of the IPCC report as any other country. In fact the IPCC’s core messages are even more crucial here as we remain the world’s biggest coal exporter. That means we are in pole position to help bring about the kind of transformation the IPCC is calling for.

Yet Australia’s current crop of politicians remain beholden to the coal industry and blindly insist on maintaining the status-quo. The writing is on the wall yet our political leaders are failing to pay attention. But at least some are starting to get it.

Former Liberal leader John Hewson has called on voters in his former electorate to use the election as a referendum on climate change and to vote against the Liberals. Hewson rightly says that it may take an election loss in its once secure Sydney seat to make the Liberal Party understand “the magnitude and urgency of the climate change challenge”.

After a year in which we have seen extreme weather all over the world – from record breaking fires in California to flooding across Asia – the IPCC report makes it clear that unless we take transformative action now we will be facing global temperature rises above two degrees. For Australia, that would mean the death of the Great Barrier Reef.

Climate change is ranking as the top issue in the mind of Wentworth voters – and this trend is likely to expand nationally. In fact, according to ReachTEL polling commissioned by GetUp, 87.4% of Liberal voters in Wentworth voters would be more likely to vote for a candidate with a credible plan to tackle climate change.

dr john hewson
Former leader of the Liberal Party, Dr John Hewson, pictured in an ABC TV screengrab.

Yet over the past decade we have witnessed climate paralysis within the Liberal Party. The Morrison government has no real plan to stop climate change, falling back on hollow clichés that we will meet out Paris targets “in a canter” while in fact Australia’s emissions continue on an upward trajectory.

It is not the current crop of political leaders in Australia that will be around to answer the questions of the next generation about why we didn’t take action while we could. They will either be living happily off their parliamentary pensions or will have shuffled off this mortal coil.

It is the next generation and the one after that – our children and children’s children – who will have to bear the full brunt of today’s climate paralysis in Australia.

But as the IPCC report makes clear, it is not too late. We may still have 15 years to transform our economy away from dirty coal and fossil fuels – and into clean green renewable energy. Whichever candidate can provide that leadership on climate in Australia now stands to be rewarded at the polling booth.

Voters in Wentworth are already stepping up and demanding strong, coherent climate policies in exchange for their vote. Let that be a wake-up call for the Morrison government.

Neneh Darwin is a rapid response campaigner at Greenpeace Australia Pacific.