Climate-focused independent candidates are having a major impact on the Australian election as Scott Morrison’s government is lambasted for climate inaction. Christopher Luxon and other New Zealand politicians should and will be watching with interest, writes Toby Manhire.
Alongside the obligatory chest thumping and caterwauls of the Australian election campaign, a fascinating subplot is playing out in the form of the “teal independents”. With polling day now less than a fortnight away, a handful of these candidates are mounting very serious challenges in traditional Liberal strongholds. Their target: voters in well-to-do city-fringe suburbs who tend centre-right but are sick of inaction on climate change. Some are calling it a “teal wave”. With a hung parliament a very real possibility, they’re prompting another wave, too – of seriously freaked out incumbents and commentators.
Listen to a Gone By Lunchtime special on the ‘teal independents’ and the rest of the Australian election sizzle:
A cluster of senior Liberal MPs have found themselves in knife-edge contests to save their seats from challenges by blue-green rivals. Among them is Josh Frydenberg, the sitting treasurer, widely tipped as a future party leader. In the face of a challenge from paediatric neurologist Monique Ryan, Frydenberg has declared the teal challengers to be “fake independents”, who would bring “chaos and confusion”. A similar line is being run by prime minister Scott Morrison, who has warned against voting for a “weak parliament” and inviting “chaos”. Greg Sheridan, foreign editor and columnist at the Australian newspaper, picked that up and ran furiously, feverishly with it. The teal independents were Australia’s equivalent of far-right populists around the world, he reckoned. Backing them was “a vote for chaos, populism and extremism”, he wrote, declaring this group of middle-class moderates “extremists infesting our political system”.
The teal workaround
Counter-teal attacks tend to have twin focuses. First, the “fake” bit. The teal independents are not a political party. There is no manifesto, no registered logo, no constitution and no suggestion they would caucus. What unites them is links to Climate 200, a body founded by Simon Holmes à Court, a climate advocate and clean energy investor, who also happens to be a billionaire and a former Liberal donor. The organisation has shelled out more than $12m across 22 candidates who are standing as independents but have committed to three priorities: climate action, “integrity” in politics, and advancing gender equality.
Whenever a billionaire bankrolls a political movement, scrutiny dials should be turned to a thousand. But Holmes à Court insists he’s no puppeteer in the shadows, that the finances are transparent, that he will not and cannot influence the way successful candidates vote, and that he didn’t hand-pick any of them. “Cross my heart and hope to die that all the campaigns we are supporting started from inside their own electorates,” he says. “Every single one is grassroots.”
Then there’s that harbingers-of-chaos argument – the idea a bunch of teal MPs on the cross-benches in a hung parliament will prove to be agents of anarchy, hazards even to national security. Such claims are hysterical – as Malcolm Turnbull, a Liberal prime minister as recently as four years ago, acknowledged before a Washington DC audience a couple of days ago. “The big parties’ arguments against independents is always the same – instability, chaos and so on,” he said. “But in truth, many parliaments, including in Australia, have operated with stability and good effect with major parties requiring the support of independents or minor parties to pass legislation and, in fact, in our senate that has almost always been the case.” It bears noting, too, that the Liberal Party governs in collaboration with the Nationals – an arrangement literally called “the Coalition”.
For the most part conspicuous by its absence, however, is any denunciation of the teal group for their policy priorities, largely because the Liberal candidates they are challenging are trying very hard to tell their constituents that, well, those are pretty much their priorities, too. In truth these independents’ emergence is a direct indictment of Liberal shortcomings. Any teal wave will be delivered on a swell born of climate inaction and borderline subservience to the mining lobby. The independents’ chances are boosted by what Turnbull called the “diminished and diminishing” role of moderate voices in the federal party. He said: “If more of these teal independents win, it will mean the capture of the Liberal Party will be thwarted by direct, democratic action from voters. People power, you might say.”
That pushback is playing out in carefully selected seats against carefully selected opponents precisely because the electoral system for the Australian house of representatives is geared against small parties. In 2019, for example, the Greens collected more than 10% of votes, and were rewarded with precisely one of 151 seats. Whether or not the independents prove pivotal in who governs a fortnight from now – latest polling suggests Labor is likely to win outright – what is inescapably clear is that “climate stuff” is a priority for increasing numbers of Australians, across the political spectrum. In a country where the impacts of climate change are increasingly wreaking havoc, costing lives and money, it is hard to see the Coalition winning a parliamentary majority again without first overhauling their approach to the biggest issue of our time.
Lessons for New Zealand
As we pass the halfway mark in the current parliamentary term, New Zealand politicians are keeping at least half an eye on the race unfolding across the Tasman. And while we can hope they don’t pick up too many tips as far as the quality of debate is concerned, the emergence of the teal independents does offer a few things to chew on.
There’s a chunky old caveat or two, of course. Our proportional system has for 25 years afforded smaller parties the opportunity to challenge or augment the parliamentary mix as long as they get 5% of the party vote or one electorate seat. MMP isn’t a natural fit for a teal independent strategy.
What the emergence of the teal independents does suggest, however, is that for a growing swathe of voters, blue only works when mixed with green. That could give some in the New Zealand Greens pause – why not open the door properly to a coalition with National and a tide of voters who see curbing climate change as the defining project of their lives? In doing so, they’d greatly boost leverage in any negotiations. Labour knows very well that for the Greens it’s them or nothing.
That’s a compelling proposition. A “teal deal” arrangement that saw the Greens provide confidence and supply to National in exchange for massive concessions on the environment is not completely beyond the bounds of possibility. It’s pretty close, though, and a coalition proper is laughably implausible. Social justice is central to the New Zealand Green Party DNA. An attempt to make them exclusively about climate would risk tearing the party apart.
Another option: a new party with the environment as its single, all-encompassing issue. The best argument against that is the 2020 election effort led by Vernon Tava under the (teal coloured) Sustainable NZ banner. Sustainable NZ won fewer than 2,000 votes across the country, finishing 15th of 17 registered parties. If there’s room for a newish party in this territory, a much better chance is TOP, which could opt to go big on climate and hoover up the teal-inclined should National fail to persuade that they’re serious about the issue.
National and the week ahead
Which brings us to the crux: is National serious about the issue? After a moment’s equivocation, the party yesterday put its weight behind the emissions budgets. “Climate change is a huge challenge. National is fully committed to emissions targets including net zero by 2050,” said National leader Christopher Luxon. At about the same time his finance spokesperson, Nicola Willis, emphasised in a pre-budget speech the message that “National is fully committed to delivering on New Zealand’s 2050 and 2030 commitments to reduce emissions”.
All of which is terrific, but not the half of it. The emissions budgets are the bone, the flesh is the Emissions Reduction Plan, to be announced on Monday. It is difficult to overstate the importance of that plan. In spelling out just how New Zealand will reach its targets, the ERP will draw a line under decades of neglect from governments in blue and governments in red. It will make “emergency” and “generation’s nuclear free moment” rhetoric immediately less hollow. National disagreeing with parts of the ERP does not mean National is unserious about climate change, but this is one of those moments that all involved need to make some unpopular calls. It means backing some commitments that many, if increasingly fewer, among National’s rural base will balk at. That’s a tough ask. Reflexive politicking is easier.
National prides itself on being a big tent – and that tent already has a teal canopy, in the form of the Bluegreens. Co-chaired by MP Scott Simpson, the spokesperson for climate change, it prides itself on being “the most active of National’s policy advisory groups”. When I checked yesterday the latest update on the Bluegreens site was a report from the annual forum in February 2021. But fear not. They have not fallen into a slumber, Simpson assured me yesterday. After Covid-induced delays, the 2022 Bluegreens forum will be held in Auckland in August. That’s as encouraging as it is discouraging to see the National spokesperson for transport, Simeon Brown, declare Auckland councillors voting to spend $306m on cycleways “just another example of the left wing transport ideology being forced on Kiwis”. Transport represents almost half of New Zealand carbon emissions; as the Climate Commission analysis makes very clear, it is precisely where the rubber hits the road.
As Australian politics deals with an unorthodox electoral push for climate action, as the reality and immediacy of climate change is spelled out in maps that reveal how many homes are at risk around the New Zealand coast, as some 47% of us say in a Newshub poll we’re “embarrassed by New Zealand’s climate action”, Christopher Luxon has an opportunity to future-proof his party and make very clear that green is stitched into National’s blue. He was vocal in arguing for addressing climate change when he was at the helm of New Zealand’s flagship airline, after all. And the superstitious might find some cosmic encouragement that the very same airline was once Teal by name and teal by livery.