What happened to the climate change election?

Perhaps we’ll be surprised. Perhaps calls from Liberals like Arthur Sinodinos and Simon Birmingham to embrace renewables in their energy policy and dissolve the false binary between the environment and the economy will be heard within the party.

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Perhaps Scott Morrison, a rare unifying figure in a party still enduring a civil war, will let them change course. Perhaps the presence of independents like Zali Steggall in Warringah and Helen Haines in Indi will inspire Liberal moderates into action.

But let’s be honest: the next parliament looks profoundly unlikely to generate any meaningful action on climate change.

So much for the climate election, you say. And on one level, that’s right. The swing away from Labor in the outer suburbs – especially pronounced in those seats experiencing heavy mortgage stress – seems emphatically economic.


Climate change simply doesn’t drive votes in the suburbs, where it apparently ranks as a third or fourth order issue like things such as taxes and property prices.

But it’s simply not true that climate change wasn’t a major factor. It was. And it played out in wildly contradictory ways that reveal exactly where it sits in the Australian imagination. Let’s start with a significantly overlooked fact from last Saturday. The Greens had a good night, especially in the Senate, which unlike the House of Representatives is a house of proportional representation. There, the Greens gained the largest swing of any party in the country: up around 2.6 per cent, taking its vote to near 13 per cent.

All Greens senators will likely be returned: quite an achievement given most of their senators were up for election this year. It’s fair to assume this was largely a climate change vote.

Far better publicised were the significant swings against the Coalition in wealthy, inner-city seats. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of the wealthiest seats in the country – most of them Liberal seats – swung progressive. The most spectacular result was Steggall’s vanquishing of Tony Abbott emphatically on climate. But Wentworth came remarkably close to staying out of Liberal hands on similar grounds.



Elsewhere, it is hard to see what else could have inspired these swings, given Labor’s platform was specifically designed to attack the economic interests of wealthy voters.

But then came mining. Communities that rely on resources smashed Labor. That is where Queensland came into its own, dishing out double-digit anti-Labor swings with relish in places like Capricornia (centred on Rockhampton) and Dawson (which includes Mackay and parts of Townsville). But all the talk of the Coalition’s domination of Queensland has missed that it only got 0.25 per cent of the swing. Overwhelmingly these votes flowed to One Nation and Clive Palmer, who then sent them the Coalition’s way by preferences.

Perhaps the most pronounced example of this was in the NSW coal mining seat of Hunter, where Labor lost over 14 per cent of its primary vote. The Nationals lost 2.5 per cent of theirs. One Nation, meanwhile, clocked up its highest vote in the whole country: nearly 22 per cent. It’s not far off winning the seat.

This was very likely a pro-coal, pro-Adani vote. These are communities where opposition to coal on climate grounds sounds very much like a heartless desire to see them unemployed and impoverished. No one much cared that Labor had no plans to phase out coal, or that it had still left the door open to Adani. Its climate change rhetoric made it sound coal-sceptical, driving these voters to the most anti-climate party they could find.

‘‘When climate change is a moral issue, we do quite badly. When it’s an economic issue, we do very well.’’ So said Abbott in his concession speech on Saturday in perhaps the most succinct, piercingly insightful political analysis of the issue offered all night.

What this patchwork of climate votes reveals is just how deeply, primarily economic this issue has become. The greatest predictor of your attitude to climate action is your economic exposure to it. Voting for climate change policies is now a luxury item.

If you think your job is on the line, you’ll oppose it viscerally. If your job isn’t directly affected but you’re financially stretched, you’ll either have no interest in it or fear the costs of action more than the consequences of inaction. And as long as that’s the case, climate action is doomed to the margins because only a small minority will ever be able to afford it.


Perhaps that might have been different if, instead of hedging on Adani and coal, Labor had spent years talking directly to coal miners about what an economic transition would look like in specific detail, about what jobs will exist for the very same people whose livelihoods are currently bound up in the coal industry. This might be the most ignored aspect of our major parties’ climate change discourse.

Dunno. Maybe I’m wrong. But if it’s not that, it has to be something else that makes emissions reduction seem affordable to those who fear it isn’t, because it’s clear that climate change as a moral issue is dead, and will be for years to come. The alternative is to expect communities to vote for what they fear will be their own death. And that’s a fanciful ask.

Waleed Aly is a regular columnist and a presenter on The Project.