Australia’s new leaders are yet to be sworn in following the Labor Party’s victory Saturday, but the nation is already dissecting what seems to be a seismic shift in its politics.
After almost a decade of conservative leadership, voters turned their back on the ruling coalition, instead backing those who campaigned for more action on climate change, greater gender equality and political integrity.
For much of its history, Australian politics has been dominated by the two major parties: the Liberals on the center-right and Labor on the center-left. But this election threw all the balls up in the air, tossing more than a few to minor parties and Independents who were fed-up with the two-party system.
Here’s what we learned.
Australia’s coming in from the climate cold
Election results showed a strong swing towards Independents who campaigned on issues relating to the climate.
The candidates — many first-time entrants to politics — were seeking cuts to emissions of up to 60% — more than twice as much as promised by the ruling conservative coalition (26-28%) and also more than Labor (43%). Known as teal candidates, they targeted traditionally blue Liberal seats with more green-leaning policies.
“Millions of Australians have put climate first. Now, it’s time for a radical reset on how this great nation of ours acts upon the climate challenge,” said Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the research group the Climate Council, on Saturday’s election result.
Australia has long been known as the “lucky country,” partly due to its wealth of coal and gas, as well as minerals like iron ore, which have driven generations of economic growth.
But it’s now sitting on the frontier of a climate crisis, and the fires, floods and droughts that have already scarred the country are only expected to become more extreme as the Earth warms.
The ruling conservative government had been called a climate “holdout” by the United Nations Secretary-General after outlining a plan to get to net zero by 2050 by creating massive new gas projects. Incumbent Scott Morrison had said he would back a transition from coal to renewable energy, but had no plans to stop new coal projects.
Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese promised to end the “climate wars,” a reference to the infighting that has frustrated any efforts to push for stronger action on climate over the past decade and even cost some prime ministers their jobs.
Labor has pledged to reach emission net zero by 2050, partly by strengthening the mechanism used to pressure companies to make cuts.
But research institute Climate Analytics says Labor’s plans aren’t ambitious enough to keep the global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius, as outlined in the Paris Agreement.
Labor’s policies are more consistent with a rise of 2 degrees Celsius, the institute said, marginally better than the coalition’s plan.
To speed up the transition to renewable energy, Labor plans to modernize Australia’s energy grid and roll out solar banks and community batteries. But despite its net zero commitment, Labor says it’ll approve new coal projects if they’re environmentally and economically viable.
Women are being seen and heard
Morrison’s popularity with women plummeted after several scandals involving his ministers.
Morrison himself was accused of lacking empathy when he responded to an allegation of a sexual assault in Parliament House by suggesting his wife, Jenny Morrison, had made him realize the gravity of the accusation.
“She said to me ‘You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?’ Jenny has a way of clarifying things. Always has,” he said.
Thousands of women later marched around the country calling for stronger measures to ensure women’s safety — which snowballed into demands for greater gender equality.
The teal Independents were mostly older women who under other circumstances may have joined the Liberal Party.
Albanese read the room and promised to improve gender equality. He was even endorsed by his former boss, Australia’s first and only woman Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who famously ripped into her Liberal rival with the words: “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man.” Gillard fronted the media the day before the vote to say she was “very confident” an Albanese government will be a “government for women.”
Indigenous voices will be amplified
Among the first words Albanese uttered when he walked onto the stage to claim victory Saturday was the promise to enshrine the voice of Indigenous people in Parliament.
“I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. And on behalf of the Australian Labor Party, I commit to the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full,” he said.
Indigenous groups across Australia are calling for the constitution to be changed so they’re formally consulted on legislation and policies affecting their communities. That would require a national referendum, which needs political support before a yes-no question is put to the Australian people.
Albanese’s Labor government is giving that support. The last time Australians voted in a referendum on Aboriginal rights was in 1967, when 90% of the country supported a move to include Indigenous people in the Census.
Albanese said during his acceptance speech: “All of us ought to be proud that amongst our great multicultural society we count the oldest living continuous culture in the world.”
Australia is prioritizing Asia and the US
One of the first tasks for Albanese will be to head to Tokyo to meet his counterparts from the United States, Japan and India at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) summit.
Beside him will be Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, a seasoned Labor politician of Asian descent who has long been a respected voice in the Senate.
The new Labor government promises to create stronger ties with Asia. Albanese said one of his first ports of call after Japan will be Indonesia, which he said will “grow to be an economy that’s substantial in the world.”
“We live in a region whereby in the future we will have China, India and Indonesia as giants. We need to strengthen that economic partnership and one way that we can do that is by strengthening people-to-people relations as well,” Albanese said.
“Indonesia is an important nation, for our economy, for those social relationships as well…We need to really strengthen the relationship with Indonesia and that’s why it would be an absolute priority for me.”
Analysts say Australia’s new Prime Minister faces a tough challenge when it comes to China — especially after a bitter election campaign that has put Chinese President Xi Jinping and his intentions front and center.
Australia’s relations with China have deteriorated under the coalition’s stint in government — which started at the same time as Xi’s rule. Relations soured further in 2020 when the Australian government — then led by Morrison — called for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19. China responded with sanctions against Australian exports, including beef, barley, wine, and rock lobster.
China’s reaction hardened public attitudes in Australia and pushed Canberra to lead the charge against China’s coercive actions.
The coalition has suggested Labor will be soft on China, but on paper, Labor’s position on China seems little different from that of the conservatives. Labor says it’s committed to the AUKUS security pact, the deal Morrison struck with the United States and United Kingdom, to the detriment of Australia’s relations with France. It has also voiced strong support for the Quad.
Money can’t buy votes
One of the big losers in this election was Clive Palmer, the mining magnate who reportedly spent close to $100 million on advertising for his United Australia Party for next to no influence.
The man Palmer had touted as “the next Prime Minister,” Craig Kelly, a renegade from the Liberal Party who was reprimanded for spreading Covid-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories, lost his seat after securing just 8% of the primary vote.
Palmer, who has been dubbed “Australia’s Trump,” campaigned on the issue of freedom and opposing Covid-19 vaccine mandates and lockdowns.
This is not the first time Palmer has tried to win elections with big money. In 2019, he spent millions campaigning during the federal election, but failed to land a single seat.