Australians queue at a pre-polling centre in Melbourne on May 17. Independent candidate Monique Ryan later defeated Treasurer Josh Frydenberg for the seat of Kooyong. Photo: AFP
Kalinga Seneviratne
Kalinga Seneviratne

Australia’s watershed election: voters demand climate action and an end to corruption

  • With the country’s two biggest parties suffering major losses, the new Labor government will need the support of independent MPs to pass legislation
  • The independents who have taken the election by storm are mostly women with a strong focus on green policy and greater government accountability

There were no street protests or occupation of landmarks, but Australians have put politicians on notice using the ballot box. Their grievances are the same as elsewhere: a corrupt political system, arrogant politicians who pay lip service to the people, and policies which serves corporate interests rather than those of the public.

At the federal elections held at the weekend, Australian voters said enough is enough; votes for the country’s two major parties, the Australian Labor Party and Liberal National coalition, fell from highs of 45 per cent to the low 30s, the same as the combined votes for minor parties and independent candidates.

Known as “teal independents” because they combine “blue” Liberal policies with green views on climate, almost all these candidates are women with successful careers outside politics. They had two main rallying calls: more government action on climate change and the establishment of a federal integrity commission to tackle corruption in politics.

Michael West, writing in his blog “Independent Journalists”, praised the election outcome, while criticising mainstream TV networks for propping up a corrupt political system for so long. “They, like the government, have failed the people,” he wrote. “Yet the people have seen through it all, the propaganda, the corruption, the crony capitalism, the incompetence, the thick veneer of constant lies and spin.”

The Labor Party has formed a government with only 32 per cent of the primary vote, lower than the percentage it received when losing to Scott Morrison’s coalition in 2019. Indeed, Labor was only able to squeeze in because Morrison lost big to the teal independents, who bit into the Liberal’s urban upper-middle-class voter base.

Australia’s new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (centre) celebrates his election win with partner Jodie Haydon and son Nathan Albanese in Sydney, Australia, on May 21. Photo: EPA-EFE

The result was on the cards long before election day. In February, Simon Holmes a Court, founder of the group Climate 200, noted in an address to the Canberra Press Club that independents held considerable sway in some seats and would present a challenge to the two major parties.

He added that the group had raised AU$7 million (US$5 million) to support candidates with green agendas because “engaged Australians are deeply frustrated that so often our government is found to be either lying or incompetent, sometimes both”.

Australia’s complicated voting system means the official tally could take a few days to be confirmed, but projections show that 10 teal independents and three Green Party candidates could enter the House of Representatives – the highest in any Australian parliament in history.

The new government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, is therefore almost certain to be reliant on independents to pass legislation. Already in his victory speech, Albanese has committed to taking action on climatic change and establishing an integrity commission.


Australia’s new PM Albanese vows to rebuild unity and trust after Labor Party election win

Australia’s new PM Albanese vows to rebuild unity and trust after Labor Party election win

Among the independent MPs who took on heavyweights in blue-ribbon Liberal seats was Dr Monique Ryan, who defeated Treasurer Josh Frydenberg for the inner Melbourne seat of Kooyong. After Frydenberg conceded, she said she was not a politician, but “our government was not listening to us, so we have changed the government, that is the power of the people”.

Dr Sophie Scamps, who won a Liberal-held seat in Sydney, said she wanted to take the voice of the community to Canberra, adding: “this is a win for democracy”.

It is not only “small-l” liberals turning against their party. Labor also suffered a humiliating defeat in the supposedly safe seat of Fowler in inner-western Sydney, where 16 per cent of the electorate are of Vietnamese descent. The party has not lost this seat since its creation in 1984.

Cost of living, climate change have final say in Australian election

Kristina Keneally, a former premier of New South Wales who lives in the affluent northern suburbs of Sydney, was parachuted in to contest the seat, against the will of the retiring member who recommended a local female lawyer of Vietnamese ancestry.

Keneally lost the seat to independent candidate Dai Le, who came to Australia as a refugee from Vietnam aged six. “I think the Fowler community is saying we are going to have our own voice, we are going to stand up, we’re going speak for ourselves,” Dai Le told ABC after Keneally conceded the seat.

The 2022 federal election could well be a watershed moment in Australian politics while providing a template for peaceful people power revolutions in other countries, especially in the Indo-Pacific. For too long, Australians have seen too much dishonesty creeping into the political system. The next three years will tell if this action in the form of strategic voting can clean it up.

Kalinga Seneviratne is a journalist, media analyst and international communication scholar currently based in Sydney