Australia is set for a major shift in climate policy, with prime minister-elect Anthony Albanese promising to “change the country” after an election victory that ended nearly a decade of rule by a conservative coalition.
With vote-counting continuing on Sunday, the Labor Party under Mr Albanese was still hoping for an outright majority in the lower house, though it may need the support of independents and smaller parties to return to power for the first time since 2013.
Prime minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal Party was toppled in several urban strongholds by independents, mostly women, who campaigned for more action on climate change, integrity and gender equality. The independents and a strong showing from the Greens also ate into Labor’s vote share in many seats.
“I do want to change the country. I want to change the way that politics operates in this country,” Mr Albanese told reporters after leaving a cafe in his Sydney suburb.
The election result, with the pivotal role climate change played, represents a remarkable shift for Australia, one of the world’s biggest per capita carbon emitters and top coal and gas exporters. It was shunned at last year’s Glasgow climate summit for failing to match other rich nations’ ambitious targets.
The country’s biggest polluters in mining, oil and gas and building materials face a gradual tightening of allowed carbon emissions, while Labor aims to boost demand for electric vehicles and speed up renewable energy developments. “Together we can end the climate wars,” Mr Albanese said in his victory speech. “Together we can take advantage of the opportunity for Australia to be a renewable energy superpower.”
Mr Albanese has said Labor would maintain its target of cutting carbon emissions 43 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, already much tougher than the outgoing conservative government’s Paris target of a cut of up to 28 per cent.
Even with an outright majority Labor could face a fight in the senate, where it will likely to need to work with the Greens to pass legislation, including the 2030 emissions target.
“Now the battle will be over ambition in short-term targets, legislating a plan so it’s out of the hands of any one government, and hitting pause on new fossil fuel mines,” said Richie Merzian, climate and energy head at the Australia Institute think tank.
The Greens want to achieve net zero by 2035 rather than 2050, stop new coal and gas infrastructure being built, and end coal-fired generation by 2030. Labor will also face pressure from a handful of climate-focussed independents pushing for emissions reductions of at least 50 per cent by 2030.
Labor’s election campaign highlighted Albanese’s working-class credentials - a boy raised in public housing by a single mother on a disability pension - and his image as a pragmatic unifier.
The 59-year-old entered parliament in 1996, just as Labor entered the first of two decade-long patches in opposition. The party’s time back in power, from 2007 to 2013, was marred by leadership squabbles in which he openly criticised both sides.
Those years forged his reputation as a collaborator willing to work outside ideological lines as leader of the house, where he managed government business in the parliament.
Several world leaders, including British prime minister Boris Johnson and neighbouring New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, congratulated Mr Albanese on his win. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, whose government had tense relations with Canberra after Mr Morrison’s sudden decision last year to drop a $64 billion French submarine deal, said he was pleased that Mr Morrison lost the election. Mr Morrison’s actions showed “brutality and cynicism, and, I would be even tempted to say a form of notorious incompetence”, Mr Le Drian said.
Mr Albanese said he will be sworn in as the 31st prime minister on Monday, before heading to Tokyo to attend a “Quad” summit on Tuesday with US president Joe Biden and the prime ministers of Japan and India.