The results of recent Australian federal elections surprised observers and analysts across the world. The Labour Party, which was consistently leading in the opinion polls, lost to the Liberal-National Coalition. Whereas Indian Parliamentary elections were predicted by one and all to re-elect the incumbent Narendra Modi-led NDA government, although the victory margin was higher than expected. Arguably, the single factor that sprang the surprise in Australia was one business tycoon from Gujarat, Gautam Adani.
A soft parallel may be drawn between Australian and American elections. In the latter Vladimir Putin was alleged to have manipulated the elections in favour of Donald Trump, Adani conglomerate tilted the results towards the liberal coalition, even if, according to some observers, it lent a symbolic edge. The coalition got the majority from one State, Queensland, where Adani is setting up a coalmine called Carmichael, supposed to be by far the biggest in the world.
Clearly, the Labour Party made the last Australian elections for their 46th Parliament about climate change. Reeling under extended drought, damaging floods, more and more bushfires, unusually hot summers, Australians were perhaps looking for relief and respite. The Labour Party promised them sound climate change policies, by cutting carbon emission, by 45 per cent by 2030, and increase the use of renewable energy up to 50 per cent by 2030; whereas the coalition did not have any climate policy or target beyond 2020.
However, Scot Morrison, the incumbent Prime Minister backed by an anti-immigration party, called one nation, led by a Queenslander, and United Australian Party, led by mining billionaire Clive Palmer, and largely by coal-supporters and climate sceptics, negated the narrative crafted by the Labour. Morrison clearly resorted to populism and nationalism. He charged his Labour contender Bill Shorten with latter’s greater interest in ‘green issues’ than jobs. His populist platform for Queensland comprised narratives likes ‘Queensland is the economic powerhouse of the country.
Coal is the biggest revenue earner and job provider. It raises USD 12 billion in royalties, and USD 18.6 billion in company taxes (2017-18) which funds the teachers, nurses, police, and infrastructure projects. Further, the coalition claimed that cutting the carbon by 45% will cost 167000 jobs, and cause a loss of USD 246 billion.
On the other hand, Adani Mines Carmichael would generate 240,000 skilled works. The Coalition despaired at the Queensland labour government’s continued efforts to stall the Adani project, which was plainly unjust and put people’s livelihood’s at risk. It was said that labour government in Queensland was attempting to “tarnish and delay the work of Adani mines which has been held to the highest level of scrutiny over the past 8 years of planning and demonstrated its capability to operate as one of Australia’s leading mining companies”. It is time to get the Adani mines started, asserted the Coalition. There were posters and festoons, like ‘start Adani Mines’ seen during the campaign.
One can call these claims populist as there are tangible arguments that: Australian coalmines are not as profit-generating as before, their main clients, Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan and India are switching to renewables, heavily reducing their imports from Australia. Secondly, the transportation costs to far-away places are off-setting the profit margins of the companies.
Be those as they may, the Labour party lost the climate change debate in the federal elections. There are two facets of the debate the Labour party seems to have missed. Anthony Giddens, the former ‘Guru’ of UK former Prime Minister Tony Blair, has nicely explained them in his book, The Politics of Climate Change (2009). He has argued that people are not excited about climate change issues as these do not affect them directly and immediately as, let us say, a road accident or a house on fire. They are more concerned about their immediate needs, jobs and incomes etc.
That is how the people in the state of Queensland reacted to the climate change campaign. They wanted jobs, and they thought they were being robbed off their jobs on some ‘imaginary’ threats of climate disasters. It was so acrimonious that, reportedly, both groups quite often faced off in the streets. Once a man on a horse opposing the pro-climate change group, rode into them, and knocked off a woman. Coal mine supporters equated setting up of Adani mines with creation of number of jobs and vote for the Coalition.
Second facet is of climate change debate is that it is too sophisticated to be conducted public. The accruals from ecological services could not be monetised concretely and placed neatly before the public. In electoral politics, people often go by perception not particularities. The perception produced by the Coalition hinted at national pride through preservation of mines and national interest through creation of jobs. No wonder, Clive Palmer of United Australian Party, spent 10 million USD on a populist campaign called ‘Make Australia Great’.
There is a revival of nationalism across the world, challenging the supra-nationalism of the European Union, or conventional internationalism in the rest of the world. In India, the right-wing BJP won a bigger mandate defying predictions or a reinvigorated platform of nationalism. In the elections to the EU Parliament, nationalism played out prominently, and the Liberals and Progressives barely held their ground. So how could Australia escape the wild wind of nationalism blowing across the world?
Another strategy the Progressives including the Australian Labour Party adopt, may have led to the defeat of the Labour party. The strategy is to deride and dismiss their right-wing opponents, instead of understanding and engaging them.
There are a good many voters across democracies, that are undecided or fence-sitters. If they are intellectually engaged and emotionally embraced they can be made to change their minds. The Progressives somehow fail to reach out to them. Their ideological and policy Puritanism ironically makes them less inclusive.
Remember, what Hillary Clinton called Trump’s supporters in 2016 US Presidential elections. She said: “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorable”. She added, they are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic- Islam-phobic, you name it. This is not a great approach to wean away people from the other tent, and win them over; Australia Labour Party needs to introspect, if they had a similar attitude.
At any rate, the results in Australian elections have been really surprising, and depressing for Progressives beyond Australia as the Labour Party was expected to win. In addition to the generalities, the specific reason for their last-minute defeat is the controversial claims made by and on behalf of the Adani Group. I would wear neither my progressive nor my nationalist hat and pass any judgment on the role of Adani in Australian elections. He may have been an agent provocateur, or a beneficiary of the elections, as the Indian press suggests. It is for the Australians to deal with. I wish them well.—INFA