'The Right Time': Climate-Change Action The Rallying Cry For Emerging Independents

FairfaxPeter Hannam

Zali Steggall, the barrister and former world champion skier who will challenge Tony Abbott for the prize seat of Warringah, says she could have just as easily run as a Liberal rather than an independent - in another era.
"I'm a sensible-centre policy person - a small 'l' Liberal," Steggall says on Friday morning after walking her dog, and as she prepares to transfer the last of her legal clients to other lawyers. "Had there been a better structure to the party, then yes, I would have been a classic moderate Liberal candidate."
Barrister and former Winter Olympian Zali Steggall will run against Tony Abbott in Warringah. Credit: Dominic Lorrimer 
While the declining female representation in the party was one factor in Steggall's decision to run alone, the Coalition's "lack of action on climate change and the handbrake on, going in another direction" meant putting her hand up was something she "had to do".
Much the same could be said about the other three "climate change independents" who have emerged in four long-held Liberal seats ahead of the federal election expected in May.
Kerryn Phelps, well-known for her advocacy on social issues and demand for climate action while president of the Australian Medical Association, snatched the eastern Sydney seat of Wentworth in last October's byelection triggered by the resignation of ousted prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Declaring his hand this week was Oliver Yates, the former Macquarie investment banker and chief of the federal government-owned Clean Energy Finance Corporation, who will take on Treasurer and former environment and energy minister Josh Frydenberg in the Liberal seat of Kooyong in inner-eastern Melbourne.
Oliver Yates is challenging Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in his Liberal heartland seat of Kooyong. Credit: Eddie Jim
And former Liberal MP Julia Banks, who joined the crossbench in November decrying the "reactionary and regressive right wing" of her party, on Thursday formally declared her intent to run in the neighbouring Victorian seat of Flinders against Greg Hunt, the former environment and now health minister.
"Climate change is not only real - it is happening," Banks said in a statement outlining her reasons for taking on her erstwhile colleague, adding effective action was "an urgent imperative".
The emergence of these four independents may not be the end of it. Former Liberal leader John Hewson says "people are fed up with a government not doing anything on climate change", and expects more challengers to emerge.
One Liberal source says a prime seat for similar candidates is Hughes, in southern Sydney, which is held by right-wing backbench Liberal MP Craig Kelly, who has regularly questioned climate science and led the charge to block climate action.
The seat of Hume, in central NSW, held by Angus Taylor - the current energy minister who has backed state support for new coal-fired power stations - is also ripe for a Liberal-leaning independent, the source says.
"I'd be delighted if other other independents stood up," Yates says. "We're fighting for the future after all."
Meanwhile, those being challenged and Prime Minister Scott Morrison himself defended the government's track record on climate change action. Australia remained committed to the Paris goals - which would cut carbon emissions 26 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 - while Australia was in the midst of a record take-up of renewables, various ministers said.
Abbott declared Steggall to be "the carbon tax candidate" - a line the Olympian skier says is "an old argument" and that debate has "moved on", given the price of renewable energy such as solar and wind have fallen so far.
National emissions, though, have been rising for four years, with the increase coinciding roughly with the Abbott government's axing of the carbon price. Australia was the first and only nation to make such a reverse.
Then Environment Minister Greg Hunt congratulated by colleagues after the Abbott government succeed in scrapping the carbon price in 2014. Kelly O'Dwyer, Christopher Pyne, Peter Dutton and Mal Brough (back to the camera). Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
Phelps says the tag of “climate change independents” is a "very relevant identifier" for the four challengers. "It is a strong motivator for each of us to stand for election and is high on each of our policy agendas," she says. "We all reflect the strongly held views of our electorates on this."
Surveys, such as the Lowy Institute's annual poll, have long found Australians overwhelmingly supported renewable energy, with a majority viewing climate change as a serious issue. That support may well be on the rise, particularly as weather extremes increase in intensity, frequency and duration - as scientists have been warning for decades.
This summer is on course to be the hottest for the country after December broke records for that month and January smashed all previous monthly records by a stunning one-degree margin. And a series of blistering heatwaves produced a whopping eight of the 10 warmest days ever registered in Australia in just a single month, the Bureau of Meteorology said.
Another big fish kill surfaced this week on the Darling River at Menindee, possibly larger than the previous one just a fortnight earlier that left up to one million fish dead. Credit: Graeme McCrabb
Add in the recent massive fish kills in the Darling River, the past week's bushfires in parts of Tasmania that may not have burnt for thousands of years, and months of images of drought in NSW and Queensland, and it's not unreasonable to think that concern about climate change is not about to subside.
"A decade ago, a lot of the climate impacts were theoretical," says Tim Flannery, the palaeontologist and science communicator who helped raise the issue's profile during his stint at Australian of the Year in 2017. "It's now very much a part of people's lived experience."
Flannery, who is now back at the Australian Museum, says he has helped Steggall with the "scientific phrases of the policy" on climate.
While the rise of the climate independents reflects "an ideological divide" that has split the Liberal party, there's more to that than just a rejection of ineffective climate action, Flannery says.
MPs from political parties typically "give up their right to autonomy", and often stay on out of self interest, he says. "The rise of the independents is a kind of rejection of that model ... There are no trade-offs for parties."
Hewson, who says he didn't resign from the Liberals but simply stopped paying membership fees, says he told his party when an MP that he was "an Australian first, Liberal Party member second".
To deny the science of climate change means "you forfeit the right to govern", whatever your political stripe, he says.
For now, coordination between the climate independents is informal. It's understood cooperation is "not programmed but logical".  Website designs are being shared, as well as the suppliers of T-shirts and other election materials.
Steggall downplays "conspiracy theories" that the four are in cahoots, saying that while they share many common issues, they have to focus on the electorates they are trying to win.
She's been encouraged in the outpouring of support in Warringah and beyond. "There's a lot of Liberal Party members who feel disenfranchised and repelled" by the current government and who have offered their help, she says. "It's just the right time".


No comments :

Post a comment

Lethal Heating is a citizens' initiative