Climate Change Concerns Hand Australian Greens Victory

In Australia, dissatisfaction with the failure of major political parties to act on climate change has handed the Australian Greens a key place in government - and an opportunity to at last make real progress on the climate. Australia’s national election last month not only left neither major party with a governing majority, but saw unprecedented support for the Greens. The Greens now hold nine seats in the Australian Senate, and for the first time ever have won a seat in Australia’s lower house as well.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, leader of Australia’s Labor Party, has been forced to make a deal with independent legislators and the Greens to create a governing majority. In return for the Greens’ backing, Gillard’s party promised to form a government committee to take up the idea of a price on carbon that could curb Australia’s greenhouse emissions. This development comes after media predictions earlier this year that Labor’s decision to de-prioritize climate change would mean the death of a real Australian climate bill. Though a successful carbon policy is still far from certain, the Greens’ win has injected new urgency into discussions on climate change.

Countries like the United States, where both major parties have also failed to deliver on climate change, could learn a lesson or two from Australia. In both Australia and the US, voters seem dissatisfied with how the major parties have dealt with controversial issues like climate change. In Australia this dissatisfaction led to a productive realignment of power, with support growing dramatically for a formerly marginalized party. In the US, unfortunately, the fallout form the upcoming election is likely to be very different. The reason is at least partly because of Australia’s more democratic method of deciding elections.

In Australia, Senate seats are awarded using proportional representation. In other words, a party that wins 50% of the votes is given half the seats available, while a party that gets 10% of the votes is awarded 10% of the seats. This allows minor parties to play a constructive role in government, and ensures voters who cast their ballot for minor parties are not throwing their vote away. Proportional representation allowed the Australian Greens to climb to nine seats in the Senate, and gradually gain enough national recognition that this year they won a place in the lower house (which is not awarded by proportional representation).

Meanwhile in the US, each seat in both the Senate and House of Representatives is decided in a winner-takes-all election, where a candidate may end up victorious even after failing to pick up half the votes. This makes it nearly impossible for a minor party to break in. It also means voters frustrated with the major party in power have little choice but to cast their support to the other major party—even if its track record on issues like climate is equally bad or worse. That’s exactly what is likely to happen this election, when the vehemently anti-climate bill Republican Party is predicted to attract new support, largely because voters have no other way to vent frustration with Democrats.

Recent events in Australia highlight something most climate activists have known for a long time: truly democratic systems of government are by far the most likely to make strong action on climate change possible. The struggle to pass a climate bill in the US, Australia, and other countries is therefore not just about carbon emissions. It’s also about re-claiming democracy, and making people power the driving force in politics.

Photo credit: The Greens Blog