Skip to main content

Independent candidate Monique Ryan, second from right, greets voters at a pre-polling centre in Melbourne on May 17 as she takes on Australia's treasurer Josh Frydenberg in his stronghold of Kooyong in the May 21 general election.WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

In the final two televised debates between Australia’s two major federal party leaders, climate policy was far from prominent. Over the combined two hours, only about 10 minutes total were spent talking about climate change, despite Australia having suffered some of its worst-ever wildfires and floods in recent years.

And in the last debate before the May 21 election, those few minutes centered around what the left-leaning Labor Party and right-leaning Liberal-National Coalition wouldn’t do: implement a carbon tax similar to Canada’s.

The lack of focus on climate issues is one of reasons why experts and politicians alike have said Australia’s electorate is disillusioned with the major parties and beginning to embrace a wave of high-profile independent candidates, who threaten to steal seats from Coalition strongholds by campaigning on environmental action and government accountability.

Early voting begins in Australia election with opposition ahead in polls

Australia thwarts Chinese plot to fund election candidates: media

Australian election campaign has been dominated by one issue: China

Polling in the country has shown strong support for such candidates, and the movement has been dubbed the “teal wave,” after the campaign colour that many of them chose. Even high-profile politicians such as Coalition treasurer Josh Frydenburg are fighting for survival in what used to be safe territory; recent polling from newspaper the Australian showed him trailing by 6 per cent against independent candidate Monique Ryan.

Amanda McKenzie, chief executive officer of the Climate Council, an organization based in Melbourne, said Australia’s current political climate has created the perfect environment for these independent candidates to flourish. After deadly floods in northern New South Wales and Queensland this year, and wildfires from 2019 to 2020 that led to 80 per cent of the population breathing harmful smoke, many Australians are looking to the federal government to take action, she said.

But there’s a perception by both major parties, Ms. McKenzie said, that talking about climate would be harmful to their campaigns, since it would highlight the Coalition’s lack of action, and could be detrimental for the Labor Party in industrial seats.

A key feature of Australia’s democracy that has allowed for a surge in support for independents is its preferential voting system, which allows people to rank their votes. In the circumstance where a person’s first choice isn’t competitive, the vote will filter down to the top contender in the riding. That means people can vote first for the candidate they most align with, without worrying about their vote being wasted.

Canada’s first-past-the-post system poses more of a challenge for independent or minor party candidates, since some people will vote strategically by choosing a popular candidate in the hopes that their least desired candidate will lose.

Adding to the teal wave’s buzz is the high-profile nature of many of its contenders, which include Ms. Ryan, a prominent pediatrician; former Olympian Zali Steggall; established voices in the country’s business community; and a former foreign correspondent for ABC, the country’s public broadcaster.

Independent candidate Zali Steggall speaks to the media in Warringah during Australia's general election on May 18, 2019.PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

Members of the movement also name Cathy McGowan, a former MP who unseated a Coalition candidate in the state of Victoria, and Ms. Steggall, a sitting independent who unseated former prime minister Tony Abbott in the 2019 election, as role models who have further inspired the teal wave.

Australia also has a Green party, which currently holds just one seat in parliament. Ian Lowe, an emeritus professor with Griffith University in Brisbane, said a key principle that separates the independents from the Greens is that many of the independents are fiscally conservative, while the Green party is more left wing. This has made independents viable with right-wing voters in affluent Melbourne and Sydney ridings who historically have chosen Coalition candidates.

The strategy to aim at territory that is considered firmly in the hands of the Coalition party is partly based on an assumption that “if the seats were seen as safe, then the governing party doesn’t put any effort into looking after their needs. ... They’re easier targets” said Mr. Lowe, adding that even the most faithful Coalition voters want more action on climate change.

This year’s election isn’t the first time that independents have been a force to reckon with in Australia. Former prime minister Julia Gillard had to work with a handful of independents to form government in 2010 after a tight election. (Mr. Lowe credits that time as one of the most impactful for climate policy. ”The result was probably a world-class package of measures to slow climate change.”)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison accidentally knocks over a child during a visit to the Devonport Strikers Soccer Club, which is in the electorate of Braddon, on May 18. 'I say to those who are thinking about independents, Australia doesn’t need a weak government,' Mr. Morrison says.Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Getty Images

But one thing that sets this election apart is the strength of a central organization in the movement called Climate 200, which has raised millions of dollars to dole out to the 22 candidates affiliated with it.

Simon Holmes à Court, a political activist who is the convener of Climate 200, described the initiative as a “fundraising service provider.” It requires candidates to prove that they’ve already secured donations and support from their own community, and they need to align with the organization on climate change, anti-corruption and the progression of women’s rights.

Climate 200 provides logistical support and funding, Mr. Holmes à Court said, but doesn’t otherwise impose any control over the candidates.

The money raised by Climate 200 is significant. Mr. Holmes à Court said the two major parties raised roughly 150 million Australian dollars in the previous election, whereas the Greens raised 20 million Australian dollars across a country of 151 seats. In comparison, Climate 200 has raised 12 million Australian dollars to support less than two dozen candidates, he said. The Guardian Australia reported earlier in the year that the group’s candidates were spending more money than their competitors on Facebook ads ahead of the election campaign.

Climate 200 has also recruited roughly 15,000 volunteers, Mr. Holmes à Court said, with individual candidates likewise attracting large numbers. Ms. Ryan, for example, campaigning in the Coalition-controlled Melbourne riding of Kooyong, has 2,000 volunteers.

Hanabeth Luke is one of the independent candidates who has Climate 200′s support. She is running in Page, an electorate roughly 750 kilometres north of Sydney that was devastated earlier this year by severe flooding after torrential downpours in March. The floods left more than 20 people dead, and are estimated by the Insurance Council of Australia to have cost more than $3-billion in insured losses.

Schoolchildren shout slogans as they march towards the Prime Minister's house in Sydney on March 25 during a strike and protest to highlight inadequate progress to address climate change.MUHAMMAD FAROOQ/AFP/Getty Images

A senior lecturer at Southern Cross University, Ms. Luke said she was drawn to run for office only months ago, after hearing her students talk about how climate change had affected their lives.

“Locally, people feel completely abandoned by the government,” said Ms. Luke, who added that many of her supporters are still waiting to receive financial relief.

Polling shows teal wave independents are neck-and-neck with Coalition politicians in multiple seats, and their popularity has caught the ire of Coalition Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

“I say to those who are thinking about independents, Australia doesn’t need a weak government ... that has to negotiate for existence every single day,” he said during a debate.

For Mr. Holmes à Court, an ideal scenario would be if a party needed support from independents to form government. However, just three or four independent candidates winning a seat would be a success, he said.

“I’ve heard from so many people that they see this election as a stepping stone.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.