Australian voters deliver strong message on climate, ending conservative government's 9-year rule
By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
(CNN) -- Australian voters have delivered a sharp rebuke to the center-right government, ending nine years of conservative rule, in favor of the center-left opposition that promised stronger action on climate change.
Australian Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese claimed victory Saturday, though it was unclear as counting continued if his party would have the 76 seats required to form a majority.
Early counting showed a strong swing towards Greens candidates and Independents who demanded emissions cuts far above the commitments made by the ruling conservative coalition.
Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the research group the Climate Council, declared climate action the winner of the vote.
"Millions of Australians have put climate first. Now, it's time for a radical reset on how this great nation of ours acts upon the climate challenge," she said in a statement.
Other than climate, this election focused on the character of the leaders. Incumbent Scott Morrison. was deeply unpopular with voters and seemed to acknowledge as much when he admitted during the last week of the campaign that he had been a "bit of a bulldozer." He was referring to making hard decisions during the pandemic and severing a submarine deal with France, but it reflected claims about his leadership style as being more authoritarian than collaborative.
Speaking to his supporters late Saturday night, Morrison said he had called Albanese and congratulated him on his election victory. "I've always believed in Australians and their judgment, and I've always been prepared to accept their verdict," he said.
Just before midnight, Albanese walked out to to cheers from his supporters and said he would seek to unite the nation. "I will work every day to bring Australians together. And I will lead a government worthy of the people of Australia."
He added: "I can promise all Australians this no matter how you voted today, the government I lead will respect every one of you every day."
What Albanese will do as Prime Minister?
One of Albanese's first priorities as Prime Minister will be to rebuild relations with foreign leaders he says Morrison has neglected in recent years. They include Pacific Island leaders, including the Solomon Islands whose leader signed a security pact with Beijing, stoking fears that China plans to build its first military base in the Pacific.
On Tuesday, Albanese intends to travel Tokyo with Foreign Minister Penny Wong for talks with Quad members from the United States, India and Japan, where they'll discuss priorities to safeguard free passage in the Indo-Pacific.
The climate crisis was one of the defining issues of the election, as one of the few points of difference between the coalition and Labor, and a key concern of voters, according to polls.
Marija Taflaga, lecturer in politics and international relations at the Australian National University, said the swing towards the Greens was remarkable. "I think everyone has been taken by surprise by these results...I think it will mean there will be greater and faster action on climate change more broadly."
Labor has promised to cut emissions by 43% by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050, partly by strengthening the mechanism used to pressure companies to make cuts.
But research institute Climate Analytics says Labor's plans aren't ambitious enough to keep global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius, as outlined in the Paris Agreement.
Labor's policies are more consistent with a rise of 2 degrees Celsius, the institute said, marginally better than the coalition's plan.
To speed up the transition to renewable energy, Labor plans to modernize Australia's energy grid and roll out solar banks and community batteries. But despite its net zero commitment, Labor says it'll approve new coal projects if they're environmentally and economically viable.
In inner-city seats, results show voters threw their support behind Independents, mostly highly-educated female candidates standing on a platform of higher cuts to greenhouse emissions and integrity in government. They targeted traditionally safe Liberal seats, challenging voters to take a stand on decades of government inaction.
Albanese is supporting a rise in the minimum wage of 5.1%, though he doesn't have the power to impose it, only leeway to submit a recommendation to the Fair Work Commission that the minimum wage keeps pace with inflation.
A modest upbringing to PM
Albanese often refers to his background as the son of a single mother to demonstrate his commitment to making life better for struggling Australians.
His mother, Maryanne, suffered rheumatoid arthritis and lived on disability benefits while she raised him alone in council housing in the 1960s.
"It gave me a determination each and every day to help the people like I was growing up to have a better life. And I think that's what Australians want," he told the National Press Club in January.
Albanese repeatedly credited his mother for her strength during his campaign, most recently on Friday when he paid tribute to a "incredible woman."
"She'd be proud as punch because she made the courageous decision in 1963 to keep a child that she had out of wedlock," he said.
Albanese's father was a steward on a cruise ship, and the new Australian Prime Minister was born of a brief liaison that was scandalous at the time for a single Catholic woman.
So she told him that his father had died to spare him the truth, he said.
"That was a tough decision," he said. "It says something about the pressure that was placed on women and pressures that are still placed on women when faced with difficult circumstances. The fact that that young kid is now running for Prime Minister says a lot about her and her courage, but it also says a lot about this country."
Albanese may have won over Australians, but one of his challenges as Prime Minister will be to unite the factions of his party, said Zareh Ghazarian, a lecturer in politics at Monash University.
"He's presented himself as someone who's going to be a level-headed leader. The challenge that he will have is getting on top of and keeping on top of the Labor party caucus," he said.
Albanese served as a minister in the previous Labor government under prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, before taking over as Labor leader after the party's most recent election loss in 2019.
That loss knocked the wind out of Labor and they returned to this election campaign with more modest promises to avoid scaring off voters worried about radical change.
Paul Williams, a political scientist with Griffith University, said Albanese lacked experience in major portfolios but predicted he would "grow into the job."
"I think it will be a steep learning curve for Albanese because he hasn't had a very senior portfolio like treasurer or foreign affairs minister. And he's going to be thrown into the mix of the Quad meeting next week. So it's going to be baptism by fire," he said.
Albanese said he hoped his win would show young Australians that "the doors of opportunity are open to us all."
"Every parent wants more for the next generation than they had. My mother dreamt of a better life for me. And I hope that my journey in life inspires Australians to reach for the stars."
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