by Jonathan Watts, Guardian
Julia Gillard’s new minority government in Australia means that the country’s green party will take a pivotal position in the nation’s politics for the first time.
Like the UK and Germany, a surge in popularity has given the environmental movement an unprecedented parliamentary presence in Australia this year, prompting suggestions that electorates are punishing mainstream parties for failing to act decisively on climate change.
In last month’s poll, the Australian Greens benefited from a bigger swing than any other party, picking up 11.7% of the vote and the first lower house seat they have ever won at a general election. In the upper house, the Senate, they will soon be in an even stronger position, controlling the balance of power with nine of the 76 seats.
Adam Bandt, the victorious Greens MP, believes there are wider global trends behind his party’s success.
"I think climate was the key issue," he said in an interview with the Guardian. "It is very significant that a couple of unions swung behind me and against Labor."
The change is enormous since the last poll in 2007, when Labor’s Kevin Rudd won on the back of a campaign to slash emissions. But neither he nor his successor Julia Gillard made legislative progress on the issue.
Using their new leverage in a hung parliament, the Greens – now the undisputed third party – promised to support Labor in return for a new initiative on climate change. Gillard agreed that if she were to return as prime minister, she would establish a high-level committee – including representatives from the Greens and the science community – to consider ways to put a price on carbon.
"The last Labor government treated climate change like a political football," said Bandt. "When their legislation fell in a heap, Labor said they would not return to the issue until 2013. We hope we have pressed the reset button on that."
A large gap remains between the two parties on emissions targets. The last Labor government aimed for a 5-15% reduction in emissions on 2000 levels by 2020 , mainly through a carbon-trading scheme. The Greens want a 40% cut, initially through a carbon tax.
"There is going to be a hard discussion," said Bandt. "If the process breaks down we reserve the right to introduce our own legislation."
There are strong parallels between Bandt’s victory in Melbourne and that of Caroline Lucas in Brighton during the UK election earlier this year. Both were breakthroughs for green candidates in progressive, urban constituencies in nations where the two major parties were unable to convince voters they were worthy of majority government.
Lucas telephoned the Australian Greens to congratulate them on election night. "We put it [Lucas’ call] on Skype and then broadcast it on a projector. The response was fantastic. The room went off," Bandt said.
He sees an international dimension to advance of green parties. "There are growing numbers of young people reading and accepting the science of climate change. There is a large constituency that feels betrayed by the rightward move of social democratic parties over the past 30 years and there is a large group of professionals who see that the old parties are not taking rational actions because they are tied to the interests of the 20th-century economy."
Leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, has likened his party’s situation to that of Labor at the start of the 20th century – they had yet to win seats or fully organize workers but later went on to govern the nation.
Bandt concurs. "I don’t have delusions of grandeur, but there are similarities," he says. "We are doing what needs to be done at this particular point in history. We are driven by a world view, which you cannot say about the other parties."
Although part of the Greens’ recent success must be put down to a protest vote, the party has seen a steady rise in the polls over the past 10 years as it has established distinctive policies on immigration, same-sex marriage and health care reform.
But if they want to appeal beyond inner-city, university areas, members realize they will have to go further to prove they are more than a single-issue movement. "We have to use the power responsibly because we have never had it before. We have to show people we can be trusted," said Richard Di Natale, a newly elected Greens senator.