Australian voters issued a strong rebuke to the centre-right government, ending nine years of Conservative rule, in favor of the centre-left opposition which had promised stronger action on climate change.
Australian Labor leader Anthony Albanese claimed victory on Saturday, although it was unclear as the count continued whether his party would have the 76 seats needed to form a majority.
Early counts showed a strong swing towards the Greens and Independent candidates who demanded emissions cuts far beyond the pledges made by the ruling Conservative coalition.
Amanda McKenzie, CEO of research group Climate Council, said climate action was the winner of the vote.
“Millions of Australians have put the climate first. Now it’s time to radically reset the way our great nation acts on the climate challenge,” she said in a statement.
Besides the climate, this election focused on the character of the leaders. Holder Scott Morrison. was deeply unpopular with voters and seemed to acknowledge it when he admitted in the final week of the campaign that he had been a “bit of a bulldozer.” He was referring to making tough decisions during the pandemic and breaking an undersea deal with France, but it reflected claims that his leadership style was more authoritarian than collaborative.
Speaking to supporters late Saturday night, Morrison said he called Albanese and congratulated him on his election victory. “I have always believed in the Australians and their judgement, and I have always been prepared to accept their verdict,” he said.
Just before midnight, Albanese came out to the cheers of 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 Australian people.
He added: “I can promise all Australians that no matter how you voted today, the government I lead will respect you every day.”
One of Albanese’s first priorities as prime minister will be to rebuild relationships with foreign leaders that he says Morrison has neglected in recent years. Among them are leaders from the Pacific Islands, including the Solomon Islands whose leader has signed a security pact with Beijing, stoking fears that China is planning to build its first military base in the Pacific.
On Tuesday, Albanese plans to travel to Tokyo with Foreign Minister Penny Wong for talks with Quad members from the United States, India and Japan, where they will discuss priorities to ensure free passage through the Indo-Pacific.
The climate crisis was one of the defining issues of the election, as one of the few points of divergence between the coalition and Labour, and a top concern among voters, according to polls.
Marija Taflaga, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the Australian National University, said the shift to the Greens was remarkable. “I think everyone was surprised by these results…I think it will mean more and faster action on climate change on a larger scale.”
Labor has pledged to cut emissions by 43% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050, in part by strengthening the mechanism used to pressure companies to make cuts.
But research institute Climate Analytics says Labor’s plans are not ambitious enough to keep global temperature rise to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, as set out in the Paris Agreement.
Labor Party policies are more consistent with a 2 degree Celsius rise, the institute said, slightly better than the coalition plan.
To accelerate the transition to renewable energy, the Labor Party plans to upgrade Australia’s energy grid and deploy solar banks and community batteries. But despite its net zero commitment, Labor says it will approve new coal projects if they are environmentally and economically viable.
In the inner city seats, the results show that voters threw their support behind independents, mostly highly educated female candidates standing on a platform of higher cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and integrity in government. They targeted traditionally safe Liberal seats, challenging voters to take a stand on decades of government inaction.
Albanese supports a 5.1% minimum wage hike, although he has no power to impose it, only leeway to submit a recommendation to the Fair Work Commission for the minimum wage to follow the ‘inflation.
Albanese often references his past as the son of a single mother to demonstrate his commitment to improving the lives of struggling Australians.
His mother, Maryanne, suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and lived on disability benefits as she raised him alone in public housing in the 1960s.
“It gave me the determination every day to help people as I grew up to have a better life. And I think that’s what Australians want,” he told the National Press Club in January. .
Albanese has repeatedly credited his mother for her strength during his campaign, most recently on Friday when he paid tribute to an “incredible woman”.
“She would be very proud because she made the brave decision in 1963 to keep a child she had out of wedlock,” he said.
Albanese’s father was a cruise ship steward and Australia’s new prime minister was born out of a then-scandalous brief affair for a Catholic bachelor.
So she told him her father had died to spare him the truth, he said.
“It was a tough decision,” he said. “It says a lot about the pressure that has been put on women and the pressures that are still put on women when faced with difficult circumstances. The fact that this young girl is now a candidate 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 uniting his party’s factions, said Zareh Ghazarian, a lecturer in politics at Monash University.
“He presented himself as someone who is going to be a weighted leader. The challenge he will face is to dominate and stay at the 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 last election defeat in 2019.
The loss left Labor breathless and they have returned to this election campaign with more modest promises to avoid scaring off voters worried about sweeping change.
Paul Williams, a political scientist at Griffith University, said Albanese lacked experience in major portfolios but predicted he would “grow in the job”.
“I think it’s going to be a steep learning curve for Albanese because he hasn’t had a very big portfolio as treasurer or foreign minister. And he’s going to be thrown into the Quad meeting mix next week. That will therefore be the baptism of fire,” he said.
Albanese said he hoped his win would show young Australians that “the doors of opportunity are open to all of us”.
“Every parent wants more for the next generation than they had. My mum dreamed of a better life for me. And I hope my journey in life inspires Australians to aim for the stars.