Australia's 'Greenslide' may not help ease pollution

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The Independent Online

Australia's environmental lobby is celebrating an unprecedented "Greenslide" in national elections, but it remains unclear whether new political power will translate into action on climate change.

The Greens, a left-wing minority party, emerged as the big winners from the country's cliffhanger polls, doubling their share of the national vote to a record 11.5 percent and taking a critical seat in the deadlocked lower house.

Jubilant leader Bob Brown called it a "Greenslide", with his party also taking the balance of power in the upper house Senate by bagging a seat in every state of the world's worst per-capita polluter.

In a parliament where neither the ruling Labor party nor the conservative Liberal/National coalition have an outright majority - a situation not seen for 70 years - their votes will be crucial in passing new laws.

"Certainly having a (lower) house seat in this government is important, because every single house seat counts, which is rare," explained climate policy expert Andrew Macintosh, from the Australian National University.

"(Greens MP Adam) Bandt is going to be in the balance and they're going to need his vote every single time to get anything through," he added. "They're going to have to pander to whatever he wants and what the Greens want."

Labor joined forces with Bandt this week, signing a formal agreement that demanded action on global warming and other reforms as conditions of Greens support.

But the alliance means the Greens are relying on Labor to beat the conservatives to forming a minority government if they are to exercise a large part of their newfound clout, a prospect that remains in the balance.

Labor stormed to power three years ago on a pro-environment platform, with ex-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd quickly ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and taking a lead role in last year's failed Copenhagen climate talks.

But Rudd twice failed to get his flagship emissions trading scheme (ETS) through parliament and passed up the chance to use the rejections as a trigger for early elections, at a time when the opposition was riven by infighting.

Faced with widespread public anger, Labor revolted against Rudd, axing him in June and softening its stance on climate change, losing vital support in the process.

"Climate change was one of the biggest issues that led to the Labor party being unable to form a government on their own," said activist Simon Sheikh, from the grassroots political group GetUp.

Labor wants companies to pay for their carbon pollution, but is vague on detail. The rival coalition is led by Tony Abbott, who rose through the ranks by opposing the ETS. He questions mankind's influence on climate change.

Abbott agrees with Prime Minister Julia Gillard on reducing emissions by five percent of 2000 levels by 2020, but says carbon pricing will raise the cost of a wide range of items, calling it a "great big new tax on everything".

By contrast, the Greens want a minimum 40 percent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels and for Australia to achieve zero net emissions within 40 years.

If Labor manages to win over enough of the four independents to form a government their alliance with the Greens means "some sort of climate change policy is coming", says Monash University political scientist Nick Economou.

"I think Labor could deliver on (such a policy) because of its numbers in the Senate," Economou said, referring to the Greens' nine seats in the upper house, in which no party has a majority.

But Macintosh was doubtful that, if Labor took power, measures such as a carbon tax would get past the independents, who are from all rural, largely conservative electorates that depend on mining and farming.

"Labor's still going to have to control those independents, including Bob Katter who's a climate sceptic," he said.

"Even if Labor gets up it's still not certain that it will lead to a carbon price in this term. My guess is (it) probably (will) not."

At least two of the four independents want action on global warming and this week met with Lord Nicholas Stern, climate adviser to the British government, as part of the their deliberations.

Manning is also doubtful that the "Greenslide" will move the climate debate forward, but he believes the party will at least keep the prospect alive.

"The Greens will keep the question of putting a price on carbon on the public agenda," he said. "It was less likely to be on the agenda in the absence of their gains."