The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Australia’s quiet climate election, independents could make noise

A brick automotive garage in Lismore, Australia, was flattened in the Feb. 28 flood and remained in ruins two months later. (Michael Miller/The Washington Post)
10 min

LISMORE, Australia — The parade had been held for a hundred years, but never like this.

It was two months since this river town of 30,000 had been swallowed by an unprecedented flood. Two-story buildings had disappeared underwater. Cars and airplanes had been tossed around like toys. Hundreds of residents had been stranded in attics and on roofs. Four died, and thousands remained homeless.

Now, for the ANZAC Day parade, the streets were lined with people, but also piles of warped wood and ruined drywall. Gutted stores stood empty, their floors marbled with dried mud.

“It’s just catastrophic,” said Max Graham as he watched the parade with his family. The 71-year-old said he’d never thought much about climate change, but there was no ignoring it now.

“How can you say it’s not happening when we’ve had absolutely intense bush fires, intense drought, intense floods?”

The increasing frequency and ferocity of natural disasters have pushed concern in Australia about climate change to an all-time high. Yet, as the country heads toward a federal election on Saturday, neither major party is talking much about it.

That’s because both the ruling conservative coalition and the opposition Labor Party fear losing seats in coal mining areas. Instead, they have focused on economic issues, from rising inflation to unemployment and housing prices.

But in a handful of electorates, including Page, where Lismore is located, a loosely connected slate of independent candidates is amplifying the climate conversation and threatening to snatch long-held seats from the coalition. If elected, they could form a crucial swing bloc in Parliament, demand steeper emissions cuts and change Australia’s reputation as an international climate laggard.

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“In some electorates it absolutely is a climate election,” said Malcolm Turnbull, a conservative former prime minister who was ousted by the coalition in 2018 after pushing for action on the issue. A climate-focused independent is contesting his former seat.

Few places capture Australia’s climate conundrum like Page, a beaten-down bellwether where interviews with two dozen voters reflected a growing acknowledgment of man-made climate change — but also a lingering divide on when and how to act.

“Australia is just getting totally smashed by ongoing disasters,” said Elly Bird, an independent Lismore city councilor who helped coordinate flood rescues when state and federal officials were slow to respond. “You’d have to be living under a rock not to understand what that means for us.”

‘The front range of climate change’

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in late April, a few dozen people filled an organic grocery in the village of Ulmarra, about an hour south of Lismore. Many wore teal shirts promoting independent candidate Hanabeth Luke.

Luke, an agricultural scientist in leather boots and a felt hat, told them she had been inspired to run by the coalition’s inaction on climate change.

“I’m not someone who sits back when there is a challenge,” she said. “As an independent, I can stand up for you, fight for us, for our families and our farms and our future. Because there is no party in the way.”

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Analysts say Australia’s strong political party system has prevented action on climate change. A razor-thin majority in Parliament has allowed the coalition’s more conservative member, the National Party, to veto even popular, mainstream measures. Australia was one of the last developed nations to commit to net zero emissions by 2050.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, from the center-right Liberal Party, has tried to neutralize climate change as an issue by giving urban moderates a net-zero pledge while promising rural voters it won’t cost coal jobs or increase electricity prices.

Rob Hales, director of the Griffith Center for Sustainable Enterprise, noted the pledge relies heavily on unproven or not-yet-invented technologies.

Turnbull said his successor is “not highly motivated” on climate change.

“He’s a very political guy and he sees it as just a hopelessly divisive and destructive issue,” he said. “So he just doesn’t want to touch it.”

Morrison’s office declined an interview request and did not respond to questions.

“Only the Coalition Government can be trusted to get the balance right between keeping energy reliable and affordable, while reducing emissions,” a spokesman said in a statement.

Labor has a more aggressive plan to cut emissions, which is backed by many big business groups, yet it’s not shouting it from the rooftop. Stung by an unexpected defeat in the last election, when a more ambitious climate policy scared away some coal country voters, Leader Anthony Albanese has focused instead on initiatives such as affordable child care and nursing home reform.

That’s left an opening for independents.

Luke is one of 22 candidates backed by Climate 200, a political action committee founded by Simon Holmes à Court. Holmes à Court said the PAC has spent more than $7 million to support independents who advocate science-based solutions to climate change, a federal anti-corruption watchdog and gender equality.

“In a normal world they would be pretty benign,” he said. “But in the screwed-up world of Australian politics, the government finds all three threatening.”

The PAC is having the most impact in socially liberal, fiscally conservative electorates where there is growing frustration with moderate incumbents over climate change.

The independents — many political newcomers — have put some Liberal strongholds into play. In Melbourne, Morrison’s treasurer is under threat from a pediatric neurologist. And in Turnbull’s former seat in Sydney, another Liberal Party star faces a stiff test from the daughter of a well known fashion designer.

Turnbull said he wasn’t endorsing the independents, but a handful in Parliament could be “helpful” in pushing the next government to move more aggressively on climate change.

In the Lismore area, which has oscillated between Labor and the coalition, Luke faces longer odds.

Her story is suited for an electorate that combines coast and farmland, and has suffered crises. She survived the 2002 Bali bombings, an event that killed her then-boyfriend and sparked her activism. An accomplished surfer and marine rescue volunteer who helped rescue people during the flood, she played a key role in the area’s decision to ban coal seam gas extraction.

Luke, who teaches regenerative agriculture at Southern Cross University, was grading late last year when a student’s paper spurred her to run. Already in debt, the farmer wrote she was struggling to recover from bush fires that had scorched her drought-stricken land. Barnaby Joyce, the deputy prime minister and Nationals leader, had claimed a net-zero commitment would hurt farmers.

“I knew he was wrong because I work with farmers,” Luke said. “They are on the front range of climate change.”

Farmers were among the crowd at the organic grocery. Jo Wearing, 76, said most of her pastures had been pulverized by the flood. She was frustrated the Labor candidate, Patrick Deegan, wasn’t talking more about climate change.

Deegan denied shying away from the subject.

“The Labor party really is the sensible center when it comes to climate change,” he said.

When a reporter for The Post pointed out his website made no mention of climate change, Deegan said it was an inadvertent omission. Two weeks later, it remained unchanged.

The incumbent, National Party member Kevin Hogan, who won handily in 2019, did not respond to a request for comment.

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The disaster has put a spotlight on climate change, a potential boost to Luke’s campaign. But it has also disrupted it, forcing her to cancel her launch and complicating efforts to introduce her to voters. There were signs she was running out of time.

“I’ve just been across the road and the woman who’s serving in there had never heard of you,” Hilary Sadler, 75, told Luke. “I’m going to take her a brochure.”

‘We’re all still traumatized’

As the water rose to Melody Mandeno’s waist, she called her son to say goodbye.

Can you make it to the roof, he asked. But the 70-year-old said it was impossible. Mandeno couldn’t swim. With her furniture floating around her, she could barely make it across the living room.

Neighbors had told her not to worry: The nearby river might rise enough to flood her basement, but she would be safe upstairs. Now her neighborhood was a river.

After hours of waiting, Mandeno heard a motor. A man on a personal watercraft told her to climb out her window and onto the back with her dog and cat.

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Two months later, Lismore was a ghost town. In many neighborhoods, every house had been gutted. Yards remained piled high with debris. The ground was littered with mud-stained objects: a toothbrush, board games, a “Conan: The Avenger” comic book.

Almost everyone had a story like Mandeno’s. The flood seemed like climate change in action.

“When you’ve had a flood as big as this one, I don’t know how you could not think it was climate change,” said Lisa Cameron, 49, outside her flood-stricken house. It now bore a Luke poster.

But others were unsure.

Tony Parfitt watched the water rise around his bed-bound wife and feared she would drown in front of him. It was only after his neighbor swam over that they were able to lift her out of harm’s way. They were eventually rescued through the living room window by good Samaritans with a boat. Several of their dogs drowned.

Parfitt didn’t think climate change played a role in the flood. But the Liberal voter still planned to punish the party on Election Day.

“They haven’t done much for the flood people, have they?” he said. The government had offered each affected homeowner around $2,000. But Parfitt, who couldn’t afford flood insurance, estimated the damage was at least $70,000. His wife kept having nightmares of rising waters.

“We’re all still traumatized,” he said.

Lismore’s mayor, Steve Krieg, urged the ANZAC Day crowd to emulate the resilience of the war generations and rebuild. Some have suggested the town be moved to higher ground but Krieg, whose own home and coffee shops flooded, scoffed.

“We can’t throw in the towel after one natural disaster,” he told The Post.

But it wasn’t one disaster. A month after the flood, the town was inundated again. That made three major floods in five years. It’s difficult to determine how climate change impacts a particular event, but scientists say the trend is clear: global warming means more frequent and intense natural disasters.

That trend was evident downtown, where a sign on a building showed the previous flood record, set in 1974. Now a new line had been added with spray paint — seven feet higher.

Parade attendee Matthew Graham, 37, said climate change would affect his vote “dramatically.” Despite his own climate awakening, his father was unmoved.

“I’ve voted Liberal Party all my life,” Max Graham said. “I’m never gonna change it.”

Frances Vinall contributed to this report.