by Ben Oquist
[Originally published in the Canberra Times, 31 October 2020]

When NSW Liberal Minister Matt Kean invoked Menzies’ forgotten people this week, he flipped climate politics on its head.

Speaking at the launch of the Australia Institute’s annual benchmark report on attitudes to climate change, Climate of the Nation, the Energy and Environment Minister charted not just a way to fix climate policy, but an approach to fixing politics itself.

Too often when it comes to discussing the public’s attitudes on climate change, sections of the commentariat assert there is a middle Australia that, they believe, is unconcerned with ‘elite’ issues like climate change. The claim is that those in the suburbs or in regional Australia are being brow-beaten into submission on climate change by those out of touch with the mainstream.

But the Minister turned that idea on its head, saying that there are millions of average Australians —or as Menzies would have said “forgotten Australians’’— that are indeed concerned about climate change, albeit quietly. And more than that, these people are not just forgotten but are being wilfully misrepresented by some noisy ideologues that claim to speak for them.

It has always been galling when high profile personalities use their elite-platforms to rail against ‘elites’.  So Minister Matt Kean’s audacious attempt to re-claim Menzies forgotten people was not only a pitch to middle Australia but a refreshing assault on those noisy conservatives who purport to be a voice for the masses on climate change.

One political narrative to emerge from the 2019 federal election campaign was that the electorate had supposedly rejected strong action on climate change. Worse still, was the suggestion that ‘middle Australia’ or the ‘suburbs’, or even ‘Queensland’ (as though it were one monolithic voting block) didn’t even believe in human induced climate change.

The best way to counter such nonsense is with evidence, which is what the Australia Institute’s Climate of The Nation report provides. 80 percent of Australians think we are already experiencing climate change; and 82% are concerned that climate change will result in more bushfires.

Most Australians were impacted in some way by the Black Summer bushfires and smoke. Perhaps, the most devastating and expensive impact of climate change the country has experienced. These climate induced disasters are already costing ordinary Australians billions of dollars every year, and to pay for the growing bill, 65% of Australians support a levy on every tonne of exported coal and gas. It is only sensible that those contributing to the cause help pay for the impacts, otherwise it is left to middle Australia to cover the bill. No wonder they feel forgotten.

Most remarkable was that despite Covid-19 concern about climate change has not diminished and if anything, it has strengthened.  If governments are to invest billions to stimulate the economy, 59% of Australians want to see the recovery primarily driven by investment in renewables, and only 12% support a gas-lead recovery.

Of course, popular support for climate action does not automatically lead to action from politicians—it helps but is not always enough.  Political strategy and a willingness to work with others is required.

That was the other message from Minister Matt Kean: working with anyone, any group, any party, and any think tank—no matter their political stripes—is key to solving the climate crisis the world is in.

Such an approach is as refreshing as it is urgently required. With an estimated 8-10 years left before runaway climate change takes hold, we cannot afford to wait around to find the perfect partners with which to collaborate.

There is tendency in politics to back tribes over ideas. But a willingness to work with those you do not always agree with is a big part of what good politics is about. Of course, this is easier said than done. It means a willingness to work with people who have different motivations, different levels of commitment or passion, and even a vastly different set of values. But just as that has never stopped the Liberals and Nationals working together, it should not stop those who want to prevent runaway climate change from working across the aisle.

This does not mean abandoning debate or removing competition from politics – these are healthy and necessary components to sort the wheat from the chaff and iron out differences. As Minister Matt Kean said, he relishes debate with rival political parties about the best way of getting to a climate safe destination—but we have moved far past the point of debating if we need to get there.

In an age of hyper-partisanship, where social media tends to drive people into silos, it is too easy to back one’s tribe come what may.  One reason for increased ‘’political turn-off’’ has been a reaction to this tribalism, where opposition is seen to be for the sake of it. 

Minister Kean’s call to arms—and his willingness to work with all sides, reaching out to unlikely allies—will not just be good for action on climate change, it can improve politics overall.

That is a message already being headed by the ACT Liberals who, in their own way, are moving to address the forgotten people. Elizabeth Lee’s elevation as the new leader of the ACT Liberals is an effort to reconnect to those the Liberal Party forgot, following yet another drubbing in the recent local election. 

After years of the Federal Coalition demeaning ‘inner city voters’, voters of Canberra who live in the city, turned their backs on the ACT Liberals

Like Minister Matt Kean, Elizabeth Lee is a small ‘l’ modern Liberal, who has been responsible for the climate portfolio. She seeks to represent those who have been abandoned in recent years, by a party that has lacked conviction on climate change at best, and at worst, has peddled climate scepticism.

Good politics requires the ability not just to listen to supporters, but to listen to your opponents as well. The Liberal party can only govern nationally by working in coalition with the Nationals, even though their values and priorities often differ significantly. Here in the ACT, the Liberals will need to learn how to work constructively with other parties and independents if they are to have any impact on local policy or politics—and reach a larger pool of voters.

Such an approach might be new to the ACT Liberals, but it is neither radical nor unprecedented. As our Climate of the Nation report showed, and Minister Matt Kean said this week, “Australians are sick and tired of the petty political point-scoring and division on climate policy which has held our country back for more than a decade. They want government to lead.”

Ben Oquist is executive director of the Australia Institute, an independent think-tank based in Canberra @BenOquist

Originally published by The Canberra Times on October 31, 2020

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