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A Handful of Climate-Focused Independents Just Upended Australia’s Political System. Here’s What Comes Next

8 minute read

Ballots are still being counted from the May 21 election, but it’s already clear that Australians delivered a stunning rebuke of the ruling conservative Liberal-National coalition government, which had refused to take meaningful action on climate change.

Not only did voters replace Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the Liberal Party with Anthony Albanese, of the center-left Labor Party, who has promised tougher emissions targets, but they also put in power several so-called “teal” independents. Their name combines the blue of the Liberal Party, with whom many of the candidates shared conservative fiscal policy ideas, and green to capture their views on climate action.

About 20 teal independents–mostly women–ran in seats traditionally held by Liberal politicians in some of Australia’s richest electorates. They promised their constituents that they’d take a science-based response to the climate crisis. Most teal independents are calling for even stronger emissions reductions than the Labor Party, which campaigned on a promise to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions by 43% by 2030.

Australians are increasingly living on the frontlines of climate change, with devastating bushfires and deadly floods hitting the country in recent years. Amid that backdrop, the teal independents had stunning success. At least five teal independents won seats, most unseating Liberal Party members, including high-profile politicians like the treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

The change in government offers a glimmer of hope for Australia’s climate policies. The Morrison government pumped tens of millions of dollars into a “gas-led” recovery from the pandemic, and said that coal power stations should run “as long as they possibly can.” Morrison even brought a lump of coal into parliament in 2017 to promote the dirty fuel. His government’s commitment to a 2050 net-zero target was viewed skeptically by many around the world, with critics saying it was too little, too late.

“Climate action is the winner of this election,” advocacy group the Climate Council wrote in a post-election analysis. “Millions of Australians put climate first at the ballot box, and the politicians who dragged their heels on the most important challenge of our time are paying a price for that.”

It may take a few days or even weeks to determine the final make-up of parliament, but the Liberal-National coalition government is out of power. The Labor Party has so far secured 74 seats out of 151 seats in the House of Representatives, but it remains to be seen if it will be able to get a majority (76 seats). If not, it will have to form a coalition with minor parties and independents. The outcome will determine just how much influence the teal independents will have on the country’s climate policies.

Either way, it’s clear that Australians will no longer stand for a government that won’t act on climate change. TIME spoke to businesswoman Allegra Spender, a teal independent who won the seat of Wentworth, covering Sydney’s wealthy eastern suburbs. Here’s what she has to say about how Australia can go from a climate laggard to a renewable energy superpower. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TIME: Why were the teal independents so successful in this election?

Spender: They were successful because they were genuinely community-led and genuinely listened to the issues that were of greatest importance to the community. There were a lot of reasons why people were unhappy with the government. And I think the teal independents actually listened and they developed policies that really reflected that. Climate was a part of that, it wasn’t the only part of it, but it was a very significant part.

What did you hear from voters in your electorate about what they want to see in terms of climate action?

They want climate action in the next decade. The government in Australia had committed to net-zero by 2050, but many people didn’t trust them. And I think the science has been very clear that it’s actually the next decade that really counts. People wanted climate action now and they wanted people who would be held accountable to climate action.

We had some very big storm surges in iconic places like Bondi Beach. We had one in the lead up to the campaign, where effectively there wasn’t a beach. The storm took over the entire beach. … Wentworth, which covers Bondi and Bronte Beach, is very much a coastal electorate. People have seen it live, there’s a real impact in Wentworth.

Australian voters made it really clear that they want to see decisive action on climate change. What comes next?

A goal for myself and some other independents and the Greens Party is increasing the Labor Party’s ambition. Labor’s ambition is to cut emissions by 43% by 2030. It needs to be higher. It should be at least 50% reduction by 2030.

It’s not just ambition, it’s the policies that underpin it, which are actually more important because that will determine ultimately what happens. For instance, I would like to see them adopt new policies like emission standards for vehicles, because currently Australia doesn’t have emission standards for vehicles, which means that we get some of the dirtiest vehicles in the world sent to Australia.

Climate change is a politically explosive topic in Australia, and several prime ministers have been toppled by climate issues. In his victory speech, Albanese said that Australia now has an opportunity to end the “climate wars.” Is this time really different?

I think it is. When you look at the mathematics of the House of Representatives, every vote that was lost by the Coalition was lost to the left. And now the crossbench includes a group of independents who are demanding strong climate action in traditional Coalition seats. These seats won’t go back in the next election if the Coalition doesn’t move on climate change.

If Labor wants to retain government, it might have a very slim majority, it will also have to work closely with everyone on the crossbench.

If the Coalition wants to form a government in the future, it will either have to work with seats like mine or take them back, and to do that it will need strong climate action.

What else needs to happen for Australia to become a “renewable energy superpower”?

This is a lot about confidence and actually seizing the moment. Australia has all the natural resources and natural qualities to be able to do this. But we need to have greater ambition and greater commitment.

The way that we will become a clean energy superpower is really unlocking business investment in this area. I think business is very desperate to do that but wants policy certainty.

Was there a particular moment that you had that made you decide to run?

It was in the lead up to COP26 that it became very clear that the Coalition wasn’t willing to do what was required. That was the nail in the coffin for me. If they had done something reasonable, I probably wouldn’t have run. It was the fact that they just were not willing to move. They wanted to stick with their old targets and there was no credibility, no policy behind it. I just thought, “It’s unacceptable and I have to run.”

Your father and grandfather were both Liberal Party politicians. Why did you decide to run as an independent?

I think the Liberal Party frankly has moved from where it used to be. That’s what my father says as well. There’s no reason climate should be an area that is left or right. It’s a question of science. And it is a question of economics. This is not a question of ideology.

In this country, we’re incredibly lucky that the economics is actually with decarbonization, and the science is unambiguous. We’ve gotta take it out of being a culture war and back into a conversation of just how we do this.

Also, there just aren’t enough women in parliament, and that is a big driver for me as well. I’m the daughter of a feminist who ran her own business when women didn’t have businesses. The conservatives, over 25 years, they’ve never had more than 25% women in the House of Representatives. It’s basically been stuck at 23% for the last 25 years. I just think that’s unacceptable in this day and age. We just need to move to a parliament that reflects our country.

Should what happened in Australia send a message to governments elsewhere about not taking action on climate change?

Some of my team members have been contacted by people from other countries saying, “Can we replicate this?” So I believe that there’s an opportunity for this idea of proper community representation, really listening to the community understanding it, I think there’s a significant opportunity for that.

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Write to Amy Gunia at amy.gunia@time.com