There is no credible route for centre-right parties to win elections without prioritising and earning voters’ trust on climate change. Scepticism about the action needed – or worse, doubting the climate science itself – is a path no party or government can afford to tread. Voters want to hear politicians speak about climate change and act to stop it. Without strong party leadership on this issue, voters will look elsewhere.
This reflects the simple reality that nations around the world are experiencing the impact of climate change. The theories of several decades ago have become the lived experience of the world’s population as our climate changes. Here in Australia, the catastrophic bushfires a few years ago were a dramatic example of this.
The Australian Liberal Party is learning this lesson following our defeat in our May national elections. The North Sydney constituency I represented from 2015 elected an independent MP, running on a clear platform of stronger climate action. In total, we lost 19 MPs to Labor, Green and independent candidates, taking us out of government for the first time since 2013. While many issues led to our defeat in the minds of voters, unquestionably, concerns about our position on climate change figured large. Many voters, including traditional Liberal voters, wanted strong action to reduce Australia’s emissions.
Long-running divisions within the Liberal-National Coalition had tarnished our credibility on this crucial issue by the time we resolved to achieve the national target of net zero by 2050. Part of the Coalition represents resource-rich rural Australia, where the economy is based on fossil fuels, while another part represents urban areas where voters demand strong climate action. While our then Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, managed to secure an agreement to reach carbon neutrality, the Coalition’s reluctance and splits were apparent to the community.
While there were disagreements, the Coalition’s record on climate action in some areas was strong. In particular, Australia is a world leader in the deployment of renewable energy sources such as solar. Renewables make up almost a third of our energy mix, and one in four homes has rooftop solar panels. We developed seven hydrogen hubs and invested $1.4 billion to make, store and transport clean fuel.
While we had some successes, more ambition was needed and expected, particularly concerning our medium-term national objectives. Unlike successive UK Conservative leaders, voters doubted how serious Australian Coalition governments were to meeting the task – too often, we seemed hesitant to act.
We’re not alone either; the Canadian Conservatives and US Republicans are, in part, struggling to win over middle-ground voters without serious climate policies. The UK Conservatives are one of the few centre-right parties anywhere demonstrating credible environmental leadership.
Successive leaders, from Margaret Thatcher, who first raised the issue on a global stage at the UN in 1989, to David Cameron, who embraced climate action to win power in 2010, have prioritised the environment. Last year, Britain showed its leadership at the Glasgow COP. We are eager to learn from this success as we seek to build and return to government in three years’ time.
Our politics and national circumstances are different, but there are similarities. We have overlapping histories for much of the last two centuries, and we share values and political systems. In both countries, climate change is a top priority for our electorates. But, while we hesitated over net zero, the UK Conservative Party embraced it with bold action and bold words, earning voters’ trust and having a strong record of delivery from building new renewables to rolling out electric vehicles.
The vocal net zero-sceptic wing that has emerged during the UK Conservative Party’s leadership election is concerning. It risks making the party look divided and reluctant on the issue, undermining its good work and voters’ trust in the Conservative politicians to deliver.
While I welcome the public pledge Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have made to deliver net zero by 2050, they need to be mindful of our experience in Australia about the need to be vocal to win voters’ trust on this issue. If they want to win the trust of the electorate, they must learn from our mistakes and set out their plan for bold climate action and shout about it with the same passion as their predecessors.
Without environmental leadership, a centre-right political party today will struggle to build a winning electoral coalition. Climate change is not a left-wing issue that we can ignore. The vast majority of conservatives feel a duty to protect our planet for the next generation. Conservatives should debate the most effective ways to reduce emissions and the right balance between the state and the private sector. They shouldn’t question the need to act – unless they want to get punished at the ballot box.
The UK Conservative Party has an environmental record that few centre-right parties can claim – and this should be a source of pride. They cannot let net zero scepticism undermine that record and lose the trust of voters on the most salient issue of our time.
First published by ConservativeHome. Trent Zimmerman was a Liberal member of Australia’s House of Representatives from 2015 until 2022.