There’s a rising tide of independent and minor parties vying for election in NSW next month. But what do they stand for exactly and how could their policies sway the climate and green agenda?
Despite the New South Wales election in just over four weeks, there has been little coverage of the rising number of independent candidates and their policies.
What should be on the radar for everyone concerned about a transition to a sustainable, equitable, low-carbon state, is the sheer numbers of minor party candidates standing across the state because the rise in their influence can mean they may be able to drive the policy agenda in the next four years, with a significant impact on federal policies as well.
The biggest independent party after the Greens (whose policies we won’t cover because they are well flagged and well understood in these pages) is One Nation.
One Nation is going hard, with multiple lower house and upper house candidates, as is the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party. Relative newcomer the Sustainable Australia Party says it will field around 40 across the lower and upper house tickets. The Animal Justice Party is also running a big number, with 42 candidates at last count.
The Greens, now an established presence, are also sending a strong contingent into the polls for both houses with more than 80 registered candidates.
Candidates won’t be finalised until 6 March when nominations close.
However, the minor party surge is already obvious and when it comes to some of the newcomer parties, there is reason to be concerned.
According to a recent Essential Poll conducted by The Guardian, one in four voters intends to vote for a minor party. Around 8 per cent of them have One Nation as their top pick.
The risk is that One Nation, or One Nation and the very similar Shooters, Fishers and Farmers could hold the balance of power in either house if the major parties, Labor and the Liberal-National Coalition, fail to win strong seat numbers.
Why we should worry about some of the minor parties
Monash University political scientist Dr Zareh Ghazarian says that state governments are vital actors in the fight to halt climate change.
“States have immense power in terms of issues that directly influence our collective efforts to mitigate climate change including energy, national parks and other green areas, [urban] planning and open space and public transport,” he told The Fifth Estate this week.
The states are “important, big and powerful players”.
If, say, the Upper House of a state parliament is not on board with supporting the reduction of emissions and dealing with climate change, the state is unable to move ahead.
“This is real.”
If there are the numbers to give minor parties real force in the Upper House, any state government will “have its work cut out for it”.
That means positive policy promises such as Labor’s renewable energy goals, tree planting programs and public transport boosts could be stymied by One Nation or the SFF, even if Labor wins a majority in the lower house and forms government.
Conversely, if the Coalition is returned, its positive promises could also come to naught while other not so positive parts of the LNP agenda such as advancing the nuclear energy and uranium mining sectors and supporting new coal fired power stations could be substantially advanced.
Federal issues muddying the picture
Federal politics has been dominating the media agenda of late and Ghazarian says that state matters can often be “crowded out and marginalised”.
However, during the lead-in to an election, oxygen for state matters is critical.
While the lack of coverage may leave voters somewhat in the dark, one aspect of the grandstanding coverage of federal politics is the current “Liberal brand” at a federal level will be unlikely to help its state Coalition counterparts in terms of the election.
We saw this to some extent in the Victorian election in November 2018, Ghazarian says.
At the policy level, some of the minors are also focusing on federal issues in their pitch for state representation – in particular, immigration levels. Both One Nation and the Sustainable Australia Party have limits on immigration as core to their policy platform and party identity.
This is, however, a federal issue, not a state one and it seems a bit odd to have that core business front and centre during a state campaign.
Ghazarian says it is “interesting” how some minor parties do that.
He says parties of this type are using those federal concerns as “flagships”. The federal issues such as immigration, race relations and “cutting red tape” are “like the symbol of the party, and around those issues satellite issues are aligned.”
The core messaging can attract state voters even though the state parliament won’t deliver a forum for action, as such. Ghazarian says this is because an idea like One Nation’s pitch that “ordinary Australians are being marginalised in decision-making” resonates with voters who feel generally disenfranchised.
Fringe parties, especially those on the right wing, tend to “tap into” those feelings, he says.
They do face a challenge if and when they get into state parliament, however, in that they “know what they stand against but can’t bring about fundamental progress”.
The promise of a golden age
The language of a party like One Nation summons up the idea of “some sort of golden age” that needs to be reclaimed. This is a principle of many similar parties.
The “anti-establishment” parties also tend to propose simple solutions to complex problems.
Dominating political coverage in recent times has been a mix of scandal, corruption, allegation, personality and sound bites. Actual policy is often blurred by the colourful static.
It’s a “perfect storm”, Ghazarian says, created by the proliferation of platforms, the constant need for content for those platforms, the 24/7 news cycle, and the attempt by contemporary parties to closely manage the messages and the images.
Politicians must have a “polished performance at all times,” he observes.
We are seeing a “fundamental shift in the way politics is…[now] about image and spin rather than the policy substance.”
Broad stories in the media become constant themes that come up time and time again.
When a dramatic incident occurs near an election, such as the Bourke Street stabbings in Melbourne or the Tampa incident, those one-off issues can become more dramatic, and garner more coverage [than non-emergency issues] and “take up the political oxygen of the debate”.
Currently, in NSW terms pill testing, deaths from drug-taking at festivals and the proposed new regulations for music festivals are a good example. They are getting far more coverage than what parties are promising in the performance of our buildings, protecting our forests or fixing the mismanagement of water resources.
Ghazarian says that close elections (as this is tipped to be) usually favour the incumbent because the incumbent has the ability and resources to keep putting its messages out there.
At the same time, Australian politics has volatile.
An unexpected state election result can “come from nowhere” like Labor’s most recent win in Queensland.
So who ARE these people, and what do they want?
One Nation and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers share some common ground.
Both are anti-renewable energy, sceptical about the reality of climate change and keen to advance the nuclear agenda.
One Nation has pledged to ensure a new state government ends the state moratorium on uranium mining and commits to future nuclear energy capacity. Both parties also seek to have new coal-fired power capacity built in the Hunter Valley and want renewable energy targets and state support schemes dismantled.
One Nation also wants the Greater Sydney Commission abolished, and limits placed on the city’s growth.
Both parties want recreational shooters allowed into reserve areas such as National Parks to cull “vertebrate pests” as SFF so charmingly describes them. In One Nation’s case, they explicitly mention kangaroos as pests that should be culled in reserve areas.
Both argue there should be state funds spent on growing the greyhound racing industry and on encouraging more people to engage with firearms as recreational shooters.
One Nation does have an agenda in terms of improving building compliance. However, it’s proposal that there be a state building authority with a wide range of oversight, inspection and enforcement powers does not appear to be based on Shergold + Weir or reflect the industry consensus that supports Shergold + Weir.
Energy efficiency, water policy, public transport, supporting revegetation efforts or meaningful stewardship schemes that financially reward primary producers for carbon farming are not on either party’s public agenda.
The SFF agenda also stands in contrast to other grassroots farmer-driven organisations such as Farmers for Climate Action, which advocates for increased renewable energy deployment in regional areas, Carbon Farmers of Australia and Lock the Gate Alliance.
The Sustainable Australia Party
The Sustainable Australia Party, previously the Sustainable Population Party, also has at its core federal issues around immigration limits, increasing foreign aid to provide birth control in developing nations, trade policies and carbon pricing.
[According to Wikipedia, the party’s primary policy is to drastically reduce the country’s immigration intake by over 100 per cent from 200,000 to 70,000 people a year. “Despite this, the party has strongly rejected accusations of being classified as anti-immigration.” ]
The party says it is in favour of more foreign aid to provide birth control in developing nations, trade policies and carbon pricing.
Founder of the party William Bourke told The Fifth Estate that having a presence at state level is necessary for the party to “be relevant” at the federal level.
- See our editorial on why cutting immigration and population is not a silver bullet to sustainability.
The party’s “independent think tank” of members includes support for the adoption of a “globally consistent carbon pricing mechanism.”
The party wants to tax imports that have been produced in environmentally irresponsible ways such as using toxic pesticides or causing “inappropriate” water pollution.
“Australia should have high standards,” Bourke says.
It does not support fracking or unconventional gas extraction, which is congruent with Labor’s current position, and it does not support nuclear energy.
“It is a distraction from the transition to renewables.”
Core to its policies is to “stop over development”.
Its planning and development policies seek limits on further growth of Sydney including expansion outwards and increased densification in some areas.
The party also wants to see building standards that require new homes to “adopt the latest innovations in eco design” including water and energy efficiency, renewable energy, passive solar design and rain water tanks. These should become compulsory for both new homes and for retrofits, Bourke says.
It wants to see tenancy reforms along similar lines to recent changes enacted in Victoria including greater right to keep pets, ending no-fault evictions and the right to make minor modifications such as to install picture hooks. Longer leases to give tenants more security are also on the list.
There is something of a blank spot though on policies around how to improve the woeful quality of many existing rental dwellings.
Overall, Bourke says the party wants to see the building industry “slow down” in terms of building new dwellings so we achieve “better not bigger”.
“Our economy is way too reliant on property construction to grow,” Bourke says. He wants to put the brakes on foreign buyers, limiting purchases to citizens and those with five years or more of permanent residency.
Bourke says this will free capital to flow to small businesses, which he says will benefit regional areas.
He says the reliance on mining and property as two of the state’s biggest earners – or “housing and holes” as he terms them – “undermines the economy”.
Selling off natural resources or digging them up adds to the GDP, but in standard accounting, what is treated as a profit on the state’s books would be regarded as depreciation or amortisation, says Bourke, who has worked in accounting and marketing.
“We have got a debt and population-fuelled GDP, not one fuelled by the wellbeing of citizens,” he says.
Among other policies are:
- no major new toll roads in the cities, and increased funding for public transport, tax incentives for regional businesses, “innovation” in the regions that could include using plastic waste to micromanufacture small products such as toys, car parts or “salt and pepper shakers”.
The preferences issue
Preferences have been a vexing and sometimes disruptive factor in Australian elections. Monash University’s Dr Zareh Ghazarian notes the election of Ricky Muir from the Motoring Enthusiasts to the Federal Senate as an example of how they can deliver “unintended consequences”.
In New South Wales, there is no automatic flow of preferences that is out of the control of voters. Preferences flow in the order a voter numbers them for either house and if a preference does not land with the two candidates that have accumulated the most preferences or direct votes, the vote is extinguished.
Given the kind of horse trading between the right-wing fringe parties and the Liberal and National parties in prior elections and not visible to voters, this is perhaps something of a relief.
But perhaps the real bottom line is this: with the future of the global habitat at stake and understanding the importance of state-based action in mitigating climate change impacts and their escalation, this is no time to focus on personalities or charisma or catchphrases.
Governments, parties and politicians come and go, but the planet is always with us. The question is, what condition will it be in?