Climate concern the main reason voters swung to independents at federal election, study finds

Nearly half of voters who switched to an independent candidate at 2022 election did so because of climate fears, researchers say

Concern about the climate crisis was the No 1 issue that prompted Australians to switch their vote to an independent candidate at this year’s federal election, according to in-depth social research.

It was the No 2 issue that led to people to swing to Labor, behind concern about the cost of living – including affordable housing.

The results are from a unique ongoing study, known as Climate Compass, that interviewed 3,636 people after the election to gauge attitudes on climate change. It found 47% of voters who swung independent and 42% of those who swung Labor this year did so primarily due to concern over the issue.

More than half (58%) of Australians had become more concerned about climate change over the past two years, and nearly three-quarters (74%) believed governments should be doing more to address it.

The results highlight an ongoing challenge for the Coalition, which lost votes across the country due to its failure to take the climate crisis seriously. The wipeout for the Liberal party in metropolitan Australia in May was so severe the Coalition partyroom is now dominated by representatives from the regions and outer suburbs.

The Liberal leader, Peter Dutton, responded to the election result by opposing Labor’s 2030 emissions reduction target. While there was some pushback about that early captain’s call in the shadow cabinet, only one Liberal MP, Bridget Archer, broke ranks publicly when the target was legislated in August.

The social researcher who led the study, Rebecca Huntley, said there was a clear message for politicians in the survey results.

“Hopefully, they’ll be looking at this research and seeing there is appetite for greater ambition when they make their next round of commitments,” she said. “And corporate Australia should also be looking at this and saying ‘how are we making sure that there is momentum for federal ambition around this.’”

Issues that influenced swing voters in the 2022 Victoria state selection

Huntley said the responses challenged previous evidence that suggested concern about extreme weather events did not influence how people voted. The last term of parliament included the catastrophic 2019-20 bushfires and devastating floods.

“Previously extreme weather events were not shifting the dial enough before, but clearly really, really terrible fires and really, really terrible floods can have an impact,” she said. “It shows politicians cannot just ignore those extreme weather events connected to climate.”

Commissioned by the Sunrise Project, Climate Compass categorises Australians into seven community segments, based on their attitudes and support for climate action.

The biggest group – 26% of the total – were found to be alarmed about climate change. Its members reported feeling frustration, anxiousness, sadness and anger.

Another 5% were alert, 23% were concerned and 17% cautious (defined as understanding the importance and likely impacts of climate change, but being less convinced that humans could limit it). At the other end of the scale, 5% were disengaged, 15% doubtful and 10% dismissive.

Alarmed was the only segment that grew since an earlier version of the study in 2020, conducted shortly after the black summer fires and during the Covid-19 pandemic. Alarmed Australians were found to be easily the most likely group to have voted for a party or candidate based on their climate policy.

Huntley said the results showed there did not need to be a big increase in the number of people who were alarmed about climate change for it to have a big electoral impact. “The message is you don’t have to make climate the No 1 issue for every Australian to get Australia acting on climate,” she said.

She said the rise of independent candidates, including the Climate 200-supported teal independent movement, had given traditionally conservative voters who were alarmed or concerned about climate change somewhere else to go.

From a Labor perspective, the study suggested a climate-driven swing in its direction not only helped it win seats, but played a role in it holding some marginal electorates on the cusp of and outside major cities, including Gilmore, on the NSW south coast, and Macquarie, in the Blue Mountains.

The ALP landed on its policy - including a 2030 emissions reduction target of 43%, up from the Coalition’s minimum 26% cut compared with 2005 levels - after a debate within shadow cabinet before the last election over whether promising to do more than Scott Morrison on climate would cost the party in outer-suburban electorates. The study suggests the opposite proved to be true.

Since the election, Dutton has used high inflation and surging power bills to frame the transition to low emissions as a cost-of-living risk, harking back to hyper-partisan tactics used by Tony Abbott in the run-up to repealing a carbon price legislated in the 43rd parliament. The opposition leader has said he wanted a debate about nuclear energy, which is currently the most expensive form of power generation.

Huntley said it was noteworthy that the research was carried out shortly after energy bills had spiked. The increase was largely due to the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on global fossil fuel markets. “It tells us the orthodoxy that voters will forget about climate the moment there is something else to focus on just isn’t playing out in the same way any more,” she said.

The study is broadly based on research developed by Yale and George Mason University known as “Six Americas”. It used a nationally representative sample of Australians aged 16 to 75.

It found women and young people were more likely to be alarmed and concerned than other cohorts, while older men were more likely to be dismissive and doubtful.

Claire O’Rourke, co-director of the Sunrise Project’s Australia energy transformation program, said the research showed more than 4 million Australians voted based on concern about climate change, and there was another large group that indicated they would consider voting on climate policies in future. “It should tell policymakers that communities are expecting more,” she said.


Adam Morton and Katharine Murphy

The GuardianTramp

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