Published online 23 August 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.425

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Australia's electorate sends climate-change message

Swing towards Greens in federal election puts global warming back in the spotlight.

Julia Gillard and Tony AbbottPrime Minister Julia Gillard and Liberal leader Tony Abbott are in deadlock over Australia's leadership.Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images; AP Photo/Rob Griffith

Although Australia's national election has failed to produce a clear winner, the result is pushing climate change up the political agenda once more.

Both the incumbent Labor party and the Liberal–National opposition failed to secure an overall majority after this weekend's vote. That means that the Australian Greens, who now have a record 11% of the vote and advocate aggressive action on climate change, could become key players. Along with a handful of conservative rural independents, the Greens are being wooed by both major parties to help them form a government.

The Labor government, under Gillard's predecessor Kevin Rudd, had come to power in 2007 promising to introduce a carbon-emissions trading scheme. But Rudd later decided to delay such a scheme, a move widely seen as one of the factors driving the national swing against Labor.

For his part, opposition leader Tony Abbott has repeatedly described the government's emissions plan as a "great big new tax on everything", and expressed doubts about the science of climate change. The Greens, by contrast, want tougher emissions targets than Labor's.

The swing towards the Greens represents a direct message from voters to their politicians, says Glenn Albrecht, director of the Institute of Sustainability and Technology Policy at Murdoch University in Perth. "Australians are telling their parties that they take climate change seriously and they take the science seriously."

At this election, the Greens had their first member to be elected to the House of Representatives at a general election, and won nine seats in the Senate, making the party an influential power broker. "From where I sit," the party's leader Bob Brown told reporters yesterday, "that's a Greenslide."

"We certainly hope that the Greens will be making action on climate change a major point during the next term of parliament," says Williamson. "Now that they have improved their power, they have an opportunity to do so."

Climate of change?

Science did not feature strongly in the election campaign. "The only agenda that had to do with science at this election was climate change," says Nobel laureate and immunologist Peter Doherty at the University of Melbourne.

"I don't think this was the election campaign for science," agrees Anna-Maria Arabia, executive director of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies in Canberra. "What was missing was any vision for the future of science and science funding."

"I think that everyone has been disappointed by the absence of policy in this election campaign," adds Bob Williamson, secretary for science policy at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra. "One might have hoped that the more radical parties — Labor and the Greens — would have made more time for science during the campaign."

Both Labor and the Liberal-National coalition did announce some science policies during the campaign, including support for spending on science communication — Aus$21 million (US$19 million) from Labor, and Aus$16.7 million on the part of the coalition.

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Doherty points out that the parties differ in their support for universities. The Rudd-Gillard government raised research funding, especially to universities, by 34%. "The [previous] Howard government was simply hostile to the public universities, and Abbott admires Howard," says Doherty.

But the coalition's science plan also included the suggestion that they would consider giving more independence to the country's chief scientist, which Doherty welcomes.

And the renewed focus on climate change could see scientists having a greater role in policy-making. "There's no doubt that we would like to see the parties consult the scientific community on climate change," says Arabia. "I'd like to think that whoever ends up in power would be willing to recognize the science on this issue." 

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