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Concern over climate change propelling the left ahead of Australia’s election

Surrounded by the rugged national parks on the Sapphire Coast of New South Wales, the small seaside town of Tathra has not forgotten the inferno that burnt 65 homes to the ground last March. Many residents believe the out-of-control bushfire was the result of climate change and, ahead of a general election on Saturday, concerned voters like these are dragging Australian politics left-wards as they demand action.

“You could see the fire coming and you could see these explosions of flame.  It was very noisy.  It was a bit like a steam train coming at you.” said Tathra resident Nick Graham-Hicks, who runs a company in the large-scale wind and solar sector. 

“Climate change to me is very real.  I very strongly believe that there will be more catastrophes,” he added.  “Our existing government, the Liberal-National party, are not taking it very seriously and I don’t think they see it as a threat.  Labor seems to be much more proactive and their policies are much, much stronger.” 

While individual bushfire emergencies cannot be directly attributed to warming temperatures, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) declared in its 2018 annual climate statement that climate change is “influencing the frequency and severity” of such events.

Such warnings take on added weight after 2018 was declared Australia’s third-warmest year on record and featured the hottest summer ever documented. 

On Saturday 16.5 million voters have the chance to steer Australia to the environmental left under the Labor opposition leader, Bill Shorten, a former union boss – or to give the centre-right coalition of the Liberal and National parties three more years in power.  

Australia’s slowing economy has been the main focus of the campaign but surveys suggest that climate change is a key concern for the electorate.

The Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, said that global warming was a “critical threat” to the nation’s interests according to almost two-thirds of Australians, ahead of international terrorism and North Korea’s nuclear programme.  

Residents of Tathra and the nearby Bega Valley are not waiting for the government to step in but have launched their own projects as part of plans to power the region on 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. 

“It’s a ground-up strategy and (we’re) hoping the politicians follow us.  I think they are mis-reading the community mood at the moment,” said Matthew Nott, an orthopaedic surgeon, who founded the environmental group, Clean Energy For Eternity, which is helping residents instal solar panels. 

In January 2018, the city of Penrith on Sydney’s far western fringes baked in furnace-like conditions of 47.3C, the region’s highest recorded temperature since 1939. 

The Labor candidate in the local seat of Lindsay is Diane Beamer, who was born in Liverpool and migrated to Australia with her parents in the early 1960s, and wants her adopted homeland to follow’s the UK environmental example.  

“I congratulate Britain on having its first week without coal.  What a fantastic achievement that has been,” she said.  “We live in a land of sunshine.  Why can’t we actually capture it on every school in the country?  Why don’t we have battery technology that means we have little power stations in every household?”

But many voters in this blue collar city remain sceptical.   

“Renewables?  If the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine where are we going to get our power from?  If India, China and America are not doing anything there is not much we can do,” said 67-year-old Arthur Cowan, a former lorry driver.  

It has been more than a decade since an Australian prime minister served a full term in office and political dysfunction has left many citizens disengaged with politics. 

Is Scott Morrison, who triumphantly brought a lump of coal into parliament in 2017, the man to guide the world’s driest inhabited continent towards a greener future?  As the country heats up, the chances of those who play down the threat from climate change surely appear to be cooling. 

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