Why the environment is not an election issue in Australia | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 01.07.2016
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Why the environment is not an election issue in Australia

Australia votes in national elections on July 2. But environmental issues have barely featured in the election campaigns. We ask why the future of the planet isn't an Aussie election issue.

As Australia heads to the polls to choose a new government, the ruling conservative Liberal-National coalition and center-left Labor Party opposition appear to be neck and neck.

Australia's east coast was recently devastated by storms and flooding, and the iconic Great Barrier Reef is under a major threat from coral bleaching.

Yet environmental concerns have been given short shrift in the main parties' election campaigns. We asked Sydney-based journalist Esther Blank why.

DW: What role do climate change and environmental issues play in the Australian election campaign?

Esther Blank DW Agent

Blank says economic concerns trump environmental ones

Esther Blank: Not much of a role at all. Major parties are actually ignoring environmental issues as much as they can, as these issues seem difficult and against their other interests. They also know that only about 15 percent of the population actually cares about climate change, or any environmental issue, as an important issue for the election.

That is a devastatingly low number. Why is there so little interest in these issues in Australia?

On the one hand it's because there is so much environment. Australians maybe believe that because they have such a huge country with a small population that they don't have to worry about it.

The other thing is that they are more worried about the economy at the moment. And the economy is demanding more input from industries like mining. That's in strong contrast to the environmental issues.

Take the Great Barrier Reef, for example. There are two big coal mines being planned for the center of Queensland. Coal contributes to global warming, which contributes to the warming of the water, which destroys the Great Barrier Reef. But that's completely out of the discussion. The two major parties do not want to touch that because coal exports are so important.

Australien Meeresschutzgebiet Great Barrier Reef Korallenbleiche

The Great Barrier Reef is suffering from what is described as "the worst mass bleaching event" on record

And that's not all. If they build the mines, they have to transport the coal from the mines to China and India. And that has to go through the Great Barrier Reef. So they have to build a new harbor - a coal harbor right in the middle of it - and transport the coal through the reef. That's another threat that nobody wants to tackle because that means stopping the mines - and that's expensive.

So is no one bringing this to the attention of the Australian public?

The Green Party is strong on this issue. They plan to protect the environment and they are promoting a plan to combat climate change. But they might get around 11 percent in the next election. According to the Australian electoral system, that doesn't mean much. They won't be represented very highly in parliament. If they are lucky at this election and the big parties come out fifty-fifty, the Greens might get one or two members of parliament who then could maybe help because they might have a decisive vote. But that's the only thing they can hope for.

The media are not really reporting on environmental issues very much either. It's not in the interest of some of the media owners.

Australien Buschfeuer Blue Mountains National Park

News of the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef has led to protests around the world

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has just pledged 1 billion Australian dollars - that's $738 million dollars - as a fund for the Great Barrier Reef, where scientists tell us that mass coral bleaching has already destroyed vast tracts of the World Heritage Site. Is this just a popularity gimmick to attract votes?

I think it is something to attract votes. It's also because the world has been looking at the Barrier Reef situation. And the Australian government has to do something. But they don't really want to do anything that damages either the resource companies, or the workers working in this field, or farmers whose runoff and pollution contributes to the reef's problems, or actually the average person who might have to pay more for energy if they go for alternative and renewable energy.

The Great Barrier Reef fund plans to combat the deterioration of the water quality by, for example, helping to combat effluent. But this plan does not include any action on coal mining, or the real reason why there is warming. If you really wanted to do something about it, experts say they'd need at least 16 billion Australian dollars.

Australien Bergbau

Australia has impressive renewable energy resources, which could be an alternative to coal

You mentioned renewable energies. Australia is a country with almost endless sunshine. Surely that could be a viable alternative to coal?

Yes, and it's not only solar power. Australia has great wind resources so that could be an alternative as well. Also there's seawater, geothermal - everything you can think of in renewable energy is actually there and could be used.

But that's in competition with the coal industry and coal mining. The energy producers who need coal for their old-fashioned plants don't want to give up power, and the government and opposition parties are to a certain degree beholden to one of the biggest and most important exports - resources. Plus the unions want to keep the well-paid jobs for their miners. So it's very hard for any government to do something decisive about this issue without damaging their votes.

Would a change of government make a difference to Australia's efforts towards the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement?

It would maybe in the long run. In the short run Australia has committed to a 5.5 percent reduction of emissions. That's not very much in comparison to other countries. In the long run, up to the year of 2030, the Liberal Party wants to reduce emissions by about 25 to 28 percent based on 2005, which was a very high polluting year. The Labor Party, however, would like to reduce emissions by 50 percent and also plans to have zero emissions in the future. But these issues are not really debated very hotly at the moment in the election campaign.

Deutschland Australien Umwelt WWF und Greenpeace Demonstration für Great Barrier Reef in Bonn

Australians need to put pressure on their government to combat global warming, says Blank

Corals are dying, forest fires are on the increase, there's been unprecedented flooding - what else has to happen to convince Australia that we need urgent action on climate change?

Lots of pressure from overseas. Of course people are worried about it. They are interested in this. The average person would put a solar panel on their roof, and people are happy to do that without any support by the state.

I think if people were properly informed they'd probably be ready to make some sacrifices for the greater good, to combat climate change. That said, Australia is the center of climate skeptics. There are more climate skeptics in the media in Australia than in the United States.

Esther Blank has been a journalist for more than 30 years. She became DW's representative in Sydney in 1999. Blank is a reporter, producer and commentator for German TV and radio, and has written three books.

The interview was conducted by Irene Quaile.

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