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The Guardian - AU

How Albanese’s practical pivot on climate paved the way for a Greens surge

The Greens' Queensland Senate candidate Penny Allman-Payne celebrates election results on May 21, 2022 in Brisbane, Australia.
The Greens' Queensland senate candidate Penny Allman-Payne celebrates on election night. The party fielded a formidable ground game in the 2022 contest – an operation Labor will seek to replicate. Photograph: Dan Peled/Getty Images

Given the complex dynamics of the 2022 election campaign, many postmortems, from many points of view, will ultimately be undertaken.

But one of the more intriguing questions to emerge after Saturday night is whether Labor fully understood the gathering momentum of the Greens voter recruitment exercise in metropolitan Brisbane once it was clear the Liberal vote in the inner city had collapsed.

Labor certainly knew it was in a three-way contest with the Greens and the Liberals in Brisbane and in Ryan, and the campaign also knew the shadow frontbencher Terri Butler was in trouble in the inner-city seat of Griffith.

The Labor campaign detected a tidal drift to the Greens in Brisbane during the closing fortnight of the campaign as undecided voters began to make their choices.

Labor did attempt to sandbag its position, deploying the Senate leader Penny Wong to Brisbane and Higgins in Melbourne – two contests where there was a substantial progressive constituency but no teal candidate to harvest disaffected Liberal voters.

But it was difficult to mount surgical corrective action, because Labor was also attempting to hold its traditional blue-collar territories in the outer suburbs of major cities, the Central Coast of New South Wales, and the Hunter Valley and the Northern Territory, because Scott Morrison was hunting on that side of the pendulum.

Unless the Liberal and Labor parties decide in the future to hold a secret meeting to carve up the electoral map, allocating metropolitan professionals to Labor, and the regions and outer suburbs to the Liberals and Nationals – the major parties are going to be stitching together constituencies that feel uncomfortable or discordant in times of polarisation and atomisation – and that was certainly Labor’s approach in 2022.

So if Anthony Albanese engaged in any significant repositioning in the closing fortnight of the campaign in terms of the national climate policy messaging, that would risk Labor’s electoral position in seats it needed to win.

Now, it is absolutely possible that Labor significantly underestimated its own room to manoeuvre nationally because campaigns at some level are always fighting the last war. There was some hand-wringing about that possibility in Labor ranks on Sunday, but the savage election rout of 2019 did not portend the dramatic course correction of 2022.

Labor suffered an electoral drubbing in 2019 in part because its climate policy was considered too ambitious in some parts of the country. When the opposition moved to recalibrate its policy after that defeat, that was a difficult and internally contested exercise, sparking public slanging matches between shadow frontbenchers Joel Fitzgibbon and Mark Butler.

Albanese thought the best means of holding the line on medium-term action was to reframe the transition to low emissions as an inexorable economic shift than would create opportunities for working people rather than draping climate action in the progressive cloak of “great moral challenges”.

An enormous amount of work was done to finely calibrate the national messages so they would be understood by workers on the frontline of the transition as well as Labor’s post-material inner-city voters.

The Labor campaign understood there would be some leakage of votes to the Greens during the 2022 contest because some progressive voters would assume Labor’s policy recalibration was a sell-out, and the Greens would reinforce that perception aggressively.

Before the 2022 contest, the Greens had plateaued in terms of their representation in the House of Representatives. Labor had become more practised at repelling Green incursions in seats in Melbourne and Sydney.

But the great electoral realignment of 2022 provided opportunities for the Greens to recruit disaffected major party voters. The Greens had been building up representation and organisational structure in metropolitan Brisbane, and by all accounts, the Greens fielded a formidable ground game in this 2022 contest – an operation Labor will seek to replicate and learn from.

The Greens have now gained Ryan from the Liberals and Griffith from Labor. The seat of Brisbane is hovering on a knife’s edge. Labor was clawing back on postal votes as the count stretched into Sunday.

And in the bitter-sweet way of election wash-ups, on Sunday in Brisbane, Labor parliamentarians, strategists, staff and volunteers were mourning the loss of Butler from its ranks as the party was celebrating a return to government after almost a decade.