At the election, Australians told its leaders two things: we want decisive action to help stop the climate crisis, and greater integrity in our political system. With the most progressive Parliament seen in decades, there is now a once-in-a-generation opportunity to achieve both.
And we must, because reforming our democracy is vital to ensuring Australia plays its part in preventing climate catastrophe. Climate isn't an ideological, left v right issue, it's a people v fossil-fuels industry issue.
In a research report released by the Human Rights Law Centre earlier this year, we found that over the past 20 years, when Australian governments have gone up against harmful industries like the fossil-fuels industry, the industry fought back and won on nearly every occasion.
Why? Because our weak laws do virtually nothing to constrain the ability of corporate giants to turn their phenomenal wealth into political power. They hire teams of lobbyists, including former politicians, to influence decision-makers in secret. They buy influence with multimillion-dollar political donations, and when that fails, they launch punishing public attack campaigns. And no one is more practised at this than the fossil-fuels industry.
Between 2009 and 2012, the fossil fuels and mining industry launched three multimillion-dollar campaigns against federal Labor. The first was directed against prime minister Kevin Rudd's emissions trading scheme; the second against the mining tax; and the third to block Julia Gillard's carbon price. All of the flagship reforms failed.
The most damaging of the three campaigns was the second, against the 2010 mining tax proposal. A handful of multinational mining companies, led by BHP and run through the Minerals Council of Australia, launched an aggressive campaign, flooding the halls of Parliament with lobbyists and subjecting Australians to up to 37 negative television ads a day.
After just 54 days of the campaign, federal Labor, looking nervously at the looming election, replaced Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard. Gillard capitulated to the mining industry within days of becoming prime minister.
The public campaign cost the industry $25 million, a drop in the warming ocean for an industry which was to make $133 billion in profit from Australian operations the following year. It cost our country so much more. "Launching an anti-mining tax campaign" is now code for "we will publicly destroy you", and is used by multiple harmful industries to silence politicians who dare to try regulate them.
And so the fossil-fuels industry has continued ever since. In 2011, it funnelled $9.3 million into the blandly named group "Australian Trade and Industry Alliance" in order to axe Gillard's carbon price. It set up Coal21, which spent on average $3.2 million in electoral expenditure each year between 2016 and 2018, before rebranding as Low Emission Technology Australia and spending a reported $5 million more in the lead-up to the 2019 election.
We know the Minerals Council of Australia remained a steady multimillion-dollar election spender through to at least the 2019 election, however it stopped disclosing electoral expenditure after the disclosure laws changed in 2018. And I haven't even mentioned Clive Palmer.
We won't find out what donations were made ahead of this election for another eight months, but between 1999 and the 2019 federal election, the fossil-fuels industry disclosed $15.2 million in contributions to the Coalition and $4.9 million to Labor. The real figure, when taking into account non-disclosable contributions and "other receipts", is likely to be much higher. At its highest, these donations buy government policies like the "gas-led recovery"; at the very least they incentivise a proactively coal- and gas-protective backbench.
Above all, the industry's deep influence is obvious from the outcome: complete chaos over climate for every successive government since Rudd, including three prime ministers dumped by their own party.
Australians have changed since the 2019 election: we've seen our country burn and people drown. The climate crisis has begun here, and a critical mass of Australian voters has responded by rewarding the Greens and independents running on strong climate platforms.
But the sad truth is that for as long as the fossil-fuels industry is allowed to retain its enormous political power, this strong public mandate may not be enough to see Australia take sufficiently strong action on climate change.
The fossil-fuels industry has spent decades, and many hundreds of millions of dollars, developing deep political power. We would be foolish to think it will retreat quietly now.
The Albanese government can - and must - do something about it. A federal integrity commission is important, but it alone won't fix the problem. A watchdog can only be as strong as the law it enforces, and most of the ways in which the fossil-fuels industry corrupts our government are perfectly legal.
In fact, Australia is lagging well behind almost all other advanced democracies when it comes to regulating corporate influence over our politicians. What is considered illegal and corrupt influence overseas is business as usual in Canberra.
We need caps on political donations, so wealthy people can no longer buy government policy. Crucially, we need limits on election spending, so those with the biggest bank balance can't buy a national platform. And we need laws to make lobbying transparent, so we know who is trying to influence our decision-makers.
In a healthy democracy, the wellbeing of people and the planet should be at the heart of every decision our government makes. Parliament has an incredible opportunity to achieve this, and help save our planet at the same time.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.