December 3, 2022

Australia’s new PM heads to Tokyo with climate message

Australia's new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (C) is set to fly to Tokyo for a meeting of the Quad


Australia’s new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (C) is set to fly to Tokyo for a meeting of the Quad – Copyright AFP SAEED KHAN

Australia’s new prime minister Anthony Albanese took office Monday, hours before flying to a Tokyo summit with a “message to the world” that his country is ready to engage on climate change.

The 59-year-old Labor Party leader told reporters he wants to “bring people with us on the journey of change” before he took the oath of office in a brief, publicly televised ceremony at Government House in Canberra.

In a hurried post-election schedule, he was flying out a few hours later to join a summit Tuesday with the US, Japanese and Indian leaders, known as the Quad.

Albanese said at the weekend that the Tokyo summit was “an absolute priority” for Australia and an opportunity “to send a message to the world”.

He said partners overseas can expect wholesale changes “particularly with regard to climate change and our engagement with the world on those issues”.

– ‘Optimism and hope’ –

Albanese has frequently reflected on his journey towards the nation’s highest office since being brought up by his struggling single mother in Sydney public housing.

The new leader says he wants to transform his country, too.

Shortly before being sworn in, “Albo” said he wanted to lead a government of “optimism and hope, that I think defines the Australian people”.

New members of Albanese’s team taking office included Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who will join the prime minister in Tokyo, Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Finance Minister Katy Gallagher.

Albanese has vowed to adopt more ambitious emissions reduction targets and make the sun-kissed continent-nation a renewable energy superpower.

– Coal and gas –

In recent years, images of smouldering eucalypt forests, smog-enveloped cities and blanched-out coral reefs have made Australia a poster child for climate-fuelled destruction.

Under conservative leadership, the country — already one of the world’s largest gas and coal exporters — has also become synonymous with playing the spoiler at international climate talks.

That record allowed a score of climate-aware independent candidates to plunder once-safe conservative urban seats  — helping to deliver power to Labor.

It is still unclear whether Albanese’s Labor Party will win enough parliamentary seats to form an outright majority, or whether he will have to turn to independents or smaller parties for support.

– ‘Down to business’ –

After the summit and bilateral meetings with Quad leaders on Tuesday, Albanese said he would return to Australia the following day.

“Then we’ll get down to business,” he said.

Notable among the foreign leaders who have welcomed Albanese’s election are the ones from Australia’s Pacific Island neighbours, whose very existence is threatened by rising sea levels.

“Of your many promises to support the Pacific, none is more welcome than your plan to put the climate first –– our people’s shared future depends on it,” said Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

US President Joe Biden also called Albanese to congratulate him.

“President Biden expressed deep appreciation for… (Albanese’s) early commitment to the alliance, reflected in his decision to travel almost immediately to Tokyo to attend the Quad Summit,” the White House said in a statement.

– Political earthquake –

Others will be watching closely to see if Albanese’s premiership brings a less hawkish tone on China, and whether ministerial meetings with Beijing resume after a more than two-year hiatus.

Official results showed Labor expected to win in 75 seats — almost within reach of the 76 required for a majority in the 151-seat lower house. A handful of other races are still too close to call. 

But it is already clear that the vote was a political earthquake in Australia. 

For many Australians, the election was a referendum on polarising former prime minister Scott Morrison.

Voters responded at the ballot box with a sharp rebuke of his Liberal-National coalition — ousting top ministers from parliament and virtually expelling the party from major cities.

For Morrison’s conservative allies, the defeat is already spurring a battle for the soul of the party.

A leadership contest is informally underway, with moderates blaming the loss on a drift to the right.