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Environment needs ambitious pair of hands

When green and teal voters flipped the apple cart on Saturday, they delivered a clear message about their expectations of the new government.

What remains to be seen is who Anthony Albanese will trust to execute his plan to address climate change and fix Australia’s depleted environment – issues that saw many voters turn their backs on the two major parties.

Political observers have little doubt Chris Bowen will keep his responsibilities for climate change and energy in the new cabinet.

But the loss of shadow environment minister Terri Butler – to a first-time Greens candidate – has opened up a seat at the table.

And those behind the so-called greenslide, or tealbath, say that seat better be at the business end, within arm’s reach of the prime minister.

Australia’s newly minted pro-planet MPs say that whoever Mr Albanese chooses, they’d better show up and fight for the environment or it could be baseball bats at the ballot box come the next election.

Zoe Daniel, the teal independent who ousted Tim Wilson from the blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Goldstein in Melbourne, wants just one thing from the new environment minister.

“Ambition,” she tells AAP.

The new teal MP for North Sydney, Kylea Tink, says voters who demanded a radical step-up on climate change and environmental management will not tolerate lip service and the kind of conduct they saw from outgoing minister Sussan Ley, who refused to release the landmark State of the Environment report before the election.

“It appeared to me that more often than not the decisions made by the outgoing environment minister were actually not with the best interests of the environment. There were other forces at play there,” Ms Tink said.

Former ALP national president, Senator Jenny McAllister, appears to be the frontrunner for the environment portfolio, and conservation and climate action groups seem content with that.

They cite her personal passion for the environment, and point to the Labor Environment Activist Network – a group she founded and one that claims credit for putting climate action back at the centre of Labor policy through its emissions reduction and renewable energy targets.

Veteran Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young says Senator McAllister would be a welcome pick, but also notes the prime minister has another option in Tony Burke, who served as environment minister under Julia Gillard.

Mr Burke’s achievements as minister included setting up one of the world’s largest network of marine reserves, something that was largely eroded by subsequent Coalition governments.

He also added East Coast koalas to the threatened species list, but left conservationists stunned when he refused to put a large swathe of Tasmania’s Tarkine forest on the national heritage list, leaving it open to logging and mining.

Senator Hanson-Young says that regardless of who the next minister is, there is a herculean task ahead, including setting up Labor’s promised new environmental watchdog, fixing the nation’s deficient environmental laws, trying to save the Great Barrier Reef, and arresting Australia’s extinction crisis.

Then there is the job of repairing Australia’s international reputation as a blocker on climate change and a poor environmental custodian.

Senator Hanson-Young says she is going into the new-look parliament with a strong desire for collaboration and co-operation, but relishes the comfort that comes with the Greens having the balance of power in the Senate.

“It would be a mistake for Labor to govern as if they have won the majority of the vote because they actually didn’t,’‘ she said.

“They got in on preferences and it was a vote for change, so they’ve got to listen.

“They might be able to govern with a majority, but they’ll have to negotiate with the Greens to get anything through the Senate.”

Ben Oquist is the executive director of independent think-tank The Australia Institute, and says Mr Albanese must not lose sight of the fact voters ranked climate and the environment second only to the economy in the run-up to the election.

And it’s nothing new.

“For the last two years climate and environment ranked in the top three concerns, even at the height of the pandemic and economic crises,” Mr Oquist says.

“It is a matter for Labor caucus and the prime minister who the environment minister will be.

“It is a portfolio that certainly deserves senior cabinet status.”

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