New South Wales Greens MP Lee Rhiannon speaks during an anti-coal demonstration in Sydney (File Photo)
New South Wales Greens MP Lee Rhiannon speaks during an anti-coal demonstration in Sydney (File Photo)

Analysts in Australia are predicting a forthcoming general election will establish the environmental lobby as a powerful political party. Members of the Australian Green say they expect that a system of proportional representation will give their party the balance of power in the Senate, for the first time. The Labor government and the conservative opposition have promised comprehensive policies to address climate change, although the Greens believe the issue is being neglected by the two main parties.

Greens in Sydney's traditionally conservative Northern Beaches, an area considered by some scientists to be particularly vulnerable to rising sea level and storm surges, have launched their election campaign as photographers capture the mood of the party.

"If we do not address climate change and rising temperatures, the impact on Australia would be enormous," said Senate candidate Lee Rhiannon, lending her support to local volunteers.

Weak policy

Asked how she would judge the position of both major parties, the governing Labor and the conservative opposition, when it comes to the issue of climate change, Rhiannon responded that both have weak climate change policies.

"Both the federal Labor government and the federal coalition have very weak policies on climate change and the Greens would say it is irresponsible," Rhiannon said. "In Australia 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from the burning and mining of coal and that is why the Greens put the need to address the future of the coal industry center stage."

With support for the Greens in Australia hovering around 10 percent there's a good chance they' could hold the balance of power in the upper house of parliament, giving them a decisive say in shaping and blocking legislation.

In Australia, government policy becomes law only when it has the approval of both parliamentary chambers.

Monumental changes?

Dr. Jonathan King, a veteran Greens campaigner, is predicting monumental changes if his party achieves its expected level of support.

"The Greens will give the environmental lobby such power in the Senate that they'll be able to phase out the coal industry, they'll be able to put a price on carbon, they'll be able to stop deforestation," said King. "So, coal, timber, old growth forest, clean seas policy - it will transform this country and we could become a world leader."

Some scientists warn that Australia is particularly vulnerable to a warming climate and rising sea levels as well as more severe droughts, floods and tropical storms.

Urgent action

Liz Hamper, a Green party volunteer who moved here from Britain in the 1980s, believes that urgent action is needed to protect Australia from environmental disaster.

"I want to fight for this country because I love it. And I want it to stay beautiful and I want it to stay somewhere where my kids can carry on growing up with their kids with a future," said Hamper. "Well, I am very angry and I sort of look at boat people and I think, well, Australians might well get in the boats and be heading off to Greenland or to New Zealand. We'll be looking for somewhere else pleasanter to live and that is distressing."

Protesters heckled Prime Minister Julia Gillard when she announced that a panel of citizens would be convened to shape Australia's climate change policy after an emissions trading scheme was abandoned earlier this year - a decision that, in large part, cost her predecessor Kevin Rudd his credibility and his job.

Both major parties have promised to reduce carbon emissions, but analysts say that neither wants climate change to be a big issue during this election campaign, preferring instead to focus on the economy and immigration.

Possible boost

But Rodney Smith from the University of Sydney believes that concern for the environment will boost support for the Greens.

"I think that is certainly likely that they will emerge as a more powerful third force and with that comes a paradox for them," said Smith. "Do they stay to left of Labor, a committed ideological party or do they or do they start to move into a more pragmatic, deal-making, compromise role in order to remain players?"

One conservative senator has warned that should the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate, the chamber would be "held to ransom" by extreme environmentalists who will pursue their "dangerous agenda", which would damage the Australian economy.