The slippery slope to tyranny

Russia, China and North Korea have pretend parliaments. Is that where we’re headed?

Bill Maher is an old-fashioned, rough and tough kind of comedian, not above profanity if it suits the purpose. But he’s from New York, with Irish and Jewish parents, so what do you expect?

But he had a liberal-arts university education, and if that taught him anything it’s how a democracy ought to work. He learned about fair elections, about open, equitable and civil societies ruled by law, and why power should never be all in one place, or in one person.

He also has one of the sharpest political minds in America. Right now, as he’s been making clear on his HBO show Real Time, these democratic principles are in big trouble. Come to think of it, they’re not in such good shape on this side of the Pacific. Or this side of Bass Strait.

Maher has been focusing his keen satirical gaze on the Republican Senate’s idea of a fair impeachment trial (no witnesses) and Donald Trump’s triumphalism in the wake of his unsurprising acquittal.

Here’s Maher’s take on the Senate Republican majority: “Republicans have to admit they don’t just hate Democrats. They hate democracy… Stop saying Republicans don’t have principles. They do; they are deeply committed to all things undemocratic.”

On the Republican majority’s year-long refusal to endorse Barak Obama’s crucial Supreme Court nominee, abandoning the tradition of holding hearings promptly: “That’s the old America. A nation of laws. We’re living in the new America, with only one law: ‘Make me’.”

Audience laughter subsides when Maher describes a country sliding into authoritarian rule: “You don’t get a text alert. Things will look the same on the surface. The buses will still be running. The cops will still be patrolling. You’ll still get your hair done…

“Americans are always worried that when we lose our freedom it’ll look like the movie Red Dawn, with tanks in the streets. That’s not how a republic ends. We keep the names on the institutions; we just change what’s inside. We still have trials; we just don’t have witnesses. And you still subpoena people; they just don’t show up…

“When Rome stopped being a republic, it didn’t stop having a senate. And neither have we; it’s just more like student government now. Because that’s what dictators do. Russia has a pretend parliament. So does China. And North Korea.”

Maher believes that if Trump is defeated in November he will refuse to leave the White House. No fan of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, he wonders aloud that maybe the “angry mob” Sanders controls might be good, “because at least Sanders people will fight. They’ll fight Hillary [Clinton], but it’s a start.”

Democrats, says Maher, must follow the Republican lead: “Republicans always have dirty tricksters on their payroll… Well, we’re going to need some reptilian scumbags of our own – good Democrats who are willing to stand up and do the wrong thing.”

As a Democratic “reptilian scumbag” he suggests Michael Avenatti, a lawyer who after pursuing Trump on behalf of porn star Stormy Daniels was convicted for trying to extort millions of dollars from Nike, the sportsgear company. “But he’s in prison, so let me get the ball rolling.”

Maher wants the Democrats to use a few Republican tricks, like a video ad with edited footage of Trump stumbling over words, to get across the idea that he’s a “neurological mess”. Or by shouting “You lie” during State of the Union addresses, as a Republican member of Congress did to Obama in 2009.

Showing an actual “deep fake” ad making Obama seem to say something he didn’t, Maher scrapes the bottom of the barrel in offering a fake video pretending to be “lost” 2013 CCTV footage from a Moscow hotel room showing Trump with prostitutes doing kinky things.

All totally out of order, but it makes the telling point that any political gain from using lies and fakery entices others to follow, dragging everyone progressively lower into the dirt.

In Australia, Clive Palmer’s $80 million election campaign featured that kind of fakery, deep or otherwise. But dirty tricks were not confined to Palmer and many were successful, setting the worst kind of example for future campaigns.

As in the US, our own politics have become a battle for the low ground, as principles are cheapened, precedents flouted and public institutions diminished for party or personal gain.

Liberal democracy is under siege. It still exists in name. Rituals are still observed. We’ve heard no alarms and seen no troops. But as Maher says, when coups happen there are no text alerts.

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Zali Steggall’s bold move for a national climate Act

Despite a lack of interest in the major parties, the Steggall bill may yet get traction

Last week Zali Steggall, the skier turned barrister who ousted former PM Tony Abbott from his blue-ribbon seat of Warringah nine months ago, unveiled what’s been keeping her busy lately: her framework legislation on climate change.

Modelled on the UK’s Climate Change Act of 2008, it seeks to emulate its predecessor’s success in drawing opposing parties together and creating a tamper-proof institution to determine the general direction of the country’s climate policies into the indefinite future.

The UK legislation was a joint achievement by Labour governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and David Cameron’s conservative opposition. There is no such cross-party effort happening here, so Steggall has stepped up, supported by some other independents including Tasmanian Andrew Wilkie.

Our sad history on climate change policy says this will be like climbing a mountain, but Steggall has climbed mountains before. Though born in Manly, where she has lived for many years, she spent most of her childhood with her family in the French Alps, where she learned to ski exceptionally well.

It was a privileged upbringing, but that’s not the whole story. In 1999 she was world’s best in the slalom, a sport virtually unknown in her own country, and she remains the only Australian to win any world title in alpine skiing. Talent and luck no doubt played a part, but so did grit and effort.

Another thing she learned from skiing was a deep love of the alpine environment and an awareness of the rhythms of weather and climate. It was a given that her campaign would focus on climate change and Abbott’s well-known denial of its human cause.

Steggall won Warringah, held by the Liberal party and its predecessors since it was created nearly a century ago, with more first-preference votes than Abbott himself. Her final winning margin was over 14 per cent, a fact not lost on other inner-city Liberal MPs like Trent Zimmerman.

Nine months into her term Steggall has managed to draft framework climate legislation mandating processes for targets, actions and reporting, including binding legal commitments to the 2015 Paris Agreement and to a 2050 target of net zero emissions.

The bill’s centrepiece is an independent Climate Change Commission, whose role Steggall described as “to assess risks, advise Parliament and monitor climate change actions and impacts.” Like the UK committee on which it is modelled, it would be at arm’s length from government.

Scientific, economic and administrative expertise would be well represented in the commission, which would be tasked with reviewing climate changes including water availability, plant cover and air quality, and assessing risks each year, taking in international climate and trade policies.

The proposed legislation would lay down principles for Australia’s international engagement on climate. It would provide for five-year emissions budgets and plans to be set in advance, with safeguards to ensure the pathway to the long-term target is both achievable and equitable.

It would also require government to set five-year national and regional adaptation plans, taking in nominated sectors such as agriculture, biodiversity, health, energy, transport, education, planning and infrastructure.

“A large and growing majority of Australians”, says Steggall, expect their government to abandon “fear mongering and misinformation” and plan for Australia to become a low carbon economy drawing on “our enormous natural, human and financial wealth.”

Some inner-metropolitan Liberals like Zimmerman are wondering aloud whether they should agree, but the broad Coalition view, expressed by Nationals leader Michael McCormack on Sunday, is that coal jobs and export income are more important than the science telling us that global emissions must fall to net zero by 2050, preferably much earlier.

Since 2010, when Abbott began the campaign that ultimately trashed Julia Gillard’s national carbon price scheme, the Coalition has failed to grasp that cutting emissions is like stopping the spread of the COVID-19 virus: a real imperative that business-as-usual cannot deal with. Now another woman is trying to get a bunch of clueless blokes to lift their gaze and see what we’re facing.

Steggall’s draft bill has a long way to go. The Morrison government is not going to offer help to the woman who replaced its former leader, even just to get a debate, and Labor is not currently inclined to help. So that would seem to be that.

But nothing is ever certain in these unusual times. This summer’s fire and flood experiences, and some missteps by the Morrison government, have disturbed people’s comfort zone and shifted the mood in the electorate. If that mood persists, the unlikely might become possible. You never know.

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Gutwein must bring the parliament together

The action demanded by the climate crisis will not happen if the parliament cannot find agreement on the fundamentals.

Time marches on, emissions keep rising and the climate keeps changing. But some things don’t change, like old political habits.

It is well over 11 precious years since parliament passed Tasmania’s first climate change legislation – a framework that included a distant 2050 target and an advisory “action council”, but little else. But you have to start somewhere.

But since then, nothing much. Half a dozen strategies have come and gone. The advisory council was axed in 2014. Meanwhile in Canberra the parliament has twice voted down carbon pricing, first in the form of an emissions trading bill and then as a fully functioning tax-trading scheme.

Whatever the Morrison government salvages out of its climate policy shambles, it has shown it cannot do any heavy lifting on emissions. So on top of an array of social and economic issues, Tasmania’s new premier must now get serious about climate change.

For this, it is not enough for Peter Gutwein to have just his own party on side. If the sorry history of climate policy shows anything, it is that when parliament is divided, nothing happens.

There are hopeful signs. Greens leader Cassy O’Connor, keen to see the government take climate change seriously, says she is prepared to give him some slack. When Labor’s Alison Standen demanded a climate portfolio, the premier promptly obliged – and put himself in charge.

In 2008 Paul Lennon took on climate responsibilities, but not a ministry, just before resigning. David Bartlett had a parliamentary secretary for climate change (Lisa Singh), and Greens leader Nick McKim, followed by O’Connor, were climate change ministers under Lara Giddings.

Peter Gutwein is the first Liberal premier to recognise climate change as worthy of its own portfolio, and the first premier in any party to give himself the role of minister. That’s a big tick.

But lasting, substantial reforms require new laws. Despite its title the 2008 “state action” act is ineffectual. A review that began in 2016 is still in progress, a sign that the Hodgman government found it all too hard. Now Gutwein must bite the bullet.

He has plenty to work with. The review includes a 2016 report by the Jacobs Group, with five substantive recommendations, and 40 written submissions from individuals and organisations.

He also has a government response to the Jacobs report accepting three recommendations outright and the other two in principal. That response is now nearly three years old. We were supposed to get the chance last year to comment on proposed new legislation, but no bill has yet emerged.

Others have stepped into that space. At least two new climate change bills are in the pipeline, but they’re drafted by the Greens and independent MP Madeleine Ogilvie, and in a parliament dominated by the major parties such minority initiatives tend to be ignored.

They shouldn’t be. Present circumstances demand that all political and policy resources are brought to bear on a wicked problem, as if we were on a war footing – because that’s the nearest analogy to our present climate emergency.

Ogilvie sees her bill as a device to secure a “fully fledged commitment” from the government. Her relatively simple proposal is to amend the present Act by mandating a 2040 zero emissions target and establishing an advisory climate change commission.

The Greens’ much more comprehensive plan seeks a wholly new “Climate Emergency Act” mandating a parliamentary standing committee, an independent climate advocacy commission to encourage business and community action, and four-yearly “emissions abatement plans” for each economic sector.

The Greens’ draft includes mechanisms for securing and protecting carbon sequestration, including soil carbon agreements and covenants with landowners, and declaration of carbon reserves. It also provides for five-yearly state and municipal climate adaptation plans.

Another element to this, which either bill could be extended to encompass, is the need flagged in Climate Tasmania’s proposal for a “just transition”, noting the considerable financial cost burden on Tasmanians that will result from the inevitable shift to electric vehicles.

Peter Gutwein faces a Legislative Council that has completely shaken off its old conservative mantle. Its approach to environmental issues today is such that it would be no surprise to see a radical new climate bill emerge from that chamber, with no government input.

Given his precarious lower-house majority this should encourage the new premier to drop his government’s pretence that it has climate change under control, sit down with political enemies and seek a whole-of-parliament legislative solution. It’s the only way it can be made to stick.

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