Will Hodgman makes his climate pitch

It seems that Tasmanian Liberals are taking their own counsel on climate policy, though it remains a work in progress. [16 July 2013 | Peter Boyer]

Will Hodgman and his climate spokesperson, Matthew Groom

Politics are different down here in Tasmania.

Most parliaments have single-member electorates and simple majority voting, but here we took the radically different path of multiple-member electorates and a transferrable-vote system, said to be the world’s fairest as well as its most complex.

More differences: in the post-war decades when Australia bathed in the warm glow of endless conservative governments, Tasmanians doggedly chose Labor. In the 1980s, while Labor’s Bob Hawke bestrode national politics, the island state was dominated by Liberal Robin Gray.

Tasmania is said to be the greenest of Australian states. In 1972 it saw the birth of the world’s first environment party. After experimenting with Green-supported minority governments (one Labor, one Liberal), in 2010 Tasmania appointed the country’s first Green cabinet minister.

So when I sat down to discuss climate policy with Liberal leader Will Hodgman and his environment spokesman Matthew Groom earlier this month, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a degree or two of separation from Tony Abbott’s approach to this tricky subject.

The gap appeared early in the interview. Having once said the case for human-induced warming was “absolute crap”, Abbott has since avoided the subject. But Hodgman, asked if he thought the climate was being changed by human activity, responded with an emphatic “yes”.

“In general we support national policies, but we are separate from Canberra with our own separate policies,” he said. Added Groom: “We want to see government take climate change seriously and take action to address it.”

This is interesting. Climate change and carbon emissions have never figured prominently in the Tasmanian political dialogue. While climate change minister Cassy O’Connor and Greens leader Nick McKim raise the subject often, the major parties seem to want to shy away from the topic.

It’s not hard to guess why. Like nuclear war, climate change is a global threat that seems more distant and less tangible the closer you get to the parish pump. Given a choice between discussing climate and jobs, Lara Giddings and Will Hodgman will take the latter every time.

Liberal and Labor party strategists appear to believe that state elections are never going to be determined on climate issues. Having seen the troubles that beset Rudd and Gillard over their response to the climate imperative, they’re staying well clear of that hornet’s nest.

They’re wrong. Climate is a local threat as much as a global one, with growing long-term implications for planning, agriculture, coastal infrastructure and other administrative concerns. Local councils are coming to appreciate this. So will voters, if they haven’t already.

If we’re to believe Hodgman and Groom, and I see no reason not to, climate will have a more prominent place in their party’s March 2014 election platform than recent debate might suggest.

Tasmania has a significant role in mitigating and adapting to climate change, says Hodgman, as an incubator of renewable energy ideas and development supported by a strong national Renewable Energy Target and facilitated by a second Basslink undersea cable.

Says Groom: “We have an opportunity to leverage off our hydro and wind heritage, with the knowledge and expertise that goes with that. For this we will need a second Basslink to allow us to export our renewable capacity.”

The Liberals are “strong supporters” of Hydro Tasmania’s proposal for a $2 billion, 600-megawatt wind farm on King Island, which, says Hodgman, “has the potential to be a very exciting project not just for the North West but for the whole State.”

The whole debate around national carbon pricing has suddenly shifted with Kevin Rudd’s clearly political decision to float the price a year ahead of schedule. If this happens, the financial return to Tasmania for its high level of renewable power would be seriously reduced in 2014-15.

An Abbott win would eliminate any carbon pricing dividend, though that would not preclude the Tasmanian Liberals seeking remuneration for Hydro power by other means. If Rudd is returned, they plan to pass on to business and households all of whatever revenue comes back to the state.

Phil Harrington, principal carbon and energy consultant for the Tasmanian engineering firm Pitt & Sherry, sees value in returning the revenue in the form of helping big emitters cut their carbon output and retrofitting homes and commercial buildings to improve energy efficiency.

But to Groom it’s a matter of freedom of choice: the policy “is not a subsidy for consumption but rather a removal of an unfair tax burden. There would be nothing stopping people from using the funds returned to them to invest in greater energy efficiency.”

What else? Well, the Liberals are committing to “fully explore the conversion of wood waste and residues from the native and plantation forest floor into biomass and biofuel”, and “opportunities for on-farm renewable energy” to enhance growth of the agricultural sector.

I have reservations about both. It’s arguable that using logging residue to generate energy would drive forest destruction, and that agriculture’s finite resources should be dedicated to producing food, not electricity. If these options are to be pursued, the “exploring” should be without prejudice.

I’ve been critical of the Tasmanian Liberals for ignoring climate change — giving the appearance that they think that either it’s not happening or it’s not their responsibility. I now believe the basis is there for a coherent, viable 2014 election platform.

But they have yet to address the State’s clearly inadequate emissions-reduction target of 60 per cent by 2050 and the lack of strong interim goals. To be a climate policy leader Tasmania needs to aim for 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025 and a fully decarbonised economy by 2050.

Such targets are fully attainable under a determined, focused, well-led government. Is that what Hodgman is offering?

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