Have the Greens taken over the progressive mantle from Labor?

Peter Gutwein’s win on Saturday is only part of the story of a fascinating election.

These are my take-away memories from election day: A victorious, beaming premier and his family, an upbeat opposition leader carrying a baby, a resurgent Greens leader, and a glorious, sunny weekend in Tasmania’s capital, 8C above the May average.

Predictably, Peter Gutwein won the election on the back of his fine response to COVID-19, recording an exceptional personal vote. People appreciated that this leader, in response to expert scientific advice, could make tough, confronting decisions.

But as the Greens’ Cassy O’Connor pointed out on Saturday night, while the premier chose to follow the science around contagious disease, he has relegated to a secondary position the science that warns of an unfolding climate catastrophe.

In building the Greens as a political force, founding leader Bob Brown fostered the view – perhaps unintentionally – that his party was the only way to environmental salvation. In times past I’ve found myself irritated by what seemed to be the Greens’ uncompromising approach to wicked policy dilemmas. Kevin Rudd’s doomed carbon pricing scheme was one such case.

In 2010, for the first and still the only time in Australia, the Greens became an integral part of government in Tasmania. Leader Nick McKim and then Cassy O’Connor took on the climate challenge on the basis that this responsibility is shared by all jurisdictions, everywhere.

That work culminated in O’Connor’s 2013 strategic plan, which remains the standout among a plethora of such documents that have arrived with fanfare over the years before being quietly shelved. Eight years later, her election night speech showed that this was no accident.

The buzz of leadership doesn’t rest easily with complex, slow-burning issues like climate change. Perhaps taking a cue from Rudd’s unseemly demise in 2010, Australia’s major party leaders and MPs continue to avoid making climate a front-rank policy issue.

Nowhere was that better illustrated than in the last parliament, in a debate over whether Tasmania should declare itself to be in a climate emergency. The only MPs arguing cogently for this fully justified move were O’Connor and her deputy, Rosalie Woodruff, while the rest of the parliament played partisan games.

On Saturday night O’Connor spoke of the Greens’ proposal for a bill to mandate planning for sequestering carbon, adapting to climate change, and annual sectoral emission targets, contrasting that with the major parties’ failure to come up with any coherent climate policy: “a shameful indictment”.

“We hear some Liberals gloating about the state’s climate record while they accelerate native forest logging,” she said. “Tasmania’s status as a net carbon sink is the result of decades of commitment and heart from the broader conservation movement and civil society, and the Greens’ hard work to protect this island’s extraordinary carbon rich forests.”

She also spoke with passion of the state’s crisis in elective surgery and hospital emergency, of the travails of homeless teenagers, families and old people, and of the Liberals’ failure to reveal the impact of negotiated gambling tax rates on future state revenue.

Tasmanians, she said, “want governments that can see past the dollar signs, … who understand how rare and precious our island is. They want decency and integrity in politics. That’s why we’re here.”

It was a long speech, bringing to mind another politician inclined to go on a bit, Gough Whitlam. The point about both is that they covered a lot of ground and had things to say that mattered, about life, community and government. O’Connor is a leader of real substance.

There were hints that O’Connor may be thinking of a life after politics. She spoke of her confidence in younger Greens to carry the party forward and in her Clark running mate, Vica Bayley – one of the architects of the 2013 forest peace deal that was championed by O’Connor then abandoned by the Hodgman government.

A century ago another small progressive party was said to be a mere annoyance that would soon disappear. The Labor Party rose to power as a voice for the powerless. On Saturday night, the most effective voice for that noble cause was O’Connor’s.

The Greens were the only party whose vote rose above 2018 levels, but just as noteworthy was the vote for independents. The frustration of leaders wanting the floor to themselves says all we need to know about Hare-Clark, the fairest voting system of them all.

As O’Connor said, the Tasmanian people decide who governs Tasmania – “not the Premier, or the leader of the Opposition.” The result, as David Killick wryly observed yesterday, is “strong, stable majority government, Tasmania style.”

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Why Tasmanian voters should avoid the major parties

Toxic, Richard Flanagan’s new book, highlights why we need more independent voices in parliament

With so much to be said in these final days of an election campaign, the problem is always where to begin? It was solved by last week’s release of Toxic, a ticking time-bomb of a book on salmon farming by Richard Flanagan. 

Flanagan meticulously documents how chemicals present in that pretty pink product damage our health, and how the industry’s rotting underbelly ravages ecosystems, destroys livelihoods and corrupts politicians and bureaucrats. His evidence is overwhelming. You cannot read this book without losing all appetite for farmed salmon.

In response, deputy premier Jeremy Rockliff declined to rule out a major expansion by the industry into north-western waters, while Labor’s star Franklin recruit Dean Winter said the party was solidly behind the industry and its jobs. Neither could have been so complacent had they read the book, which should be compulsory reading for all MPs.

That’s just one of a string of issues that the major parties keep ignoring or underplaying – including gambling, the size of parliament, native forest logging, protest laws and climate change – because they can get away with it.

The Greens have consistently called this out. Offering the strongest climate, environment and social justice policies, they also boast a thoroughly consistent and stable voting record in parliament. Yet the two major parties, having each lost a member’s vote during this last term, with breathtaking hypocrisy accuse them of being destabilisers. 

Both Liberal and Labor sternly warn against the “disaster” of a coalition government. This is rubbish. It’s true that unlike the federal Coalition (a government of two parties, a fact the Liberals seem to overlook), Tasmanian coalitions have been short-lived. But by any measure – goals met, bills passed, responsiveness, accountability – their record is as good as it gets.

What premier Peter Gutwein and opposition leader Rebecca White really mean when they raise this furphy is that party diehards don’t like it. Disciplined party voting has made parliamentary voting more predictable, but it has also fostered MPs who dislike close public scrutiny and prefer to leave complex issues to others. We got stability, but at what cost?

Contrary to what Peter Gutwein told the governor, his government was stable. The early poll is purely self-serving: to seize a favourable moment to cement and prolong his grip on power.

In pledging not to govern without its own majority, each major party is saying it won’t accept an election result that forces them to negotiate with anyone outside the party. This is out of place in Tasmania, home of the world’s most democratic voting system, which prevents electoral blowouts and encourages “mix and match” coalitions. 

Right now Peter Gutwein is odds-on to get his wish for another one-party government, but Hare-Clark does tend to throw up close results. If the Liberals don’t get a majority we at least have a prospect of changing the way one or other of the big parties does its political business. 

As a voter, the question I ask is this: which people will help our parliament to be the forum it ought to be – representative, open and inclusive, where good ideas are turned into good laws? It calls for voters to put aside old allegiances and see what’s on offer from the wide variety of candidates outside the big-party tent.

I favour candidates concerned about inaction over carbon emissions, environmental loss and social justice. They include fisherman Craig Garland in Braddon, Sue Woodbury (Animal Justice Party) and independent Roy Ramage in Bass, independent Francis Flannery and Mark Tanner (AJP) in Franklin, and Sharon McLay (AJP) in Lyons.

Clark is rich in quality independent candidates. Sue Hickey is best known for her trenchant criticism of the Gutwein government. Kristie Johnston has been an innovative Glenorchy mayor, while Mike Dutta and Jax Ewin are strong on social justice issues. Mental health advocate Lisa Gershwin also happens to be a world-leading marine biologist.

Besides favouring the Greens, the Flanagan revelations about salmon farming would be a leg up to candidates like Gershwin and Garland. Garland’s 2019 federal campaign against the salmon industry stopped the Liberals from winning Braddon.

There are doubtless candidates I’ve overlooked who can add lustre to our parliament. And I don’t discount individual MPs within the major parties who could shine if it wasn’t for the party heavies keeping a lid on independent thought.

In Tasmania in 2021, big-party politics is unfit for purpose. A parliament attuned to community needs must have more than a sprinkling of people able to think outside the box. It’s the only way to stop the steady decay of our body politic.

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The capitalist path to ecocide

We face a monumental choice: global capitalism or ecocide

Science has told us, repeatedly, that without a massive and unprecedented turnaround in the way human affairs are conducted over the next decade or two, we will not stop Earth becoming an uninhabitable hell.

What is preventing us from acting? Bill Clinton – “it’s the economy, stupid” – said 30 years ago that a malfunctioning economy was what stirred people to act. Now, after the world’s pandemic shock, he would probably have added human health.

“The economy” – how we manage and use resources – is in a strange place. The financial collapse of 2008, followed by multiple weather-related disasters and a global contagion, has left the world’s leaders in a complete muddle over how to get things moving again.

Leaders have responded to the pandemic by talking up the economy. They focus on moments of joy in stock, housing and employment data while ignoring underlying weaknesses. And they grease capitalism’s biggest wheels while oiling just enough smaller cogs to keep those big wheels moving.

All the while, the same capitalism that makes some of us rich is destroying us. Extreme inequality, with a handful of individuals each controlling more wealth than whole countries, is forcing more and more people into poverty. Over generations, this accelerating trend has left us ill-prepared to deal with the towering, all-embracing threat posed by climate change.

Looming alongside the climate crisis is a related threat: the global capitalist juggernaut. If capitalism and its false creed of endless growth is the cause of our climate mess, why on earth are we even imagining it can save us from it? If we can’t stop that juggernaut, global ecocide is staring us in the face.

The Extinction Curve, a new book by University of Tasmania criminology professor Rob White and Canberra sociologist John van der Velden, has gone into uncharted waters to explore how we survive today’s “climate endgame” to emerge better and stronger.

For half a century the Cold War drilled into our brains the message that capitalism encompassed all things good and socialism all things bad. Van der Velden and White beg to differ, describing a future underpinned by the six pillars of social life – water, air, food, energy, shelter and security – in which today’s dominant global capitalism has no place. 

We have already begun to travel down this road, they point out, starting with the 2008 financial crisis. Last year the Morrison government, confronted by the pandemic, driven by structural necessity and supported by business already facing growing labour-market disruption, “instantly converted to Keynesian-style socialists overnight”.

The government’s COVID-19 measures, says The Extinction Curve, were designed “to stem outright rebellion”, including money-printing and deficit financing to keep private enterprise afloat, and providing for basic social needs including a boost to unemployment benefits.

Those measures were a significant if limited nudge towards a universal basic income and an economy driven by government mandate. As White and van der Velden point out, they are all a pointer to a future without big capital.

As I write these words I sense a sharp intake of breath from readers for whom a non-capitalist economy is unimaginable. Think Russia, China, communist revolution, and the old socialist utopian dream which history tells us quickly dissipates, victim of greed, self-interest, factionalism and so forth.

But this revolution, driven by a changing climate and a degraded environment, is different. The threat to civilised life is starting to push humanity everywhere to transform how it organises itself. Without change at the top, without governments accepting and coordinating a transition to a new economy, unruly masses in streets will come into play.

White and van der Velden present a compelling argument that capitalism, which by its nature is private, secretive, competitive and authoritarian, is incapable of dealing with a situation demanding decision-making processes that are public, open, cooperative and democratic.

Governments’ fierce attachment to big capital and their persistent dismissal of expert advice have left little time to sort things out. Guided by party functionaries in bed with big business, they are now in an unholy alliance with authoritarian capitalism.

When they fully grasp the gravity of the situation, national and regional communities will move to protect economies and lives. Their goal will be positive, to build an open, democratic economy attending to essential human and planetary needs. But first they must smash that unhealthy nexus between government and big business. 

The revolution is under way. We won’t avoid conflict and radical change. The question is not whether we keep our old ways of doing business, but how we will deal with their demise.

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