The Premier’s brave plunge into uncertainty

Climate change presents an unfamiliar challenge to the Tasmanian government. [11 March 2008 | Peter Boyer]

Paul Lennon’s first serious foray into the uncertain field of climate change politics, outlined in his “Preparing Tasmania for tomorrow” speech to Parliament last week, is a mixture of boldness and caution.

A few points in his climate agenda will need a serious second look down the track a bit. But the overwhelming sense is positive – relief that the Tasmanian government appears bent on serious action and that it’s opening up to ideas from all quarters to make it happen.

Lennon’s program on climate, which he calls “the challenge of the future”, contains much to admire, notably the commitment to turn his government into a model for the rest of the state to follow.

His determination to give Tasmania a leading position in a national and global agenda are supported by a tough timetable to put the government’s house in order – and to do it in record-breaking time.

Dr Kate Crowley’s “Framework for Action” to reduce the government’s greenhouse emissions – the basis of the Premier’s internal action plan – is hard-hitting and carefully directed.

The Premier announced that Crowley, a senior academic with the University of Tasmania’s School of Government, will be heading up an independent “Tasmanian Climate Action Council” to advise, monitor and report on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The target of her report is a naturally conservative bureaucracy, trained to chew over the big issues carefully before committing itself to action. But with no time to wait, as she told me after the Premier’s speech, the bureaucracy is already primed and on the move.

With senior departmental managers seconded to climate change planning duties, agencies have until the end of this month to complete their first report on reducing emissions, and until the end of June to complete a “culture change” consultation with employees.

The Crowley framework includes offsetting – purchase of actions such as tree-planting, to reduce greenhouse gases by the amount being used by the purchaser – but only as a final resort and where it’s impossible to cut emissions.

Mainly used to cover air travel, offsetting has attracted controversy because of the difficulty of keeping track of what’s been bought, and the danger that it will lead to inaction on reducing emissions.

The Premier announced it would join with Greening Australia – the first such partnership by any state government – to fund revegetation work to offset the government’s air travel. If you’re going to offset emissions, this isn’t a bad way to go – but as the Crowley report says it must be the last resort.

The other major caveat in the Premier’s speech is the target to be legislated (only the second state after South Australia to put a target into legislation). A 60 per cent reduction by 2050 is in line with the Rudd government’s stated goal, but it won’t be enough.

But it’s a good start. Tasmania’s on the march, and we must hope the Premier holds his nerve.

A model for all Tasmanians?

The Crowley Framework report seeks to put the Tasmanian government in the vanguard of Australian and world efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to create a model for all Tasmanian organisations and individuals to follow.

It’s a bold claim whose success will take time to determine, but it has set ambitious standards and timetables to match the rhetoric.

The Lennon government believes that Tasmania’s relatively small size will be an advantage in its aim to lead the rest of the country.

It sees its leadership in actually cutting emissions, in providing incentives for effective action, in the speed of its responses (“fast, lean”), in cutting across agency boundaries, and in the high level of consultation across government and into the wider community.

The team-based, risk-taking approach with firm targets is said in the report to be “a unique approach that will respond to the public sense of urgency”.

“This is a risk-taking approach in the sense that the government will learn by doing, under public scrutiny… in a way that will draw the community, business and industry into contributing as well,” the report says.

The reports advocates a fully transparent, accountable approach both within and outside the public service, in which public disclosure will be followed by a series of “What we’ve learned” reports, to outline what did and did not work.

Where the government leads, local government and other business, industry and community organizations are expected to follow, in preparation for the massive changes to come with the introduction of the Federal government’s emissions trading scheme in 2010.

A tough timetable for government reform

The Crowley “Framework for Action” lays down an ambitious timetable for major changes to the way the Tasmanian government and public service go about their business.

• By the end of this month, key agencies are to have identified barriers and developed incentives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

• By the end of June, government employees will have submitted ideas for cutting emissions in a bottom-up consultative process – a departure from traditional top-down bureaucratic procedure.

• By September agencies, with specialist help, will have formulated “ambitious targets”.

• By December the agencies will have taken the first actions to meet the targets.

• Next year will see phase two of the Framework agenda, in which all government agencies will be expected to be fully addressing targets.

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