Reflections on leadership in these perplexing times

In the face of growing carbon emissions, our national leaders expend energy on short-sighted follies, while another politician showing signs of leadership departs the scene. [3 June 2008 | Peter Boyer]

I’ve banged on a lot over recent months about how we must stop tolerating old political paradigms: the bluster, the half-truths, the delaying tactics. Nature, not artifice, is now dictating terms. Changing climate is taking our ships of state into uncharted waters.

But last week’s debate in Canberra rang some serious alarm bells. We have a long, long way to go.

Economic growth in China and India didn’t start yesterday. We’ve long known that growing economies increase the demand for oil, and we’ve known even longer that as the oil in the ground diminishes, extracting it will cost more.

So now, with the crunch upon us, why do we seem so surprised? Why are politicians on both sides of federal parliament behaving as if they can somehow bring the prices down? Or more to the point, as if they should?

The energy expended on this foolish debate could have gone into discussing long-term strategies for dealing with inevitable fuel shortages. Not road-building, but better mass-transit systems, urban re-design to lessen transport stress, rail and coastal shipping options.

In all the tumult, not a word from senior ranks of the major parties about any such thing, nor about preparing for energy scarcity, or the awful dangers of a destabilised climate, or coming together to give ourselves and our children a reasonable shot at a future.

Which brings me to our recently-departed Premier. In the noise of Paul Lennon’s departure we overlooked an initiative that was a cut above the kind of mindless mess that we saw in Canberra.

I met with the Premier last year – one of a series of meetings with Tasmanian political luminaries in which I sought to catch their attention about dangerous climate change. I wasn’t expecting much. But I was surprised to find that, unlike others, he listened.

I didn’t introduce Paul Lennon to the climate issue – he started our meeting by saying “I am not a climate sceptic” – but I like to think I helped strengthen his resolve to make Tasmania a “climate leader”.

His recent actions on climate change – the Crowley report and subsequent public service actions, the government emissions audit, establishment of the Climate Change Office in his own department, the move to legislate a 2050 emissions limit – were solid foundations for a government response that may well turn out to lead the Australian pack.

His last major project as Premier was a visit to New Zealand to investigate the potential of geothermal technology for Tasmania. Not a bad example for our Canberra masters.

These are early days, and his stance on other issues (trees and water come to mind) would really have tested his metal on climate change. He would have had to deal with some inherent contradictions by shifting ground on dearly-held beliefs.

But for all his warts, Paul Lennon’s climate initiatives in his premiership’s final months showed resolution, purpose and clear thinking – rare qualities in a political environment characterised by indecision, obfuscation and pretence. I thank him.

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