Will the government stand up to be counted?

We need to learn lessons from the shameful behaviour of federal politicians in the face of the climate and energy crisis. We need leaders who understand where the real imperatives lie — and why action is the only game in town. [1 July 2008 | Peter Boyer]

I’ve always felt that serving the public good is a noble cause, so I’m happy to confess that I was a public servant for many years, in both state and commonwealth jurisdictions. Which gives me something of an insider’s perspective in writing about government.

POWER RATIONING, 1967-STYLE: The executive order that began power rationing in Tasmania (above) and a page-1 report in <em>The Mercury</em> of the crisis that precipitated the order.

POWER RATIONING, 1967-STYLE: The executive order that began power rationing in Tasmania (above) and a page-1 report in The Mercury of the crisis that precipitated the order.

I took the view that as a servant of government, along with judges and soldiers and politicians and the rest, I had an obligation to the people whose faith and money supported my job.

Public obligation was undoubtedly a prominent motive for the Tasmanian government during an earlier water crisis in 1967, when it issued an emergency order to restrict electricity use.

“Order no. 3”, signed by the then Hydro-Electric Commission’s head, Allan Knight, required all Tasmanians “to reduce their consumption of electricity by one fifth”, with the warning that “non-observance of this order may result in heavy penalties”.

This was an age when governments didn’t see a need for advertising spin on a decision requiring people to make do with less. Such an approach may seem utterly alien today, yet as the climate crisis bites harder, it is going to become less implausible.

The unedifying spectacle of the federal parliamentary fuel price debates confirmed, if we didn’t already know it, that politicians are fearful of taking unpopular stances even when the evidence in favour of this is frighteningly obvious.

Why was it so hard for Kevin Rudd to stare down a blatantly populist Opposition seeking to capitalise on rising costs? Why is a strong statement on the essential and urgent need to put a price on carbon so difficult? Why do so many politicians seem unable to understand the link between business-as-usual and a looming planetary catastrophe?

David Bartlett can take a lesson from this shameful political episode, and here’s why.

It is now beyond dispute that today’s carbon emissions will cause global temperatures to rise to around two degrees above pre-industrial levels. New scientific analysis says this level of warming is dangerous.

We need urgently to reverse our emissions trend. Yet current emission levels are well above last year’s “worst-case” scenarios, and classic warning signs such as depletion of Arctic ice are far more pronounced than envisaged only a couple of years ago.

Tasmania has long taken pride in a “clean, green” reputation. Climate change is the top conservation issue. Without credibility – without leadership – on climate change, Tasmania can forget its green reputation. We’ll be on the scrap heap with the rest of them.

We now have a new Premier whose pre-eminent public obligation is to make this state a world leader in combating climate change, building on his predecessor’s noteworthy initiatives.

It was the threat of a collapsing electrical supply system that prompted the 1967 rationing decision, but in 2008 David Bartlett can offer Tasmanians far more compelling reasons for acting decisively on climate. He needs to speak directly to Tasmanians about this and his long-awaited strategies to reduce energy demands and establish new, clean energy sources.

But above all he must act, and his bureaucratic servants and the rest of us must act with him. Because Planet Earth knows no other language.

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