Climate gets a leg up, but questions remain in the new government

Tasmania’s first climate change minister is a positive note for the new Labor-Green ministry, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. [27 April 2010 | Peter Boyer]

At last we have a government. A bit cobbled together, not a neat Labor or Liberal package like we’ve been used to, but it seems to have the parliamentary numbers, and we can reasonably expect it to continue as long as David Bartlett and Nick McKim can keep talking to each other.

Given the election outcome and the Liberals’ refusal to parley with the Greens, the Labor-Green alliance was unavoidable. What has come out of it is an experiment in government that Sir Humphrey Appleby of the BBC’s Yes Minister would have characterised as “courageous”.

As the Premier said, this has never been done before. Former Labor premier Michael Field (from whom he distanced himself last week) and the Liberals’ Tony Rundle each tried an alliance with the Greens, but in both cases the Greens were excluded from Cabinet.

Now, Nick McKim is Tasmania’s first Minister for Climate Change, and that in itself is something to celebrate. Lisa Singh, who despite putting much effort into climate change responsibilities in the previous government lost her seat in the elections, did not hold a climate portfolio in her own right.

In addition to climate change, McKim’s responsibilities also include community development, sustainable transport and alternative energy (an interesting adjective; “alternative” is not the same as “renewable”).

These responsibilties would seem to make him a principal driver in building a more resilient Tasmania, alongside the Premier who has taken on innovation, science and technology. If these two can combine in their “cutting-edge” roles, we might just see some progress on this front after years of it being treated as no more than a side-issue compared to “real” government business.

That said, there are many reasons to be concerned that the new structure has the potential to put the same impediments in the way of good climate-energy policy as was the case in the previous Bartlett government.

The first is the range of portfolio responsibilities that each minister must handle — a consequence of a reduced talent pool caused by the cynical, short-sighted decision in the late 1990s to cut the size of Parliament. With only ten lower-house and three upper-house seats available from which to choose ministers, Labor can well use Green expertise in Cabinet. Hopefully , that problem will be resolved in the not too distant future.

If Nick McKim’s climate and sustainability responsibilities are treated as they ought to be, they will be more than a full-time job. But he also has human services (itself a major portfolio responsibility), corrections and consumer protection to look after. His Greens colleague Cassy O’Connor as Cabinet Secretary will take responsibility for part of this, but his workload will still be enormous.

Implementing effective climate and energy policies necessarily touches on every portfolio responsibility of every minister, which is why Paul Lennon chose to locate responsibility for climate change policy within his own Premier’s Department. The ramifications are huge:

Lara Giddings (economic development and infrastructure) and Michael Aird (treasury and industry) need to steer their respective portfolio responsibilities in the direction of greater energy efficiency and a greener economy.

Bryan Green’s many responsibilities include the key portfolios of primary industries and water, energy and resources, local government and planning. If the government’s sustainability measures are to have any bite, he needs to ensure that mindsets are changed and resilience built into all these areas. He’ll need to move markedly from past positions if he’s to achieve any part of this.

David O’Byrne’s five portfolios include the key one of environment. He can expect to get some good advice on sustainability issues including climate, water quality, biodiversity and other natural systems, but a comprehensive climate policy demands a new level of coordination that’s not been obvious in the past.

• As health minister, Michelle O’Byrne may face climate-related health issues in this parliamentary term, but her most pressing concern may turn out to be in her tourism portfolio in the face of inevitable price rises for transport fuel as the impact of peak oil is felt on this vulnerable island. One of her first responsibilities should be to prepare strategies to manage this.

Lin Thorp (education and skills, children) may think she’s been spared any concern for climate, but the education of all people, especially children, is a key to galvanising communities to deal with the climate and energy crises. If she can give physical science and environmental awareness the status they deserve in our school curricula she will have done us all a great service.

What’s missing from this is energy conservation, which ought to be all governments’ primary focus in meeting the climate challenge, but has failed to get a look in as we continue on our ever-rising emissions path.

In choosing his ministry, David Bartlett may not have given much attention to any of these questions, which would be understandable after all the ferment of recent weeks. But he is a key to the success of climate, energy and sustainability policy, because only the Premier can apply authority across government. If ever there is to be a test of his leadership, this is it.

• CLIMATE, community and living sustainably are the subjects of a public event starting at 10 am on Saturday at the Dunalley Community Hall. The program covers potential effects on fishing and farming, gardening tips, and a bus tour of energy-efficient homes. For more information call 62535579.

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