The hard slog of changing entrenched attitudes

We need to acknowledge the effort and skill that went into achieving the “manifestly imperfect” forestry agreement. [7 May 2013 | Peter Boyer]

Three signatories of the Intergovernmental Forests Agreement: Vica Bayley (Wilderness Society, left), Terry Edwards (Forest Industries Association of Tasmania) and Phill Pullinger (Environment Tasmania). PHOTO ENVIRONMENT TASMANIA

What was that all about?

Did last week’s passage of the Tasmanian Forests Agreement Bill signify the end of the forest wars, as Premier Lara Giddings and federal environment minister Tony Burke would have us believe?

Was it, in the thunderous words of Opposition Leader Will Hodgman and his forestry spokesman Peter Gutwein, an “atrocious deal”, a “dark day” for Tasmania’s future, a fraud engineered by the Giddings government to keep Green MPs happy regardless of the economic cost?

Or was it, as past and present Greens leaders Peg Putt and Senator Christine Milne angrily asserted, a fraud on conservationists, a deliberate “recipe for failure” aimed at having logging resume on land earmarked for reservation as soon as federal money has been secured? Or as Richard Flanagan  (“I don’t agree”, Tasmanian Times)  contended: did those environmentalists who signed the agreement and voted for its enforcing legislation score “perhaps the greatest own goal in Australian political history”?

After parties to the Forests Agreement accepted the amended bill, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect at least a temporary ceasefire between warring factions. What we got instead, as the parliamentary debate drew to a close, was a mind-bending clamour from all sides. What does it mean when two camps at opposite poles — the Liberal Party and the activist vanguard of the conservation movement — both seem to believe passionately that the enabling legislation strikes at the heart of everything they hold dear? How could this be?

Passion is everywhere in this debate, but all the noise last week came from outside the negotiating tent. After all those years of hectoring and disputation and walk-outs from both sides of the table, the parties to the agreement were quiet, apparently united in accepting the final legislated outcome.

Within the Greens, passion was turned on their own as Milne and Putt took issue with the decision by four of the five Greens in state parliament to vote with the Giddings government, ensuring that all the Legislative Council’s amendments were passed into law.

Those Green MPs supporting the legislation, as their leader Nick McKim explained, were not unreasonably concerned that any attempt by the government to further modify the bill would have stirred anew the upper house hornets’ nest, bringing more long delays and raising the spectre of a complete collapse of the peace agreement.

He pursued and won concessions from Giddings and her Labor colleagues, including a mechanism for resolving disputes and National Parks and Wildlife Service custody of future reserved lands. He worked with Giddings to secure Forestry Tasmania’s pledge not to log those future reserves, and played a role in the acceptance by the agreement’s signatories of all the non-legislated outcomes. His achievement may seem shaky, at least compared with a legislated outcome. but the alternative was nothing at all, undoubtedly the preferred result for Hodgman and his party’s allies in the Legislative Council as it apparently was for McKim’s opponents in his own party.

In his public statements after the event we got a glimpse of McKim’s take on his party’s responsibility in minority government, which was as he saw it to work co-operatively with other Tasmanians to solve problems “rather than lobbing grenades from the trenches”.

This is a genuinely new direction for the Greens. Over decades, the party’s ideological positions were shaped by hostility towards a clearly defined enemy: institutions like Forestry Tasmania and Gunns Ltd, people like Paul Lennon and John Gay. The stance taken on this bill by the majority of Green MPs and the direction this signals is bound to compromise some treasured party positions and aggrieve some stalwarts, but it’s unavoidable if the Greens want to be taken seriously as a party of government. The only option is permanent opposition from the cross-benches

There’s the rub. Neither Milne nor Putt, for all their admirable qualities, has ever administered a government department or sat in a cabinet. The nearest either has come is Milne’s support of minority governments in Hobart and Canberra. McKim has taken that one crucial step further.

“Imperfect” was how McKim described the forest outcome during the House of Assembly debate, a sentiment echoed on the Mercury front page the next day. If ever a single word sums up the political process — all of it, not just the forest debate — that’s the one.

Last week, on the release by McKim’s deputy, Cassy O’Connor, of the “Low Carbon Tasmania” issues paper, I commended O’Connor for its focus on multiple practical outcomes, with detailed rationales and identification of annual emission savings.

This is a small step in the huge task of cutting carbon emissions. It’s true, as critics would have it, that an issues paper does not make a policy, just as a policy isn’t worth a lot until it’s implemented.

But governing effectively involves securing and holding the support of a multitude of shifting, often opposing interests. Advancing climate policy demands big paradigm shifts in the Giddings cabinet. O’Connor’s battle for effective measures is moving too slowly, but against all odds it’s moving.

Climate policy on the national stage has got its own issues, not least the huge amount of trust that’s being invested in a market mechanism to help sort things out. Relying as it does on rampant consumerism, the global free market is an unlikely agent for sustainability.

But whoever governs in Canberra after September, a workable mitigation policy requires that everyone knows the cost of carbon pollution. In government, Tony Abbott won’t shake off carbon pricing in some form any more than Will Hodgman will shrug off the forest wars. If elected, each of them will have to give ground and strike a new bargain with electors. I wish them luck, because they’ll need it.

Stabilising climate, ending ancient animosities in the forests or solving any other big, complex, entrenched problem requires people who, while always keeping the end-game in sight, know how to bargain, to concede ground for small gains, and despite obstacles to keep plugging away. That’s hard work, rarely appreciated and often attacked when it’s happening.

To those who brought the forest agreement to this point, even if it’s not the end of the story, I say well done. I trust that “Low Carbon Tasmania” will eventually — sooner rather than later — get the same dedicated attention.

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