Majority government: the debate we don’t need

We don’t need the posturing and party games of Lara Giddings and Will Hodgman. We need responsible government. [4 March 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Candidates at the Climate Action Hobart forum on 27 February (L to R): Cassy O’Connor (Greens), Madeleine Ogilvie (Labor), Matthew Groom (Liberal, to right of speaker), Mark Grube (Palmer United) and Shaine Stephen (Socialist Alliance).  PHOTO KATE WILLIS

Every election has its straw men, made to look scary but actually innocuous. The preferred one for this Tasmanian election is minority government.

For four years it’s been a particular favourite of opposition leader Will Hodgman. Now Labor’s joined in, loudly proclaiming at Sunday’s campaign launch that it would govern alone or not at all

Parties like to have government to themselves because it saves having to deal outside the tent. But democracy doesn’t always play ball; in fact single-party governments are the exception more than the rule in western democracies. The present UK government is a coalition, as is Australia’s.

The Australian coalition is unique, I hear you say, in that its parties have a common world view. Maybe, but that wasn’t always so. In the 1940s the conservative side of politics in this country was a squabbling rabble. The parties came together because the alternative was permanent opposition.

As we know, in 2010 Tasmanian electors returned a deadlocked parliament. It happens. When the Liberals refused to countenance coalition, Labor and the Greens gave it a go. They’d been fighting for years so the alliance wasn’t expected to last, yet it endured nearly four years.

A coalition government won’t happen this time, Giddings and Hodgman told each other in an election debate last week. Giddings is now treating the Greens as pariahs, just a few months after she said she had no issues with her Green ministers, Nick McKim and Cassy O’Connor.

The sudden breakup of the alliance was pure political theatre, demanding a huge suspension of disbelief. One moment McKim and O’Connor were fully-functioning ministers; the next they were out the door and persona non grata.

As I’m sure Giddings is aware, it doesn’t add up. The two Greens had managed departmental issues competently. While opting out of cabinet on a few issues that went against core party values, they had been team players, compromising as necessary and accepting corporate responsibility.

The Labor-Green alliance had to happen to ensure the election produced a government. It gave the Greens a better appreciation of government’s complexity, while Labor discovered some good in the Green view of things. Out of this came benefits for the rest of us, such as the forest agreement.

Parties’ internal logic, driven by ideology and ambition, sees the complication of inter-party alliances as inherently bad. But voters are a step removed from such things, and for my money Giddings’ backflip cost her out in the electorate.

Last Thursday evening she had a chance to start rebuilding electoral credibility, at Climate Action Hobart’s well-attended public forum to discuss climate policy. It covered the full gamut of opinion from Palmer United (represented by Mark Grube) to the Socialist Alliance’s Shaine Stephen.

O’Connor was there, impassioned and well-informed. Giddings, having taken over from O’Connor as climate change minister, should have been there too, but instead Denison Labor candidate Madeleine Ogilvie stood in for her and apologised for her absence.

Ogilvie made the right noises. Labor, she said, rates climate change as “a major threat to our way of life and our economy”. She reiterated Labor commitment to Climate Smart Tasmania, a whole-of-government strategy that O’Connor brought to cabinet late last year.

The Liberals could not have found a better representative in their ranks than Matthew Groom. He spoke with authority about the renewable energy market, underlined by a previous career as a wind-power consultant, and said he wants effective emission cuts. But questions remained unanswered.

Groom would not back the Climate Smart strategies, which arose out of an intensive, year-long process of public consultation. Nor would he commit to keep the agencies that put them together, the Climate Change Office and the Climate Action Council. And then there was the carbon tax.

When shadow treasurer Peter Gutwein pointed a finger at Giddings after Moody’s Investor Services lowered the state’s debt outlook from stable to negative last week, he ignored Moody’s point that a factor in its decision was the hit to Hydro revenues from abolition of the carbon tax.

Groom knows that our renewable-rich state needs renewable energy and carbon pricing schemes. He accepts the dismantling of carbon pricing, but told Thursday’s forum that the state liberals would be pressing strongly to keep the Renewable Energy Target (RET).

This isn’t enough. Review submissions and discrete conversations won’t cut it with a prime minister whose drive to “axe the tax” borders on the religious. Abbott will stick with that policy just as he’s sticking with his paid parental leave scheme in the face of near-revolt among backbenchers.

The state Liberals can’t change Abbott’s mind on the carbon tax and will be pushing uphill to save the RET, at great cost to Tasmania. All they can do is to show their concerns to voters through a strong and public declaration of opposition. If they don’t, it will count against them in the polls.

If they gain office it will be a hollow victory, compromised from the start by their failure to grasp that a vibrant, sustainable Tasmanian economy depends on leadership by example and a well-considered, fully-integrated climate policy.

Many people in both Liberal and Labor camps, while they may accept the truth of human-induced warming, can’t bring themselves to give climate change top priority because that would seem to give a leg up to the party that’s championed this cause more than any other, the Greens.

The tragic result of this is that the biggest, most pressing and most fundamental issue facing any party aspiring to office in Australia is treated as a second-order issue. Or as no issue at all: a fabrication of the green-left fringe.

You’ll need to register by Friday if you want to attend the National Community Gardens Conference, in Hobart from March 23, which will explore urban agriculture and feature leading Australian food garden innovators.

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