What happens when the buzz goes away?

Will Hodgman has achieved his life’s ambition, but we know little about what he has in store for us. [18 March 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Well, here we are then. Will Hodgman, flanked by deputy leader Jeremy Rockliff and treasurer-to-be Peter Gutwein, in a brief post-election meeting with senior public servants (L to R) Phil Foulston (director, Executive Division), Rhys Edwards (secretary, Department of Premier and Cabinet) and Tony Ferrall (secretary of Treasury). MERCURY/NEWSCORP AUSTRALIA

At last, Australia’s most experienced opposition leader has won the prize for which he’s been preparing most of his adult life.

Will Hodgman’s premiership realises a dream of political power that the Hodgman dynasty has entertained since the 1960s, when Will’s grandfather Bill unsuccessfully battled Angus Bethune for leadership of the Liberal Party.

It must be a huge buzz for him. But I’m interested in what happens after the buzz has gone, in the dreams that Will and his newly-minted “strong, stable majority government” may have, not for themselves, but for Tasmania.

The Liberals targeted their “Five Point Action Plan” carefully: for tourism operators, more marketing money; for law-and-order types, more police; for small business, less red and “Green” (note the capital) tape; for the health-impaired, more elective surgery… that sort of thing.

Such standard election fare says little about what kind of Tasmania is on offer. We’re entitled to expect the new government to look beyond the next election, to offer new paradigms that can serve us at least for the next decade.

There was a bit of this in “The Plan”. There was the laudable aim of a single state-wide planning scheme, along with an “agri-vision” for ten times today’s agricultural production by 2050. Though in the latter case there’s very little to indicate how so remarkable a goal will be reached.

Then there were the forests. The Liberals would probably rate as visionary their promise to investigate energy from burning waste wood, but the plan tells us nothing about how it might work, economically or practically.

The promise to “rip up” the Tasmanian Forest Agreement isn’t vision but vandalism, threatening to wreck what’s left of an industry the Liberals say they support. There was no backdown on election night; astoundingly, the Liberals still seem to think it’s a good idea.

But for all the blaze of publicity around plans, we know next to nothing about the thinking, the world-view that will define the new government. That bit of the narrative has yet to be filled out.

Will Hodgman now has the wider audience that every politician craves, and he got it without offering any comprehensive alternative vision for Tasmania. It’s a blank slate that could yet turn out to his advantage if he was of a mind to surprise us with some innovative, lateral thinking.

The blankest part of the slate is climate policy. Both Hodgman and his environment minister-to-be, Matthew Groom, say they’re committed to effective action to reduce carbon emissions. But so does the prime minister, and no-one’s under any illusion that Tony Abbott will actually do anything.

Groom has avoided committing to the comprehensive “Climate Smart” strategy approved under Giddings after exhaustive public consultation, and like the Abbott government, Hodgman’s Liberals will abolish climate agencies set up under Paul Lennon in 2008. These are troubling signs.

A raft of policies on food production and local industry, including $10 million to continue the innovative “Sense-T” intelligent sensor network, may in time reduce our emissions bottom line, but none is calculated to have any immediate impact.

Hodgman’s Liberals will pursue a second Basslink cable to allow Tasmania to export more renewable energy, will support more farm and forest biomass energy, and will seek to “maximise” renewable energy in Tasmania, though we have no detail as to what this will entail.

Tasmania stands to lose around $70 million annually, paid out of carbon tax revenue to Hydro Tasmania for the renewable energy it produces, if Tony Abbott’s tax repeal bills pass. If that deficit ever gets linked to higher electricity bills the Liberals will be hard pressed to avoid blame.

You get the feeling that Hodgman, like most Australian politicians, sees climate and sustainability policies as a second-order issue. With every year that passes the shortcomings of such thinking become increasingly obvious. I hope and trust he’ll come to see that too.

The Liberals won this election because Labor’s time was up. While Team Hodgman ran a disciplined, well-resourced campaign and stuck to its time-honoured storybook, Labor looked and sounded tired, disunited and without a narrative to save itself.

What else can be said of Lara Giddings and her lost government? There were many false steps, but also much she can be proud of, achieved under financial duress. Add to that the handicap of a back-room and media campaign from Labor diehards that ultimately forced her to turn on the Greens.

The diehards’ notion about returning to party roots is delusionary and futile. A conservation-worker alliance underpinned Labor’s national success in the 1980s and 1990s. Tasmanian Labor has always liked to see itself as above such arrangements, but that’s a luxury it can no longer afford.

Despite the huge benefit Tasmania could derive from the forest agreement and the Climate Smart strategy, both look destined for history’s dustbin. But whatever their fate, we should acknowledge their value and honour them as signal achievements of a functioning Labor-Green partnership.

The Greens have problems, but vision and narrative aren’t among them. That much was clear from a set speech by leader Nick McKim during the campaign that drew together stories of real-world examples of innovation and creativity that Tasmanian governments need to foster and encourage.

But the resonance of that speech stayed with the Greens, because the Greens are seen as a world apart. As they lick their wounds, they must take a hard look at that brand, so precious to the likes of an old hand like Kim Booth, now in a battle for the fifth seat in Bass.

Booth has always opposed the alliance with Labor, but a retreat to squeaky-clean, glorious isolation is not an option. Tomorrow’s Greens have to learn to live with dirty hands.

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1 Response to What happens when the buzz goes away?

  1. Toni McLean says:

    “Booth has always opposed the alliance with Labor, but a retreat to squeaky-clean, glorious isolation is not an option. Tomorrow’s Greens have to learn to live with dirty hands.”.
    Couldn’t agree more – even though I don’t like it. It seems to me the only way The Greens can make a real difference is to be in government, not on the sidelines. It looks like we are going back to the Greens being just a noisy lobby group now that Kim Booth is the new leader. As an aside, his hypocritical starting point re the need for a leader doesn’t augur well.

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