Some things are too serious for party games

The journey to common ground is a slow and tortuous process.

Education minister Simon Birmingham and PM Malcolm Turnbull celebrate the passage of Gonski 2.0 legislation last week. PHOTO AAP

Education minister Simon Birmingham and PM Malcolm Turnbull find something to laugh about after the passage of Gonski 2.0 legislation last week. PHOTO AAP

The big lesson from the parliamentary deliberations in Canberra and Hobart last week is that in the face of public division, the reasonable middle ground can still hold sway.

In Canberra, a government victory for its schools package set David Gonski’s needs-based funding model in concrete, however imperfectly, reversing a historic trend in school funding that has produced a notoriously inequitable education system.

Bill Shorten and his education shadow minister Tanya Plibersek bitterly contested the bill, arguing that it cut overall funding. But that’s party politics. Malcolm Turnbull’s policy reversal on schools was a win for equity; Labor should embrace it and then work to improve things.

In Hobart the Legislative Council tossed out two government bills, one to allow special-species logging in World Heritage-listed forests and the other to remove a judge’s discretion in determining punishment for child sex offenders, requiring a prison term in all cases.

Another contentious Hodgman government bill is under a cloud after debate was delayed until August. The bill, seeking to exempt from prosecution for offending people statements made for religious purposes, has been strongly opposed by minority groups.

The Hodgman government has vowed to continue pursuing all these issues, but the parliament has determined the middle ground. The government would be well advised to move on.

Which brings me to climate change.

It’s 25 years this month since Australia and other nations at the Rio Earth Summit, accepting scientific evidence, agreed to do all they could to prevent human greenhouse emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels, from destabilising global climate. That’s a quarter of a century to do what we said we’d do. Plenty of time to get things right.

Yet with emissions remaining stubbornly high we still have no national strategy and no economy-wide levers to bring them down. Multiple federal and state jurisdictions are failing to fulfil their obligations.

We demand a solid baseline position across the party divide on school funding and Medicare. Is it too much to demand agreement on essential climate measures?

Opposing parties are at the heart of our Westminster system, and I’m not suggesting that each side should stop identifying with particular causes for electoral gain, as Shorten and Plibersek were trying to do over school education, and resources minister Guy Barnett over forest harvesting.

But for everything worth pursuing there comes a time when divisive debate must end. We know we’re at that point when the noise of claim and counter-claim – parties staking out their territories – drowns out sound logic and underlying messages.

All these debates – public versus private school funding, forest conservation versus harvesting, mandatory versus discretionary sentencing, special treatment for religions and climate mitigation – have been sapping the energy of our parliaments for far longer than they should.

For the record, I believe it was a mistake to offer public funds to private schools in the first place. I think that logging and wilderness values cannot coexist, that there should be no protection for religious bigotry, and that judicial discretion is essential to good governance.

I know that others genuinely see things differently, so in a spirit of finding common ground I accept (with limitations) aid to private schools, allowances made for forest harvesting and religious communities, and a political interest in judicial processes.

As for climate, science tells us that we are in a full-blown global crisis. Most people in authority sense this but the political discourse doesn’t accommodate existential threat. In the game of politics everything is a matter of opinion, responsibility can be passed on, and delay matters little.

So we search for a reasonable middle ground, a place from where there can be no retreat, such as the retreat that happened in 2014 when Australia ditched its carbon price.

Perhaps the Clean Energy Target recommended by chief scientist Alan Finkel will be that middle ground, but a decision has been postponed another couple of months. That’s politics.

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