New premier, new opportunities

Peter Gutwein’s path as premier will be a rocky one. He will need help from every quarter.

Who would have thought? Climate change is finally high on the agenda of global capitalism.

It is triggering “a fundamental reshaping of finance”, the world’s biggest funds manager, BlackRock, told investors last week, while the Bank of International Settlements (the Reserve Bank is one of its members) stated officially that climate change could bring down whole economies.

Yet another reason, on top of countless others, for leaders to sit up and take notice. Our fiery summer has made climate change the top policy issue for every government in the country.

We must hope that in his previous gig as environment minister, new premier Peter Gutwein became super-aware of what’s happening out in the landscape. After last summer’s disasters, Tasmanians are alert to the fear felt in other states right now. Regional Australia’s crisis belongs to us all.

The gap between the political establishment and climate reality was never so evident as in last year’s aimless state parliamentary debates about whether we’re in a climate emergency. Of course we are; the only question is what we do about it.

The fires brought renewed finger-pointing: Liberals blaming Greens for everything, Greens taking the high moral ground, a hapless Labor somewhere between. So it goes on, resulting in … nothing.

No politician is innocent of mindless partisan point-scoring, but in my line of interest some are less innocent than others. When scientists and fire chiefs clearly say that fuel loads are a distant third behind heat and dryness as reasons for the fires’ severity, it is reprehensible for some Liberals to heap blame for the fires on concocted “Green Left” opposition to off-season burning.

This sort of diversionary tactic has been the hallmark of responses by Australian governments to climate change. Now, a new premier has the opportunity to change that, to stop the political posturing and start listening to science.

Peter Gutwein wants to be remembered for responsible, effective climate policy, and has started well by awarding himself the climate change portfolio. But climate change is a tough political gig. He will have to be brave, prepared for hard decisions and a bumpy electoral ride.

Emissions targets have to be about real emissions, not the smoke-and-mirrors we’re used to. They must be ambitious, both near-term and long-term. And government and business alike, top to bottom, must apply and monitor them routinely and rigorously.

For most of its six years in office the Hodgman government has been “reviewing” the Climate Change Act. Yet in all this time its only contribution to this outdated legislation has been to abolish the state’s climate advisory council in 2014, as if it knew it all and needed no help.

We need wholly new climate legislation which formalises a role for expert advice, acknowledging that politicians can’t make sensible decisions on their own about the complex changes ahead of us.

The new act must recognise that managing water resources involves more than building dams, and that carbon-rich native forests must be kept safe from logging. One way to minimise that pressure point would be to provide forest workers with alternative employment in bushfire protection.

It must address our state’s chief pollution source, fossil fuel use in transport and industry, while protecting less well-off Tasmanians in the transition to a clean economy. This is not a trivial issue, as Climate Tasmania (the volunteer successor to that abolished advisory council) has been telling MPs in face-to-face meetings for the past 12 months.

Last week three veteran scientists – David Bowman of the University of Tasmania, Will Steffen of ANU, and Tom Beer, who foresaw worsening fire seasons over 30 years ago when he was a CSIRO scientist – had their “I told you so” moment. But it wasn’t something any of them celebrated.

“Climate change is fuelling the national bushfire catastrophe, and it will get worse without radical action,” they said in a prepared statement. That action calls for government to stop pointing at others and to step out in front, encouraging administrations everywhere to do the same.

Peter Gutwein’s brand new agenda necessarily includes important social and economic measures, but whether he likes it or not climate change will define his premiership. Its impact, already colossal and growing, calls for a response right across the parliament and the state.

If the new premier can see this, if he grasps the climate nettle and engages with his political opponents and the wider community to draw on the state’s rich array of talent, he will have a fighting chance of success. If not, he is headed down the path to mediocrity. His choice.

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