Gutwein must bring the parliament together

The action demanded by the climate crisis will not happen if the parliament cannot find agreement on the fundamentals.

Time marches on, emissions keep rising and the climate keeps changing. But some things don’t change, like old political habits.

It is well over 11 precious years since parliament passed Tasmania’s first climate change legislation – a framework that included a distant 2050 target and an advisory “action council”, but little else. But you have to start somewhere.

But since then, nothing much. Half a dozen strategies have come and gone. The advisory council was axed in 2014. Meanwhile in Canberra the parliament has twice voted down carbon pricing, first in the form of an emissions trading bill and then as a fully functioning tax-trading scheme.

Whatever the Morrison government salvages out of its climate policy shambles, it has shown it cannot do any heavy lifting on emissions. So on top of an array of social and economic issues, Tasmania’s new premier must now get serious about climate change.

For this, it is not enough for Peter Gutwein to have just his own party on side. If the sorry history of climate policy shows anything, it is that when parliament is divided, nothing happens.

There are hopeful signs. Greens leader Cassy O’Connor, keen to see the government take climate change seriously, says she is prepared to give him some slack. When Labor’s Alison Standen demanded a climate portfolio, the premier promptly obliged – and put himself in charge.

In 2008 Paul Lennon took on climate responsibilities, but not a ministry, just before resigning. David Bartlett had a parliamentary secretary for climate change (Lisa Singh), and Greens leader Nick McKim, followed by O’Connor, were climate change ministers under Lara Giddings.

Peter Gutwein is the first Liberal premier to recognise climate change as worthy of its own portfolio, and the first premier in any party to give himself the role of minister. That’s a big tick.

But lasting, substantial reforms require new laws. Despite its title the 2008 “state action” act is ineffectual. A review that began in 2016 is still in progress, a sign that the Hodgman government found it all too hard. Now Gutwein must bite the bullet.

He has plenty to work with. The review includes a 2016 report by the Jacobs Group, with five substantive recommendations, and 40 written submissions from individuals and organisations.

He also has a government response to the Jacobs report accepting three recommendations outright and the other two in principal. That response is now nearly three years old. We were supposed to get the chance last year to comment on proposed new legislation, but no bill has yet emerged.

Others have stepped into that space. At least two new climate change bills are in the pipeline, but they’re drafted by the Greens and independent MP Madeleine Ogilvie, and in a parliament dominated by the major parties such minority initiatives tend to be ignored.

They shouldn’t be. Present circumstances demand that all political and policy resources are brought to bear on a wicked problem, as if we were on a war footing – because that’s the nearest analogy to our present climate emergency.

Ogilvie sees her bill as a device to secure a “fully fledged commitment” from the government. Her relatively simple proposal is to amend the present Act by mandating a 2040 zero emissions target and establishing an advisory climate change commission.

The Greens’ much more comprehensive plan seeks a wholly new “Climate Emergency Act” mandating a parliamentary standing committee, an independent climate advocacy commission to encourage business and community action, and four-yearly “emissions abatement plans” for each economic sector.

The Greens’ draft includes mechanisms for securing and protecting carbon sequestration, including soil carbon agreements and covenants with landowners, and declaration of carbon reserves. It also provides for five-yearly state and municipal climate adaptation plans.

Another element to this, which either bill could be extended to encompass, is the need flagged in Climate Tasmania’s proposal for a “just transition”, noting the considerable financial cost burden on Tasmanians that will result from the inevitable shift to electric vehicles.

Peter Gutwein faces a Legislative Council that has completely shaken off its old conservative mantle. Its approach to environmental issues today is such that it would be no surprise to see a radical new climate bill emerge from that chamber, with no government input.

Given his precarious lower-house majority this should encourage the new premier to drop his government’s pretence that it has climate change under control, sit down with political enemies and seek a whole-of-parliament legislative solution. It’s the only way it can be made to stick.

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