Are the Liberals developing a green tinge?

A notable change of tack for the new Tasmanian premier

A lifetime ago when I was a boy and the Beatles were just local lads, I remember live radio broadcasts of town hall speeches in which our eternal prime minister Bob Menzies aimed deadly verbal barbs at noisy, vulgar Laborites. I thought he was sensational.

My father was from a farming family while my mother worked for her father’s farm produce business, a background that virtually guaranteed their political preferences would be firmly in the blue corner. So that’s where I started.

For both my parents, a love of natural Tasmania was in harmony with their politics. In the early 1960s, encompassing a budding environment movement, Liberals under Menzies supported the newly-formed Australian Conservation Foundation, with Prince Phillip as its first patron.

My parents reached a crossroads in the 1980s. In a letter to the Mercury my octogenarian father invoked “spirits of the forest” rising in righteous wrath against Liberal premier Robin Gray’s attitude to environmentalism. In their last years of life they were lost to the Liberal party.

Decades on, the rhetoric is more strident, the battlelines more defined. Liberals talk about “Green-Left extremists” wanting to shut down the economy, and the “extremists” respond in kind, talking of a Liberal-corporate conspiracy that is wrecking the environment and endangering our future.

Now, an invigorated new premier has sprung out of the blocks with something new to Tasmanian Liberals since Robin Gray – an invitation to conservatives like my late parents, alienated from the party by their feelings for the natural environment, to return to the fold.

Peter Gutwein covered a lot of ground in his State of the State address last week. He responded to our waste crisis, caused by other countries rejecting our exported garbage, by promising a container refund scheme by 2022 and a long-overdue waste levy to fund reuse and recycling schemes.

In the wake of a fiery summer he promised streamlined processes and more resources to reduce fuel loads and make firebreaks, better resources for remote fire-fighting, use of Indigenous fire practices and know-how, and a new emergency response hub.

Finally, climate change. In response to public submissions calling for a more ambitious emissions target, he undertook to investigate how the state might bring forward its existing target of zero net emissions by 2050, to inform amendments to the Climate Change Act.

He promised to “lead by example” by completing the state’s network of fast-charging electric vehicle stations and transitioning the government’s car fleet to “low-emissions” vehicles.

And the big one: a doubling of renewable energy generation under a new clean energy target of 200 per cent of our energy needs by 2040. While it would allow wriggle room for growth domestically, that promise is really aimed at the energy export market using a second mainland interconnector.

Production of hydrogen both for domestic use and export, with help from a $50 million support package, is a feature of the Gutwein agenda along with more wind, solar and “battery of the nation” pumped hydro.

Peter Gutwein claimed for his government an “impressive” climate record, listing zero net emissions, dramatic emissions cuts since 1990, lowest per capita emissions in Australia and putting Tasmania among “the lowest net emitters of carbon dioxide on the planet”.

Let’s not get too carried away. None of those claims, true or not, results from committed, decisive action by the government. Claims about lowered emissions are based almost entirely on a drop-off in native forest logging, and the premier has not reconciled that with his government’s determination to see this industry revived.

The transition away from fossil-fuelled transport, our biggest source of emissions, got only superficial attention from the premier. And neither pumped hydro nor hydrogen production has yet been shown to be cost-effective for Tasmania. Hydrogen production is a sunrise industry that will be using emerging and uncosted technologies.

The premier’s speech leaves many questions unanswered and tough policy issues unaddressed. But after years of silence from an unresponsive government, it comes as a breath of fresh air to hear a Liberal leader speak of climate change mitigation as if it really matters. And it does, a lot.

Peter Gutwein’s speech has opened a door to advocates for natural systems and climate action. How wide the door is opened and how long it stays that way will be the real test of his premiership.

• DEMOCRACY in a Changing Climate (6 pm tonight, UTAS Stanley Burbury Theatre, Sandy Bay) explores the risks to political and social stability posed by climate change. All welcome.

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