Pandemic opens door to fresh thinking

Our new premier has shown a refreshing capacity to treat situations on their merits and draw on professional advice – just what’s needed to manage the climate challenge

In 2020, a new Peter Gutwein has come to light.

Gone is the enforcer, a persona he carried all through his career as Will Hodgman’s treasurer. The new premier’s empathy, grit and grasp of the facts through these challenging times mark him as a leader of quality.

With the coronavirus fading (though not yet gone) as a direct health issue, a further huge challenge for our island will remain: to find a way through the wreckage of the old economy, to envision a new, post-pandemic one and then to get it moving.

One thing is clear: even if we wanted to, it will not be possible simply to revert to what we had before. The economy that we understood up to this time of calamity – which takes in drought and fire as well as pandemic – has gone forever, and its replacement will be a very different beast.

The first task of Tasmania’s recovery effort will be to work out how public and private wealth and wellbeing can be lifted out of its present hole. This seems to have been the premier’s thinking in announcing his “Economic and Social Recovery Advisory Council” last week.

Business and finance are represented by five of the council’s nine members, six if you include the chair, former treasury secretary Don Challen. Others are UTAS vice-chancellor Rufus Black, whose background includes marketing; former TasCOSS chief executive Kym Goodes, a strong advocate for vulnerable people; and Leanne McLean, children’s commissioner and a social policy expert.

Gutwein charged the council with working out how Tasmania can achieve “sustainable economic growth” while mitigating COVID-19’s social impacts, developing “a competitive and brand advantage”, and investigating job opportunities and “sustainable social initiatives”.

In these carbon-constrained times the premier should be questioning and qualifying the notion of sustainable growth. That aside, his “Economic and Social Recovery Advisory Council” looks equipped to handle that limited range of demands.

But deeper questions hang heavy in the air. The premier touched on this by calling on the council to find ways to “support and enable Tasmanians to take advantage of a different way of life and work and business, or to reinvent themselves in new and emerging industries”.

He left it open to the council to determine what life, work and business will look like in the new Tasmania, which will mean identifying the main long-term pressures, in addition to the pandemic, on today’s way of life.

Many such pressures pre-date COVID-19: poverty, homelessness, inequality, unemployment, under-employment, a casualised workforce, long supply chains, lack of local manufacturing to name a few. All of these will need to be addressed.

But the big one, looming over all, is nature’s response to human excesses – in short, climate change and the many things that hang off it, including natural disasters, the health of natural environments and ecosystems, our capacity to produce food and our total dependence on imported fossil fuel.

There is some comfort in knowing that the present economic shutdown has dramatically reduced global carbon emissions to a degree unimaginable at the start of this year. The International Energy Agency estimates that CO2 emissions will drop by eight per cent just this year.

We can expect that to continue well into next year and maybe beyond. That would be about the level of decline needed over most of the next decade to get down to “safe” limits, but it is exactly the opposite what every business and political leader is advocating.

This will be the challenge for the premier’s recovery council. The impact of climate change, already being felt in our economic and social life, will only grow over time. The council will have to reckon with that, yet it lacks anyone who can help it understand the nature and depth of that challenge.

This should not stop it from consulting scientific expertise and exploring existing proposals addressing such climate challenges as transitioning away from fossil fuels, supporting more climate-friendly agriculture, and addressing our notoriously high levels of waste.

The coronavirus, which evidence shows originated in nature and not a laboratory as some politicians have claimed, has succeeded in knocking out the global economy and causing general chaos. Climate change is another force of nature. Accelerated by carbon emissions from regrowing economies, it will deliver the same, and much more.

Peter Gutwein has shown he is able to abandon partisan mindsets and treat a situation on its merits alone, drawing on the best professional advice – exactly the kind of mental agility and resilience we will need at the top as the climate challenge rolls over the top of the post-pandemic recovery.

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