Gutwein can claim leadership – but not yet

Like the pandemic, climate change demands a public discourse free of spin

Once the place where bright ideas went to be strangled, Tasmania’s Legislative Council has gradually become transformed into a parliamentary forum where alternative thinking is tolerated, even quietly encouraged.

Our upper house of parliament has always kept partisanship in check. Its long-standing majority of independent members, always an irritant to governments of any kind, has been increasingly effective at improving flawed bills and rejecting bad ones.

This month’s elections for the seats of Huon and Rosevears suggest that our parliament’s most venerable chamber, dating back nearly two centuries, is about to be transformed again when members representing parties outnumber independents for the first time, eight to seven.

While this may reduce diversity of opinion among members, it may not have as much impact on legislation as might appear. Non-party members will still outnumber each party taken separately, and it’s possible that the chamber’s independent tradition will infect some party members.

I hope so. I was once firmly convinced that parties were the only option for organising our political landscape (I even joined one once, for a few years) because they help stabilise situations that can be volatile, even chaotic. Politics tends to be an unruly beast.

Now I’m not so sure. Parties may still help to corral MPs and bolster government order and stability, but there are increasing signs that they are also debasing public discourse and preventing essential reforms from happening.

The present COVID-19 emergency has featured daily media conferences led by political leaders and appointed experts, along with dialogues between PM Scott Morrison and Victoria’s Labor premier Dan Andrews. Which goes to show that in an emergency parties can suspend hostilities, join forces and open up public debate on practical steps out of the crisis.

For years now we have been in another emergency, with an impact far bigger and longer-lasting than the pandemic, in which open public dialogue and transparent cooperation are desperately needed. Yet climate policy continues to be bedevilled by partisan politics.

For years now, governments on both sides of the political divide have used complexities inherent in determining carbon emissions to disguise the shortcomings of their respective policies. This has become increasingly blatant as the years have passed, such that now both federal and Tasmanian governments repeatedly pass off ineffectual policies as roaring successes.

Six weeks ago, premier Peter Gutwein claimed that Tasmania leads the world because it achieved net zero emissions four years running. He repeated that claim last week in front of students of Huonville High School, famous for its own work in cutting emissions.

In these pages on 31 July, former climate scientist John Hunter, a colleague of mine on the policy advisory group Climate Tasmania, detailed why that claim misrepresented the real picture.

Hunter pointed out that since the early 1990s five-year averages of emissions from Tasmanian energy production, industry and agriculture have actually risen about 6 per cent, and that far from leading the world in reducing emissions, Tasmanians per capita are among the big polluters.

Gutwein’s assertion rests on imprecise data about the take-up of carbon dioxide by recovering forests after native forest logging halved around 2010. The Labor opposition is aware of this but has not pressed the issue hard. Perhaps it wants the right to use the same sleight of hand when in government.

All this contrasts starkly with the premier’s response to the pandemic threat. Early on, under pressure from Canberra, industry leaders and elements within the State party, he held firm to the advice coming from public health experts, and earned high praise from the Tasmanian public.

There are shades of grey in many things and we should on occasions allow governments a little slack. But the matter of carbon emissions is not one of those things. When it comes to our future, those emissions really matter.

Political parties exist in an intellectual and emotional bubble, where leaders and membership alike seek to distinguish themselves from others. Most of the time that’s acceptable, but major crises call for ideological barriers to be crossed.

Peter Gutwein has a choice. He can lead for his party, taking advice only from those within his own political circle and using hubris and spin to make it look better than it is. Or he can continue on the path he took for the coronavirus pandemic, heeding expert, objective advice, and lead for all of us.

All the state’s resources must be in play to deal with climate change, calling for political unity and a public discourse free of spin. When he achieves that, Gutwein can claim true leadership. Not before.

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