Have the Greens taken over the progressive mantle from Labor?

Peter Gutwein’s win on Saturday is only part of the story of a fascinating election.

These are my take-away memories from election day: A victorious, beaming premier and his family, an upbeat opposition leader carrying a baby, a resurgent Greens leader, and a glorious, sunny weekend in Tasmania’s capital, 8C above the May average.

Predictably, Peter Gutwein won the election on the back of his fine response to COVID-19, recording an exceptional personal vote. People appreciated that this leader, in response to expert scientific advice, could make tough, confronting decisions.

But as the Greens’ Cassy O’Connor pointed out on Saturday night, while the premier chose to follow the science around contagious disease, he has relegated to a secondary position the science that warns of an unfolding climate catastrophe.

In building the Greens as a political force, founding leader Bob Brown fostered the view – perhaps unintentionally – that his party was the only way to environmental salvation. In times past I’ve found myself irritated by what seemed to be the Greens’ uncompromising approach to wicked policy dilemmas. Kevin Rudd’s doomed carbon pricing scheme was one such case.

In 2010, for the first and still the only time in Australia, the Greens became an integral part of government in Tasmania. Leader Nick McKim and then Cassy O’Connor took on the climate challenge on the basis that this responsibility is shared by all jurisdictions, everywhere.

That work culminated in O’Connor’s 2013 strategic plan, which remains the standout among a plethora of such documents that have arrived with fanfare over the years before being quietly shelved. Eight years later, her election night speech showed that this was no accident.

The buzz of leadership doesn’t rest easily with complex, slow-burning issues like climate change. Perhaps taking a cue from Rudd’s unseemly demise in 2010, Australia’s major party leaders and MPs continue to avoid making climate a front-rank policy issue.

Nowhere was that better illustrated than in the last parliament, in a debate over whether Tasmania should declare itself to be in a climate emergency. The only MPs arguing cogently for this fully justified move were O’Connor and her deputy, Rosalie Woodruff, while the rest of the parliament played partisan games.

On Saturday night O’Connor spoke of the Greens’ proposal for a bill to mandate planning for sequestering carbon, adapting to climate change, and annual sectoral emission targets, contrasting that with the major parties’ failure to come up with any coherent climate policy: “a shameful indictment”.

“We hear some Liberals gloating about the state’s climate record while they accelerate native forest logging,” she said. “Tasmania’s status as a net carbon sink is the result of decades of commitment and heart from the broader conservation movement and civil society, and the Greens’ hard work to protect this island’s extraordinary carbon rich forests.”

She also spoke with passion of the state’s crisis in elective surgery and hospital emergency, of the travails of homeless teenagers, families and old people, and of the Liberals’ failure to reveal the impact of negotiated gambling tax rates on future state revenue.

Tasmanians, she said, “want governments that can see past the dollar signs, … who understand how rare and precious our island is. They want decency and integrity in politics. That’s why we’re here.”

It was a long speech, bringing to mind another politician inclined to go on a bit, Gough Whitlam. The point about both is that they covered a lot of ground and had things to say that mattered, about life, community and government. O’Connor is a leader of real substance.

There were hints that O’Connor may be thinking of a life after politics. She spoke of her confidence in younger Greens to carry the party forward and in her Clark running mate, Vica Bayley – one of the architects of the 2013 forest peace deal that was championed by O’Connor then abandoned by the Hodgman government.

A century ago another small progressive party was said to be a mere annoyance that would soon disappear. The Labor Party rose to power as a voice for the powerless. On Saturday night, the most effective voice for that noble cause was O’Connor’s.

The Greens were the only party whose vote rose above 2018 levels, but just as noteworthy was the vote for independents. The frustration of leaders wanting the floor to themselves says all we need to know about Hare-Clark, the fairest voting system of them all.

As O’Connor said, the Tasmanian people decide who governs Tasmania – “not the Premier, or the leader of the Opposition.” The result, as David Killick wryly observed yesterday, is “strong, stable majority government, Tasmania style.”

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