Leadership starts with listening

Parliamentary politics can be brutal. The moment non-government MPs seeking debate on their pet subject stand up to speak, it’s common practice for government MPs to walk out, returning only when called on to vote the motion down and end the debate. 

That’s what happened in the House of Representatives last Wednesday when NSW independent Zali Steggall sought approval to debate her climate change bills. Four short speeches later, with virtually no debate, her motion was rejected.

It’s clear the federal government doesn’t take climate change seriously, but hearing delegates to the UN climate summit in Glasgow describing his attitude as “appallingly irresponsible” and “rank cowardice”, prime minister Scott Morrison must now know the world is moving against him.

That includes the Business Council of Australia, which having noted investor pressure from abroad wants at least a 45 per cent emissions cut by 2030. The just-released UN Emissions Gap Report, showing current commitments putting the world on track to a horrendous 2.7C of warming, calls for bigger cuts still, twice the size of Australia’s target of 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels.

Steggall’s speech contrasted Canberra’s sketchy 129-page “Australian Way” plan, involving unproven – even unknown – technology, with that of the UK: 1,868 pages reviewed and approved by the UK treasury, describing new energy, transport, industrial and heating technologies, and pathways for every sector to 2037. The Coalition wasn’t listening.

At intervals you hear similar calls for action in parliaments around the country, including our own. Two months ago, when Greens leader Cassy O’Connor asked the Tasmanian parliament to declare a climate emergency, the Gutwein government absented itself from the debate and then voted it down, for no obvious reason.

But things are moving. The headline news out of the Tasmanian government last month was premier Peter Gutwein’s “bold plan to legislate a target of net zero emissions from 2030”. “From” is a departure from the conventional “by” applied to such pledges, for the simple reason that we’re already at net-zero, and we must now maintain that position.

Such a target puts our state ahead of the Australian pack, but there’s more to this than meets the eye. Tasmania hasn’t actually cut its emissions. They’re at net-zero only because growing forests have been taking carbon out of the air at a higher rate than normal.

Be that as it may, the legislation the premier refers to will be the real test. To achieve leadership we need to drive down emissions in all sectors, aside from land-use and forestry. That will not be achieved without guidance from a strong, purposeful climate act.

To get emissions down in transport, industry and agriculture and to phase out fossil fuel use we’ll need nearer-term targets for each sector and the ability to differentiate between each form of fossil fuel (oil, gas, coal), plus the resources to gather data and report on progress.

Getting good advice and being transparent are essential. We will need a new independent body that can advise government, parliament and the community, and mechanisms to ensure public participation and parliamentary oversight as climate policy is rolled out.

Starting 6 pm tomorrow at the Menzies Institute, 17 Liverpool Street, Hobart and via Zoom, Climate Tasmania and the Tasmanian Independent Science Council will host a public forum on Tasmanian climate policy and legislation.

Besides leading Tasmanian climate specialists, the forum panel will feature the director of the Australian National University’s Climate Institute and a vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Professor Mark Howden, appearing via video link. 

Most significantly, it will include Tasmania’s minister for climate change, Roger Jaensch. I’ve attended more of these forums than I can count, and since the Hodgman government came to power in 2014 I don’t remember seeing any relevant minister at any of them.

In Glasgow, Scott Morrison will be hearing from a host of world luminaries, leaders and experts, about why his “Australian way” doesn’t cut it. In Hobart Roger Jaensch will come away from his forum knowing that Tasmania’s future will be nothing like the smooth ride to net-zero the premier’s earlier statements have suggested.

Both men and their governments can choose to stick with old ways, but that would be a grave mistake. Normality and business-as-usual are for yesterday. We are in for a very different future, exciting in its own way and not without its rewards, but much tougher and more complicated than any government likes to imagine.

Partisan politics will never disappear, but it too must be consigned to a lesser role. The best thing governments can do is acknowledge that climate change is a job for everyone and that its deliberations must take everyone on board – all parties and MPs, all sectors, all communities.

And we are all learning, from the top down.

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