Politicians struggling in the face of stark reality

If there’s a poster boy for a bigger Tasmanian parliament, it would have to be the minister for pretty-well-everything, Roger Jaensch MP, in charge of aboriginal affairs, state growth, heritage, climate change, local government and planning, and the environment.

One of the items on this long list, climate change, has been relegated to the bottom drawer for far too long. Far from being one of a grab bag of responsibilities, it is in truth a full-time job – not just for a single politician but for entire governments.

Now this badly-overloaded minister is being asked to shepherd through the parliament a much-needed overhaul of Tasmania’s 2008 Climate Change (State Action) Act – a modest piece of legislation back then; now embarrassingly inadequate.

Avoiding or de-emphasising climate change as an issue has been the chosen approach of Hodgman and Gutwein governments, as recently as 2020 when it successfully opposed a climate emergency motion in parliament. Changes to climate were subtle and criticisms easily deflected, making it possible to hold positions at odds with reality. 

Since Black Summer and the arrival of Covid – especially with fast-spreading Omicron – it is much harder for any leader to sustain false narratives. Having first conceded that a global contagion trumped business-as-usual, Peter Gutwein and other Australian leaders now argue that business – or “living with the virus” – must resume, with unknown consequences.

For decades that same mindset, business-as-usual at whatever cost, has determined government responses to climate change. They said limiting fossil fuel use would damage the economy, so they held back – until a growing groundswell of popular concern forced their hand.

The 64 submissions received after the new draft bill was released just over a month ago indicate a high level of public interest in what looks set – Covid aside – to become the dominant policy issue for the foreseeable future.

The 58 publicly accessible documents are the usual mixed bag of institutional, business, community, group and individual submissions, some arguing for particular interests, others taking a wider, public perspective. The common theme is that the state needs to act.

Two stand out for the detail of their analysis, one by the University of Tasmania’s Public Policy Exchange and the other a joint effort from two voluntary groups, Climate Tasmania and the Tasmanian Independent Science Council, comprised mostly of scientists and others with expertise in climate, ecology and environment. I am a member of both latter groups but had no part in preparing their submission.

The submissions differ in detail but agree on fundamental principles around the integrity and transparency of emissions accounting and reporting; social equity and avoidance of harm; and collaboration across and between government, parliament, community and business. They agree that Tasmania should separate land-use emissions, mainly to do with forest carbon, from gross emissions, mainly from fossil fuels.

While appearing receptive to new ideas – it has undertaken to consider future generations and to consult the public on ways to cut emissions, for instance – the Gutwein government has made no significant shift on the substantive issues.

But the decisions Roger Jaensch and the rest of government must make around climate change are exceptionally complex and far-reaching. To be effective, the new legislation must have the support of the widest possible cross-section of Tasmanians. 

At a public forum late last year the minister bluntly rejected an audience suggestion that the government involve the whole parliament in shaping the new climate legislation. That, he said, would be to abdicate its responsibility to govern.

No, minister. Abdicating responsibility is failing to grasp that if this state is to survive the most difficult transition in its history, its government will have to reach out to all quarters – even to political opponents. Yielding power can be strength.

Applause for his initial Covid response persuaded Peter Gutwein to break a string of four-year parliaments with an early election. His hard-won reputation for openness vanished with that subterfuge – for the sake of a few more years of parliamentary majority. Just like the smartypants stupidity of the 1998 Labor-Liberal deal to cut the size of parliament, which delivered us overloaded ministers, less accountability and more scope for corruption. 

The pain of governing under the Covid cloud is plain to see whenever the premier fronts a media conference. Yet like his climate change minister and every leader of every Australian government, he can’t countenance reaching out to people he may not always agree with.

But with climate looming on top of the Covid crisis, that’s what he has to do. If he doesn’t he and his government will break, and everyone will be losers.

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