Climate and democracy – the great challenges of our age

When a dictator sends his army against a democracy, we all feel it. So this is absolutely the time to ask, if we call ourselves a democracy, how is that looking right now?

Last week, while I was trying to work out when Tasmania’s response to climate change was going to be debated in our state parliament, the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and Ukraine’s elected leader Volodymyr Zelenskkyy were slogging it out on the battlefield.

I wouldn’t presume to pontificate from this small, remote southern island about misdeeds of a would-be tsar, but the war invites us to take a fresh look at what democracy means to us.

First, some inconvenient truths. It is self-defeating to write off Russia because of its execrable leadership. Ukraine is not all sweetness and light; subterfuge and corruption loom large in its chequered history. And the loudest voices for invading Iraq in 2003 – Australia, Britain and the United States – are not in the strongest position to lecture Putin about violating a nation’s sovereignty.

For its part, Tasmanian democracy is not in great shape. It’s impossible to get straight answers from a spin-obsessed, secretive government, MPs play party games while ignoring policy or electoral concerns, and we still don’t know who funds election campaigns.

For years, ever since the Liberal government came to power, I and others engaged with Tasmania’s climate laws (or rather their absence) have been holding out for a fully-fledged parliamentary debate about what we have to do in coming years and decades to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Amending the badly outdated 2008 Act has been on the parliamentary notice paper all this year, but getting a handle on when it will come up for debate has been a challenge. I wanted to watch this in parliament as it happened, which has involved a bit of messing about on my part, since I don’t work in the city these days. 

The daily notice paper for the final March sitting day last week had the climate bill high up, suggesting there would at least be a start to the debate that day. But alas, furious objections to provisions in a procedural motion by the leader of government business, Michael Ferguson, saw another long delay until sittings resume in mid-April.

Climate action advocates are right to be annoyed. In the 14 years since Tasmania recognised the real dangers of climate change by passing its Climate Change (State Action) Act, every opportunity should have been taken to update and strengthen it to take account of new scientific and technological knowledge, which is rapidly expanding with each passing year.

Yet in 2014 the new Hodgman government moved in the opposite direction, ditching an independent expert advisory council that would have served it well as it struggled, with all governments, to comprehend and meet this utterly new challenge. 

Throughout the troubled history of climate politics, government after government has distracted us from the main game. With the climate threat now on our doorstep, their continued failure to take decisive action will have some very unpalatable consequences.

Yet we have to accept that unscheduled twists and turns are in the nature of democratic government, which must never be allowed to control what oppositions choose to do. The unpredictability of parliamentary business is not a point against democracy, but one in its favour.

The Ferguson procedural motion was not the only thing blocking parliament’s progress last week. The schedule was already thrown out by earlier debate on whether ministers should apologise for groaning at a question asked on behalf of a survivor of child sexual abuse. 

Both of these are unavoidable outcomes of democracy at work. We take it for granted, but in Putin’s Russia an opposition has no right to pull up ministers on points of order, and a mere citizen demanding apologies from government leaders could end up in gaol.

Democracy’s often-tedious processes would be less so, however, if we knew parliament and government were giving appropriate time to the two most important tasks currently before Tasmanian lawmakers: making climate law fit for purpose and making democracy work better, starting with greater government transparency. But they’re not.

All our knowledge about dangerous climate change comes from high-quality science, which depends utterly on the unfettered disputation that underlies all those precious peer-reviewed papers.

Likewise, good climate policy demands fearless, open and informed debate. You don’t get that in a dictatorship, but it’s still not happening as it should in our own apparently democratic system. We need that to change, and quickly.

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