Challenges and opportunities for a new premier

Peter Gutwein should not be judged by how long he lasted as premier, but such comparisons are inevitable. Against some predecessors he barely rates. There was a period around World War II when a person could spend their whole childhood knowing just one leader. 

He left because he ran out of puff, or as he put it, worked until there was “nothing left in the tank”. He could have used a better analogy in the week the UN was warning us off fossil fuels, but we know what he means.

Gutwein’s leadership of Tasmania through the pandemic would test the fittest, most resilient of leaders. He deserves warm thanks for his decisive initial response to this public health emergency and his hands-on management of it until he decided it was over in December. But there were important areas he didn’t attend to, which only add to growing external pressures being faced by all governments.

In three decades of UN reporting on the state of the climate, there has not been anything as confronting as the third instalment of its sixth assessment report, released last week. The bottom line of a mountain of evidence is this: with current national pledges taking us to a 14 per cent increase – that’s INCREASE – in emissions by 2030, we must stop using fossil fuels. End of story.

Continuing carbon-intensive conflict in Ukraine and elsewhere, and the failure of multiple countries including ours to stop extracting coal, oil and gas to use or sell to others, is only making a near-impossible task that much more so. Most people want strong emissions measures, but leaders able to articulate and give effect to this are vanishingly small.

It’s a big step down from the global scene to our remote little island. That’s what most of our island’s politicians believe – certainly most of those in the two major parties – and it’s why they have treated climate change as a low level issue for this state, or even totally irrelevant.

There’s always someone else to blame. Tasmania can kick the can to Canberra, whose leaders can argue (even as they stand on world stages with US presidents) that we’re a minor player with no real impact. When the subject comes up they flick it away and turn to other matters. 

Besides climate, the latest IPCC reports touch on a host of connected matters like species extinction, natural habitat destruction and the huge range of measures around adapting to a radically new climate, which demand a lot of preparation and blue-sky thinking. 

Jeremy Rockliff’s career encompasses nurturing, nourishing, healing activities: growing food and counselling people in distress, while as a farmer he knows about thinking ahead. On the face of it, this equips him well for guiding Tasmania through the growing challenges presented by climate change, around food, energy, housing, health, transport and industry. 

Before he quit, Gutwein was preparing for a parliamentary sitting in which the big item of business was the first attempt to strengthen Tasmania’s “Climate Change (State Action) Act” since it was passed 14 years ago. 

While a small improvement on the original Act, the amending bill barely begins to address what lies in store for us. It accords with stock-standard political paradigms, but climate change is not a stock-standard matter. It is crying out for a rethink, across the whole of government.

There’s been a complacency around Tasmania’s response to climate change. Like others before him, Peter Gutwein liked to talk of it as world-leading when it clearly was not. We have not appreciably reduced carbon emissions from fossil fuel use.

When Will Hodgman’s government took power in 2014 it took the partisan option of “ripping up” a hard-won forest peace deal and reopened crippling wounds in our social fabric. Now, when its power to arrest protesters has been found wanting, its first impulse is to take the shonky option of changing the law to fit those past arrests.

Ironically, while fast-growing regrowth helps the emissions bottom line for a while, in the long run removing native forest is damaging our long-term capacity to reduce emissions. And along with all large-scale industry, on land or offshore, it has an impact on natural ecosystems which we continue to ignore at our peril.

Tasmania would be far closer to being a world leader if it paid more attention to both critical natural processes and strong social cohesion. Our new premier can choose to move away from meaningless ideological spin and begin that process, turning to his own life experiences for guidance. If he does, many good things could happen.

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