Tough times call for open government

In times like these, when you can buy an alternative universe in a box labelled VR, it might seem normal to have a prime minister persuade his governor-general to give him unheard-of power and then keep it secret from the public. 

For those of us who think Scott Morrison’s behaviour is a new low in governance and public accountability standards, it was something of a relief last week to see evidence that good public policy is not yet dead.

In Washington, a $369 billion, 700-page climate bill titled “Inflation Reduction” – anything to avoid the C-word – was signed into law by President Joe Biden. Its immense scope, touching every part of the nation, sets it apart from any climate measure enacted by any legislature, anywhere. No question, this is something to feel good about.

There are mixed messages from Canberra. Unresolved issues include the future of coal and gas, currently buoyed by record profits, but good signs are transport emissions standards, finally putting us alongside other developed economies, and electric vehicle tax incentives.

In Hobart it was good to see debate on the Rockliff government’s Climate Change (State Action) Amendment Bill 2021 finally get under way. It could have passed its second reading in the lower house last week, but climate change minister Roger Jaensch needed time to consider around 100 Labor or Greens amendments. After years of inaction, what’s a few more days or weeks?

Like a lot of politicians, Jaensch is in uncharted territory. With general agreement that human-induced climate change is a real, massively consequential challenge, political parties of all persuasions are struggling to create workable laws to address it. They all know they must take it seriously, but what does that entail?

“Forestry is part of the solution”, energy minister Guy Barnett told the parliament, citing a 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change statement to support the claim. But that position has been labelled a false sense of security by multiple experts admitting to having compromised their science in their keenness to cooperate with politicians wanting quick “solutions”. 

Last year Robert Watson, James Dyke and Wolfgang Knorr, all eminent climate science veterans and IPCC lead authors, declared null and void their previous support of climate policies relying on “net-zero” targets and carbon capture by plants, stressing that we will avoid dangerous warming only by ending fossil fuel burning immediately.

This absolute imperative means political leaders must, as a matter of urgency, start planning for massive social, economic and physical transformations. As Jaensch will be aware, this was raised in submissions on the draft bill, and in the parliamentary debate last week.

For instance, being part of the national electricity market might be problematic when it comes to securing enough energy to see us through the switch to electric vehicles. Faced with low dam levels, a transitioning Norway is already being forced to protect its own energy supply.

Current calculations of the amount of extra electricity needed for this transition are around 50 per cent, which calls for a large increase in energy supply. While this could be stretched out over decades it will require a significant annual growth. 

The debate on Tasmania’s legislation saw several references to a “just transition”, the kind of language that conservative politicians tend to avoid. But in the massive and expensive move to electric transport ahead, they will have to account for it.

Social justice in the face of weather damage is a factor right now. Many Australians have direct experience of loss from extreme events. A NSW report last week on the huge and continuing burden imposed by repeated flood events has telling implications for current and future land use. Not to mention the still-unresolved cost of the Black Summer fires.

With another La Nina weather pattern looming later this year and through next summer, we face the prospect of yet more floods. Repeated, cascading disasters will mean unbearable financial and emotional cost unless government and community can pull together.

There is another dimension to this. Unregulated practices around nutrient supply, water quality, irrigation, carbon retention and control of unwanted plants and animals have degraded natural systems. Yet the Tasmanian government continues to brush off calls for stronger environmental reporting and regulation while using harsh anti-protest laws to protect the industries that create the problems. That is unforgivable.

We can do nothing about these challenges without leadership. With politicians stuck behind walls pressing the same old buttons, we need Premier Jeremy Rockliff to reject the business-as-usual spin and, bringing his ministers along with him, open up to a Tasmanian community that’s eager to help.

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