Passage of climate bill is no reason to party

How the wheel has turned. Back in 2009 Roger Jaensch, then chair of the Cradle Coast Authority, took up a position on a brand-new Tasmanian Climate Action Council, set up by a Labor government to help it tackle climate change.

Five years later he voted with the rest of the new Liberal government to abolish the Council, presumably because after serving on it he decided it wasn’t worth keeping. The only public explanation for canning it was the modest saving, $150,000 annually, that it cost to run.

This year as climate change minister he came under pressure from various climate advocates and non-government MPs to bring back an independent advisory body, but he stuck to his guns and left it out of the new climate bill.

The Legislative Council thought he should reconsider. Last week he undertook to study other models and within 18 months legislate for “an advisory-type body on climate change” – on condition that the upper house agree to keep an advisory council out of the 2022 bill.

It seems that the government has a problem with this sort of thing. In the House of Assembly two months ago it voted down Labor and Green models for outside advice and parliamentary oversight. The minister implied he didn’t need such guidance and flagged his own idea to “buy in” advice in the form of a reference group – “a forum for sharing information and ideas”, with which the government would meet every so often, at its pleasure.

In preparing its legislation, the government ignored multiple submissions pointing out that all Tasmanian leaders need specialist help – especially our current crop which for so long chose to ignore climate signals and resisted doing anything at all about carbon emissions.

It’s all about control. It seems the last thing the minister wants is a bunch of outside specialists in his ear, and the next last thing is a parliamentary committee of ministerial wannabes drawing attention to government shortcomings. But what he wants and what the rest of us need are very different. 

In that lower house debate the government repeatedly spruiked its emissions record and claimed its post-2030 target was “one of the most ambitious in the world”. That is self-serving twaddle. One reason its target will get harder to reach is the decreasing effectiveness of offsets from growing forests, on which it has long relied. But it’s mainly due to its own past failure to address transport and industrial emissions.

That debate saw the Greens and Labor, together and separately, try to secure advisory and parliamentary oversight groups, along with guiding principles, a just transition to a low carbon economy, carbon store protection, targets that exclude offsets, targets for each sector, consultation with unions and Aboriginal people, and more frequent reporting. All were voted down.

The upper house resurrected most of these ideas. Labor’s Sarah Lovell (Rumney) drafted an amendment for both an external advisory group and a parliamentary oversight committee, sparking the minister’s promise to deliver an external advisory body by 2024.

Lovell, Meg Webb (Nelson), Mike Gaffney (Mersey) and Rob Valentine (Hobart) wanted this done sooner. Gaffney pointed out the conundrum here: the various climate tasks the minister says keep him from expediting this are the very tasks crying out for that expert help. 

Government upper house leader Leonie Hiscutt became increasingly agitated trying to fend off proposed amendments, asserting repeatedly that the government’s bill was based on years of reviewing and consulting, and it was time to stop trying to change it.

Her side of the argument mostly won on the numbers, but not on merit. Amendments by Webb and Lovell to bring forward the 2030 target to next year and set an absolute target (without offsets) were voted down, sometimes with a tied vote but more often by bigger margins.

With the world crying out for bold action, the government’s fear of falling short is concerning, as is the failure of so many MPs in both houses to stand up and be heard on this future-shaping legislation. The question has to be asked, what are they there for?

In the end it comes down to this. Roger Jaensch and the rest of the government are not opening up to the rest of us. Their sin is not that they’re still learning – they are, and that’s quite okay – but that they’re pretending they don’t need to. In the process they are spurning the benefit of linking up to a growing groundswell of public feeling – grief, even – over the fate of our planet.

The climate bill, which should pass parliament this week, is better than what we had but well short of what we need. This is no time to party.

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