Ordinary legislation for extraordinary times

A week ago, as Tasmania’s parliament determined our new climate laws, the head of the United Nations was performing what has become an annual ritual, a coach venting his frustration on a failing, ragtag team.

This year, with the motley collection of nations we like to think of as “united” distracted by inflation and war, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres needed to find new words to describe the deepening morass that is human-induced climate change. 

By now, in this 27th UN climate summit on the Red Sea coast, he must be close to running out of metaphors. Last week the UN supremo spoke of the world’s “highway to climate hell, with our foot on the accelerator”. 

Extremes of drought, rain and heat that used to be the stuff of horror movies are happening at shortening intervals. Just in the past year, weather records were broken on every continent, and global mean warming is now closer than ever to the 1.5C Paris limit, set to be surpassed around 2030.

Any thoughts of a pandemic reversing a rising emissions trend have been dashed. At the two premier baseline stations, Hawaii’s Mauna Loa and Tasmania’s Cape Grim, global carbon dioxide concentrations are currently at record levels, near or above 416 parts per million.

Existing emissions targets don’t cut it, including the Albanese government’s strengthened 2030 Australian target. Even in the unlikely event of all countries meeting current targets we’re still on course for a catastrophic 2.4C of warming.

At COP27, Australia’s Pacific minister Pat Conroy and climate change minister Chris Bowen would be feeling some pressure, but not enough. Outside a handful of front-line climate state representatives, it’s hard to imagine any well-supported leader in a well-appointed tourist resort feeling the existential threat that is climate change.

The frustration felt by Antonio Guterres was not completely lost on the Tasmanian parliament. As the Legislative Council wrestled with a government push to eliminate a key upper house amendment to its long-awaited bill, Mersey MLC Mike Gaffney drew attention to the UN chief’s reference to a global “collective suicide pact”. 

He said that reversing the amendment in question, which sought to force the government to consider climate change in developing all policies, would send the message “that the government does not see climate change as a wide-ranging threat”.

Indeed: current global climate evidence should have been front and centre in the minds of all those sitting around the chamber last Wednesday when the amendment motion was being discussed. 

But it wasn’t. A clear majority, including members of both major parties, accepted the government’s argument that forcing it to consider climate change in putting together its policies would impose impossible legal constraints. The advice of Meg Webb (Nelson) that the same requirement had been law in Victoria since 2017 was ignored.

Rob Valentine (Hobart) tried to support Webb by saying that he couldn’t see any legal problem in the amendment, earning this sharp retort from government leader Leonie Hiscutt: “Legal minds which are better than yours and mine have made the call on this, and the government would be ill-advised not to follow that advice.”

Hiscutt didn’t explain who belonged to those “better” legal minds, or what their advice said. The only conclusion to draw is that climate change minister Roger Jaensch and the government he’s part of oppose any legislative imperative requiring all levels of government to think hard about the causes and consequences of climate change here, on this island.

Contrasting with the concerns shown by Webb, Valentine and Gaffney was the minister’s assertion, based on his government’s “ambitious” emissions target, that the new Act was “nation-leading”. That’s just hubris, plain and simple. 

The Climate Change (State Action) Amendment Act contains some good measures. Its planning prescriptions add some purpose to what had been a casual, incidental process, and the requirement to consider broader impacts of energy transition, stranded assets and fuel security is a distinct advance.

But after all those do-nothing years since coming to government in 2014, after so many setbacks, delays and false starts, after the government’s tardy and inadequate response to considered outside advice from expert sources and its failure now to acknowledge remaining shortcomings in the Act… after all that, Tasmanians deserve a lot better. 

We owe thanks to the small band of MPs in both houses who understood that these are exceptional circumstances and sought to bring urgency and common purpose to the debate. Had the Rockliff government chosen to join with them it might have delivered something extraordinary, something that justified its self-congratulations. But it didn’t, and that’s a pity.

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