PETER BOYER, This article is based on Peter Boyer’s “Climate Challenge” column, published in the Mercury on Tuesday, June 9 and viewable at his Climate Tasmania website www.climatetasmania.com.au It’s shorter version also published: Here
Oh, those innocent smiles of a bygone era! Who can forget the happy faces of Michael Field and Bob Brown when they fronted the television cameras to announce the coalition that ended the dominant premiership of their arch-enemy, the Liberals’ battle-scarred Robin Gray? This was to be the beginning of a new, enlightened era after nearly a decade of the combative, divisive Gray premiership.
And so it was. The legislative record of Tasmania’s Labor-Green Accord, 20 years old last month, suggests it was a high point in Tasmanian political and social reform. With the conservative side of politics in disarray in the wake of the astonishing accusation, later proven in court, that northern power-broker Edmund Rouse had attempted to bribe Jim Cox MHA to vote against Field, we saw a Labor minority government, urged on by the Greens, at last drafting and presenting to parliament innovative legislation on long-neglected social, legal, land management and conservation issues.
But Robin Gray, who had enjoyed being premier and missed scoring another term because Ed Rouse got sprung, sees it otherwise. To him the Labor-Green Accord was a disaster, and just last month, if we needed reminding, he said so again. With next year’s election set to deny once more an absolute majority to any party, and with closely similar Labor and Liberal policies, Mr Gray has proposed that the two parties form a “war cabinet”. His statement was an odd echo of the view of his old nemesis, Bob Brown, that the Greens were the only real opposition to a Labor-Liberal “Tweedledum and Tweedledee”.
Then who should emerge from the shadows but Mr Gray’s erstwhile Labor opponent Michael Field. Never one to shirk an argument with the Liberals, Mr Field proclaimed the idea of a Labor-Liberal alliance went against 100 years of Labor tradition. We don’t do alliances, he said. At least, not since the Accord collapsed in acrimony in 1991.
The last months of the experiment that was the Accord were, it has to be said, a bit of a shambles. The smiles of 1989 had disappeared by 1991, with both sides arguing that the other had broken its promises. As a result of that very public quarrel, Michael Field shares Mr Gray’s strong dislike of the Greens. Some of this seems to have filtered down to Mr Field’s protegé and latter-day successor, David Bartlett, who seems increasingly to be wanting to distance himself from the Greens. In the context of today’s global environmental crisis, this continuing antipathy is as ugly as it is unwise.
This is not a one-sided affair. In pursuing their environmental agenda down the years, the Greens have tended to confront rather than converse, to assume the high moral ground and deny anyone’s claims to a place alongside them, a position guaranteed to rankle. Bob Brown set a high ethical bar, a standard of political behaviour which his successors, Christine Milne, Peg Putt and Nick McKimm have all sought to emulate. In the process they have often appeared as somewhat smugly superior to the likes of Jo Average. It’s hard to avoid this accusation when you’re arguing for the planet, as I well know from being on the receiving end in my climate campaigning.
But whatever the sins of the Greens, nothing justified the vandalism committed on the Tasmanian body politic in 1998 when Labor leader Jim Bacon and then-Premier Tony Rundle got their heads together and adopted Mr Field’s idea to reduce the Parliament to 40 members. Under the pretext of lowering parliamentary costs, the major parties sought to cut the Greens out of the 25-member rump that we continue to call the House of Assembly. It was cynical, reckless, and ultimately futile. Green representation in the lower house is now proportionally higher than ever.
We are facing a supreme challenge from climate instability and our island’s complete dependence on imported transport fuel in the face of diminishing global oil supplies. Tasmania is not going to escape unscathed from climate change: at the very least, modelling tells us that in the longer term it will suffer lower rainfall in populated areas, loss of low-lying land to rising seas and — most crucially — a big hit to its sea fisheries because of changes to the marine environment around the island.
The impact of peak oil will in the short term be even greater. Our island is very vulnerable in the critical area of transport (which officially is our state’s highest source of carbon pollution). Discounting a tiny amount of biofuel production not currently available for general use, Tasmanian transport is wholly dependent on the import of close to two tonnes of fossil-oil transport fuels per head of population each year. Long lead times are required for the development of sustainable alternatives. This vulnerability is not well understood either in the general population or, more critically, among politicians, administrators and business people.
Taken together, these two massive issues are clear justification for parties to discard their vainglorious isolation and come together, drawing on what’s left of the parliamentary talent pool. But what have we got? A parliament too small for good government. Members denigrating other members, preferably on television. Leaders past and present talking as if a Green-tinged parliament is a greater threat than global warming or peak oil: fiddling while Rome burns. This is truly sad.
Having failed to acknowledge the damage done by their parliamentary numbers experiment, neither Labor nor Liberal members are giving policy on climate and energy the pre-eminence it clearly deserves. If they think these ticking time bombs are a national or international problem and don’t need the full attention of state governments, they couldn’t be more wrong. Why don’t they see this, when the point is so starkly obvious? Is someone forcing them to look away?
There is so much to be done, and so little time to do it in. Our only option is to work together, but this will require a goodwill that none of the party leaders — Greens included — has yet been able to muster. Dear god, is there no-one able to rise above petty politicking?
• Tasmanians showed their concern about climate issues by joining the Australia-wide National Climate Emergency Rally at 12 noon next Saturday, June 13, on Parliament House Lawns, Hobart: Here