Barack Obama’s visit to Canberra this week has generated a lot of attention. But I was much happier being in Canberra last week for the Senate’s historic vote to pass the package of legislation that will finally start moving Australia towards a clean energy future. I partly wanted to be there as a way to bear witness to the efforts of so many members and MPs of the Australian Democrats who strived so hard over so many years for serious action to address climate change, even though – or perhaps especially because – the Democrats themselves didn’t manage to survive in the Parliament long enough to be part of this achievement.
It was an interesting experience sitting up the back of the Senate chamber with a large crew of advisors and staffers for the Greens, watching the helpless fury of many of the Coalition Senators unfold as the inevitable conclusion unfolded in front of them. I’ve been in a similar position many times of having to endure a guillotine being brought in to force debate to halt and bring on a vote, and then have to sit there and watch something I strongly opposed being voted through. Plenty examples spring to mind, but some of the major ones include WorkChoices, Northern Territory Intervention, GST, sale of Telstra, weakening of Native Title laws following the Wik decision, changes to force lots of people off Disability Pension and the big package of laws forced through with minimal notice after the Tampa disgrace in 2001 – the consequences of which are still being paid today.
The only positive one I can recall was passing the Environmental Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC), which significantly strengthened our national environment laws (although not by as much as was and still is needed). But the satisfaction of being part of getting such an improvement passed into law was somewhat tempered by the fact that a significant part of the environment movement was actively and publicly opposing to what was passed (wrongly in my view, but it still was fairly unpleasant at the time, and for a long time after). The fact that the Traveston Dam would undoubtedly have gone ahead were it not for the EPBC is proof enough for me that it was a worthwhile reform.
In any case, sitting at the back of the Senate chamber watching the climate change package being voted on was an interesting experience. Quite a few of the Coalition Senators were going over the top with deranged ranting and dummy-spitting (although given close to half of the Coalition were prepared to vote for carbon pricing before Tony Abbott seized the leadership, I suspect there was a substantial number of them who were quite happy to see this legislation passed). But I still have to say I’ve never previously seen such a prolonged display of juvenile tantrums from so many people in such a circumstance. I happened to liveblog the final stages the debate and votes on the original Workchoices package back in December 2005. If ever there was an issue would cause Labor Senators to go beserk in the chamber it would be this one, but their behaviour was very different, as my blog post from the time shows.
Whilst the Democrats have disappeared from Parliament, the work that they – and so many other people – did to bring attention to the dangers of climate change and the need for concerted action should be acknowledged. Hence I am doing so here.
I wrote a story for the ABC’s The Drum website on some of the history of efforts in the Senate to bring about action on climate change. You can read that article here.