Climate emergency motion May 2019

On Monday night, a Hobart City councillor rose to his feet and proposed a motion that has been passed by 549 local, state or national governments representing more than 65 million people.

This motion to acknowledge we have a climate emergency is part of a movement started in 2016 to communicate alarm about increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – which according to ice core records are at a level not seen for 3 million years, when our planet was 5 degrees Celsius hotter than it is today.

Hobart is extremely vulnerable to the climate change caused by global warming. Drying winters create tinderbox conditions, and hotter summers with gusty winds that fuel fires and spread dangerously into our suburbs.  

After extreme events, local governments are usually the level of government left to pick up the pieces, rebuild communities and rebalance our budgets. This is why the majority of the governments that have passed the climate emergency motion are at the local level. 

When this motion came to be voted on in Hobart, three members of Council chose to leave the meeting together, which denied us a quorum to continue to discuss and vote on the matter. This dramatic walk-out was a shock tactic rarely seen before in our decision-making chamber, which is why it has sparked debate.  

In the wash-up, the members who walked out have provided procedural excuses for their decision to stop this motion. Bureaucratic excuses for inaction are used by politicians everywhere for various reasons – to stymie a perceived opponent, to confuse the community or simply to slow the sense of urgency about a matter.

Unfortunately for our planet’s health, it’s a tactic used for too many decades by climate change deniers.

Many of the excuses given for the Hobart walk-out are poor ones.

  • The motion from Councillor Bill Harvey to declare a climate emergency was not a surprise, nor was the procedure unusual. He gave seven days’ notice of his motion and it was published on the Council agenda as required under the Local Government Act.
  • Under this Act, all elected members in Tasmania are entitled to debate their motion at the next Council meeting, except members of the Hobart Council. We alone are required to jump over a hurdle that our motion is ‘urgent’ before we can do what every other elected member is simply entitled to do.
  • Hobart Council created its own labyrinthine procedures in 2011 to turn this simple set of rules into bureaucratic ones. Our city-specific rules require seven days’ notice for a motion to first be discussed at a small Committee, which may be weeks away. Only after that can it go to a Council meeting which may be another week or two later.

The culture that Hobart Council has created with its own set of rules has some benefits for in-depth deliberation on complex proposals, but also has a downside for our role as elected members in being responsive to our community.

 Requiring a Councillor to prove their motion is ‘urgent’ before it’s debated is not in the spirit of our legislated rights and responsibilities as decision-makers under the Act. Its time that Hobart Council review these procedures to see if they are in keeping with the Local Government Act and the practices of other local governments.

The community is not interested in petty debates and excuses about procedure. The climate emergency motion was a simple statement of leadership that asked elected members to:

– Affirm our commitment to future generations in addressing catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss,
– Write to the incoming Prime Minister urging him to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency,
– Submit urgency motions to the Local Government Association of Tasmanian and the Australian Local Government Association on the topic, and
– Include acknowledgement of the declaration in the Council’s new Strategic Plan.

Climate change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment.  To turn your back on the issue by refusing to take part in democratic debate is disappointing at best, and irresponsible at worst.