SPEECH TO THE ASIA-PACIFIC PARLIAMENTARY FORUM: ENHANCING PARLIAMENTARY ROLES IN RESPONSE TO CLIMATE CHANGE – PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

Asia Pacific Parliamentary Forum at Parliament House, Canberra. Photograph by Penny Bradfield.

Excellencies, colleagues, dear friends, the role of parliamentarians is to lead, so I want to speak about enhancing leadership in parliamentary response to climate change.

It’s my privilege today to speak on this topic of great consequence for the future not only of my sunburnt country, Australia, but all countries.

The devastating Australian bushfires, which continue to threaten life, limb, property and wildlife even as we speak, can serve as a parable for the risks of global inaction on climate change.

In recent weeks and months, the emergence of mega-blazes in particular along the border between Victoria and New South Wales posed problems of collective action across jurisdictions.

One potential response was to stick to the bureaucratic argument that, because the wall of flames had crossed an arbitrary line on a map, it was up to authorities on the other side of the border to resource and defend themselves against it.

And one could make a sophistic argument that the federal government’s role is only to support each jurisdiction.

But this neat division of labour imploded because the bushfires did not respect administrative or jurisdictional borders.

The Australian people themselves led the way with a truly national response, as volunteers from all states, including the Northern Territory where I’m from, helped around the country for months and at great personal risk and cost to themselves.

So it was clear very early on that the sheer scale and intensity of last year’s bushfire season demanded a national response.

I welcome the fact that the government in the end declared the disaster a national emergency and finally provided leadership.

But there are lessons to draw from this disaster for the international community as much as for our own national life here in Australia.

Before the forces of nature, all nations, however small or large, rich or poor, are ultimately parts of a human family united in a shared vulnerability, even if all are not yet equally vulnerable.

And so, just like in Australia’s bushfires, we face a clear-cut choice in negotiating a global solution to a truly global problem.

Now we can resort to self-serving legalistic arguments such as: ‘well my country only contributes 1.3% of global carbon dioxide emissions, so even our best efforts and sacrifices won’t help.’

But such faulty reasoning is irresponsible because it amounts to shamelessly abdicating responsibility.

It could encourage inaction rather than leading by example.

Now the future looks very grim indeed if other countries were to accept this faulty logic.

And at the end of the day—when waves are at the doors of our very houses as they are for too many of our brothers and sisters in the Pacific; when our homes, habitat and wildlife go up in flames; when we see more frequent and dangerous disasters; when glaciers and ice caps melt for even longer periods of time, triggering even more warming, and the rivers dry up; and when an estimated 200 million refugees flee the effects of climate change by 2050, according to the United nations—this will only damage our own best interests.

By hiding behind our borders and saying that this is just too hard for us to do anything about so we shouldn’t even try, our prosperity, our security and sovereignty will come under threat.

If we only focus on mitigating the effects of climate change, as important as it is, that’s not courageous and it’s not leadership.

It’s weak and fatalistic.

And we can do more—and we must do more.

Not only as a nation but as a region and as a global community.

This isn’t about feeling righteous.

It’s about being custodians of all life on earth.

It’s about surviving by preserving the fragile conditions of life.

I should think that there’s no more important mission than to conserve life and livelihoods.

What we need from all governments is leadership and vision.

We should not be shifting responsibility for climate change.

And this goes for Australia no less than for all other countries.

It is all our responsibility.

As a former parliamentarian Winston Churchill might have said:

‘A climate changer denier is someone who feeds a crocodile hoping to be eaten last.’

As parliamentarians, we have an important role to play in bringing our nations along on climate change action.

Now colleagues, I have run out of time today to go into more detail about policy.

But friends, I look forward to hearing your thoughts and suggestions.

I’m listening.

Thank you very much colleagues.