Grasshopper government

The original judgement was described as novel but only by lawyers. To anyone else it seemed self-evident that a minister should consider the wellbeing of children when making her decisions.

When the full bench of the Federal Court overturned the findings in Minister for the Environment v Sharma it was saying: the burning of the planet is not a problem for the government because the law is insufficiently clear on the subject of responsibility.

This is, of course, the view the Morrison government has held all along. Its ministers have never shown a capacity to govern in the interest of more than a select few. Still, to argue it in court seemed brazen.

In essence, the government was saying it could not be expected to consider the future. It would approve the extensions to the Vickery coalmine near Boggabri because it was operating only in the now. What happened after that was not its problem.

This is a grasshopper government, living on the edge of winter.

It never got over the surprise of winning the last election. It never made plans. It never began the serious work of developing policy. It never imagined the future because it was still shocked by its fortune in the present.

It is hard to know what Sussan Ley felt when she saw the teenage litigants in this case crying on the steps of court. Possibly, she would have found it difficult to empathise with what the rest of us might call conviction. The might of government had been used to win a victory for itself and not the people it was supposed to represent.

In its judgement, the court was particularly worried about “indeterminate liability”. It said there was a “lack of control over the harm”. This meant that “the duty in tort should not be imposed”.

But this is the point of climate change. It is why action is so important, because it is not one act that will answer the challenge, but many, taken at once, by each of the world’s governments. The risk is so large that it will destroy the planet unless the planet is great enough to share responsibility.

After the decision the lead litigant in the case, Anjali Sharma, wrote: “Today’s ruling does not change the minister’s moral obligation to protect young people from climate change. It does not change the science. It does not put out the fires or drain the floodwaters.”

All of this is true, but the Morrison government’s view was formed well before the case went to court. That view is simple: we don’t care.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2022 as "Grasshopper government".

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