The ALP has released details of the environmental policies they will introduce if elected during 2019. Central to these are a new Australian Environment Act and a new Federal Environmental Protection Agency. Labor’s challenge will be to provide national leadership to tackle the wide range of environmental threats to human health and survival, while giving businesses the policy certainty they need but not the free-passes some want.
During his address at last month’s ALP National Conference Bill Shorten provided some indications, but little detail, of an ALP government’s environmental policies. Topping Shorten’s list was a new Australian Environment Act to replace the existing Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and a new Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The new agency would be responsible for administering the new act, including advising the minister and conducting enquiries into environmental issues. The draft ALP policy platform for the forthcoming federal election claims that the agency will be independent, although it is difficult to imagine that any government would cede control of highly contested environmental decisions to an agency in a manner similar to the way in which the Australian Reserve Bank Board sets interest rates.
Shadow Environment Minister Tony Burke later stated that the new legislation ‘will compel the Australian government to actively protect our unique natural environment and demonstrate national leadership … while aiming to give business more certainty’. Burke’s comments go to the heart of the environmental dilemmas facing a Labor government.
Let’s start with leadership. It is a common lament that Australia has lacked national leadership on environmental issues, particularly climate change, over the last couple of decades, but particularly during periods of Coalition government. This is incorrect in my view. Coalition governments have demonstrated very strong leadership on environmental issues, including climate change. But unfortunately it has not led Australia in the directions needed to protect the environment and ecosystems, and ultimately the health and welfare of Australians and all people around the world.
Can Labor, if elected, show different national leadership and implement policies across the wide range of environmental areas desperately needing attention (e.g. climate change, loss of biodiversity, land clearing, marine protection, water security, air pollution, waste, National Parks, wilderness areas)? Indeed, do they truly have the will to actively protect the environment in its totality and for the long term, and not simply reach short term compromises with vested interests? A new government has to prioritise. Even environmental zealots accept that everything cannot be put right in a first, three year term of government, but the simple fact is that the panoply of environmental threats are not independent; they are all intimately inter-connected and ignoring one threatens others.
And of course Australia’s Constitution renders national leadership and coordination across environmental issues problematic. The Federal Government has limited powers in this area and must work with the state and territory governments, all of which have existing idiosyncratic environmental protection legislation. State and territory governments seldom relinquish control of a policy area to the Federal Government unless bribed or defeated in the High Court. On climate change and renewable energy, most states and territories are ahead of the Federal Government and may well be keen to cooperate with a national approach but it isn’t clear that they will be ready to reach a common understanding on, say, logging native forests, coal seam gas mining or water rights.
Moving on to business interests, the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) wasted no time in rubbishing Labor’s plans (quelle surprise!): ‘Rather than making existing environmental regulation more effective and efficient, Labor will add another layer of green bureaucracy which will cost jobs, discourage investment and make it easier for activists to disrupt and delay projects’. The MCA does not seem to realise that the role of environmental legislation is the long-term protection of the environment, and hence the wellbeing of current and future generations. It is not the role of environmental regulation to allow miners, or the commercial fishing industry or loggers or cotton farmers, to do whatever they wish in order to turn a profit. Business interests can rightly expect that governments’ environmental, social and economic policies are sufficiently stable, integrated and sensible to allow them to plan into the foreseeable future but they cannot expect governments and citizens (‘activists’ in MCA-speak) to sit back and let them destroy and pollute at will.
The last 200 years of capitalism have seen many industries, companies and jobs disappear and it is inevitable that some current businesses and jobs will fold in the near future (e.g. those related to fossil fuels and logging). The challenge for governments in Australia, local, state and federal, is to work together and with communities, unions and the private sector to develop and implement comprehensive regional development plans for the areas likely to be affected by these changes. It is not enough these days for governments just to let change happen and expect workers, families and communities to sort out the disruption for themselves. Governments must be proactive in identifying and solving future human problems arising from the necessary protection of the natural environment, necessary for human health and even the survival of the human species.
The development of regional development plans will not be led by a minister for the environment or an environmental protection agency. But if a Labor government is to make a success of its environmental plans (only one aspect of which I have considered here) and take the voters with them they will also need to place a high priority on this challenge.
Peter Sainsbury is a specialist in public health medicine. He is a past president of the Public Health Association of Australia and the Climate and Health Alliance. He is extremely pessimistic about the world avoiding catastrophic climate change.