We have to fix environmental policy while we can

Two months ago, the budget of the New Zealand Government set aside an amount of $1.5 billion to create 11,000 regional jobs in the protection and restoration of the environment.  If Australia were to match this COVID stimulus initiative per capita it would budget $7.5 billion for 55,000 jobs in the regions.

By way of illustration, in one component of the New Zealand program dealing with invasive plants, the Government will provide $100 million over four years for the elimination of wilding pines.

“This funding contributes to a ten-year programme that will deliver a $6.3 billion benefit to the country, protecting our farmland, water availability and biodiversity and supporting regional communities by creating jobs and stimulating economic activity across a wide range of goods and services providers…

Wilding pine control requires different skill sets like on-foot labour, chain-saw operators, heavy machinery, and helicopters. It also stimulates economic activity through increased demand for accommodation, vehicles, repairs and maintenance, food providers, and many others…” We expect it to provide employment for up to 600 people annually within the programme, and that doesn’t include the flow on jobs from the boost to regional economic activity…”

Thousands upon thousands of opportunities for systematic investment in the control of feral weeds and animals, the rehabilitation of habitat and the control of disease exist across the landscape of Australia. Beyond the globally notorious events – the devastating coral bleaching events on the Barrier Reef, the ceasing of flow in the Darling-Barka, the unprecedented and ferocious burning of a forested area the size of England last summer – we are confronted with a broader landscape that has not been in worse condition since Australia’s Environment Report was first produced by the ANU 20 years ago? Biologists now speak routinely of the possible extinction of koalas and platypus; of threatened bird populations declining by half since 1985.

The proposition, previously and widely believed, that Australia could not afford government expenditure of say $7.5 billion upon environmental conservation 2 and restoration over three years, is shown by recent events to be altogether mistaken.

Calculations about the cost of restoration of the environment are unavoidably speculative. Nevertheless, bearing in mind that habitat loss is still a more frequent cause of species loss than climate change, it cannot reasonably be doubted that the health of our environment, the productivity of our agricultural lands, and the condition of many regional economies would be transformed by a decade-long Australian Government program with expenditure at the level actually occurring at the present time in New Zealand.

Australia is sharing in a global wave of species reduction caused by habitat loss and disease, an extinction rate perhaps 1,000 times the pre-human rate. This crisis of the natural environment and the destruction of species is braided together with crisis of climate change: loss of natural vegetation cover is one of the significant causes of global warming and measures to keep nature intact are one of the most effective ways to abate climate change.

Over 30% of global carbon is stored in natural living systems. A restored, healthy landscape stores more carbon, supports more wildlife and grows better crops. (A protected, mature forest is even better: a carbon sink increasing in capacity as it grows older.)

Old white blokes like me have no need of an economic argument for the conservation of nature; its intrinsic and spiritual value is sufficient. However, as Judith Brett shows so cogently in her Quarterly Essay No 78, (“The Coal Curse: resources, climate, and Australia’s future”), the antiscientific climate denialism and hostility to nature conservation especially prevalent among old white blokes in Australia — rooted in the coal industry, promoted by organisations like the Institute of Public Affairs, popularised in the right-wing media, applied to public policy and weaponised for marginal seat campaigns by the National Party and the right-wing of the Liberal Party in our Parliaments — has become a threat to the well-being of the nation. It threatens the resilience of our economy and the effectiveness of our government as well as the state of our environment.

It is the Australian Government that is out of step with liberal world opinion, not the New Zealand Government. An epicentre of capitalism like the Davos World Economic Forum draws the conclusion that half of the total GDP of the world is moderately or highly dependent on nature, that nature is profoundly threatened and that massive effort is needed by business as well as government to restore it.

Not only is there a grotesque failure of environmental investment in contemporary Australia but the legal and institutional framework for environmental regulation is being allowed to deteriorate precisely at a time in history when it should be reformed for optimum performance.

This failure is not the fault of the environment department. An already insufficient budget was wantonly cut by Tony Abbott in 2014 and has not since been restored. Its main legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act, is technically complicated and out of date — silent about climate change or other critical issues like the cumulative impact of environmental damage. Environmental lawyers argue almost unanimously that assessment and enforcement recommendations should not be made by the department but by a federal Environment Protection Authority independent of everyday political influence. The development of overarching and presently absent national environmental plans and standards — a framework for active conservation– would similarly be more objectively dealt with by a National Sustainability Commission.

The just released ten year statutory review of the EPBC Act by Professor Graeme Samuel will therefore need close examination but it appears that the Government has instantly rejected its recommendation supporting an independent regulator.

In her admirably insightful Quarterly Essay No 77 (“Cry me a River: the tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin”), Margaret Simons shows how in real life a remarkably ambitious — and in this rare case well-financed — national environmental initiative, can still be undermined by conflicts of interest, poor accountability arrangements, the absence of critical scientific information and even a degree of criminal conduct. But the failures are principally political, brought to us by the people who have also done most to inflict the “coal curse’’ upon our nation.

In discussion about her essay Simons says… “the National Party – which is almost always awarded water and agricultural portfolios at both state and federal level — has proved itself not up to the job. The party we might most expect to develop rural and regional policy has failed the test both in governance and integrity, and in policy smarts”.

Some sorts of extinction do remain desirable.

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Robert Debus AM is a former Australian politician, has been a member of the Australian House of Representatives and the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, representing the Labor Party. Debus has been a minister in both the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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