A new year sees a new department for The Environment – What’s in a name?
By David Salt
As we grind to the end of a difficult year in terms of environmental decline and crisis, it’s worth noting the Prime Minister’s recent announcement of a shake-up of the public service. Eighteen departments are to be reorganised into 14 mega departments on the grounds of improving efficiency and service delivery (though the details have not been made public and there is considerable skepticism on the value of these changes). Given our ongoing fire crisis, endless heatwave, mass fish kills and growing extinction list, a more responsive and effective Department of the Environment is to be hoped for. But rather than making The Environment a higher priority, this latest reorganisation appears to be signalling the exact opposite.
From DSEWPaC to DoE
Government departments are always changing names as governments reorganise the public service’s structure, roles and responsibilities to suit their agenda. Each change is a good reflection of the priorities of the group in charge.
Prior to the current conservative group (the Liberal National Coalition) coming to power, The Environment fell under the umbrella of the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities or DSEWPaC.
It was a bit of a grab bag of issues but it signalled that ‘sustainability’ was a high priority for the Labor Government of the time, and that sustainability had strong connections across multiple sectors such as water and population. This reflected the growing consensus that has emerged in recent decades that sustainability needed to be integrated across sectors if it was to make a difference.
‘Climate Change’, the key sustainability issue of our times, had its own department, reflecting the political priority the Labor party had placed on climate change (and some believe this structure placed climate change closer to the central economic ministers/agencies). Prime Minister Rudd had, after all, declared climate change the great moral issue of our times (but then reneged on his pledge to do something about it).
On the outer
And then the conservatives stormed to power in 2013 under Tony Abbott and ‘sustainability’ was an orphan in search of a patron. SEWPaC became simply the Department of the Environment, and the Department of Climate Change was subsumed into it. Environmental budgets were cut and ‘The Environment’ was clearly on the outer.
Where possible, the government avoided talking about climate change or biodiversity, and the idea of sustainability was simply code for how do we get more efficient (and fuel even greater economic growth).
A few years into the conservative rule, the Department of the Environment also took on responsibility for ‘Energy’ And, even though Malcolm Turnbull put the Environment first in the department title (it was now the Department of the Environment and Energy), no-one was under any illusion as to which sector called the shots.
The Environment part of the department laboured on with ever decreasing resources while the government undertook several reviews on how environmental checks could be streamlined in order to enable economic development to grow unimpeded.
The Department of AWE
And now we have the latest reorganisation – The Environment Department is now being subsumed into the Department of Agriculture along with water to become The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (or DAWE).
I think it would be safe to say, given the Coalition Government’s track record, that this new mega Department of AWE will place the protection of environmental values a distant third behind ramping up agricultural productivity and maximising the economic return on our troubled water resources.
As one example of that track record, earlier this year the Government ran a review on green tape and how environmental constraints (in the form of our national environmental law, the EPBC Act) might be lifted from farmers. Ninety percent of all land clearing in Australia is for agriculture and yet this review found that only 2.7% of the 6000 referrals considered under the EPBC Act have been for agriculture. In other words, the overwhelming majority of federal environmental regulation doesn’t even touch our farmers and still they complain and want even less constraint placed on them.
Well, now The Environment is truly back in its box and the new Department of AWE will likely ensure that’s where it remains (while this government is in charge, anyway).
Priorities and mental models
And this reveals a tragic reversal of the central tenet of ecological economics, that our society and economy are a subset of The Environment. Rather, this latest reorganisation suggests that The Environment is a subset of the economy and reflects the conservative catch cry that we’ll look after The Environment once we’ve fixed the economy.
As our farms, houses, suburbs, businesses, national parks and endangered species are all going up in flames, the lunacy of this ideology has never been so apparent. Our environment is failing and, as it does, it is bringing down the economy with it.
This is not the time to turn our backs on The Environment or see it as a marginal add on to our economy. And yet this is exactly what our Government seems intent on doing.