2020 hindsight – insights on government thinking from 20 years ago

1998 and 1999 were important years for environmental policy in Australia

By Peter Burnett

As policy researcher, I love New Year’s Day. Not because it’s a public holiday but because it’s when the National Archives of Australia release government records, including Cabinet papers, from several decades earlier. Documents used to be released after 30 years but, under a Rudd Government reform, this is being reduced progressively to 20 years. And this is great for anyone seeking deeper insights into how policies are conceived and developed.

This year Archives released documents from 1998 and 1999. I’ve been looking at the Cabinet submissions and decisions from these two years to see what environmental issues were preoccupying the first and second Howard Cabinets (there was an election in 1998).

At least, I’ve been looking at the ones that are available. Even though there are only a few hundred cabinet documents prepared each year, and their annual release is of significant media interest, Archives actually only release the ones that their history adviser regards as newsworthy. Most of the others are available on application, but you have to wait, sometimes for many months, for these files to be ‘examined’, to decide whether they contain any exempt material, usually related to national security.

The need to apply for files and then wait for some months has limited what I can write about one of the major issues, as you’ll see below. Such are the frustrations of anyone seeking insight from the official records.

What were the issues in 1998–99?

The final years of last century were very important for environmental policy, nationally and around the world.

Internationally the Kyoto Protocol had been concluded at the end of the previous year, with Australia securing a special deal, sometimes called the Australia Clause. This allowed us to increase our emissions by 8% on 1990 levels in the coming decade, when other developed countries had committed to a 5% reduction.

We had based our case on the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, a principle developed originally to accommodate the circumstances of developing countries. We argued that this should apply to us because of our population growth and fossil fuel-intensive economy. (Which, of course, has great relevance in current debates on whether Australia is pulling its weight on climate change.)

Domestically, the Government was busy rolling out the first tranche of spending under the Natural Heritage Trust, which had been funded through the partial sale of the national telecommunications utility, Telstra. It was also in the midst of reforming national environmental law, tabling the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Bill, later passed in 1999 as the EPBC Act (now up for its second decadal review).

While all this was important, top of the Government’s reform agenda was the introduction of a goods and services tax (GST). This reform would deliver unexpected, possibly even accidental, environmental benefits (as I discuss below).

Winning our emissions bargain

As you might expect in the immediate aftermath of the Kyoto climate meeting, the environmental issue taking most of Cabinet’s attention was whether to ratify the protocol, and its implications for domestic policy.

Having been worried in the lead up to Kyoto that Australia’s hard line might lead to diplomatic isolation, the Government could rest easy. Australia’s tough negotiating stance had been very successful and the three ministers with climate responsibilities were able to report that the Kyoto agreement had met all of Australia’s primary objectives. (I once heard that Environment Minister Robert Hill was applauded when he entered the Cabinet room on return from Kyoto.)

They advised Cabinet that the 108% target represented a cut to business-as-usual growth of 30%, which was ‘comparable to the average for industrialised countries as a whole’. Another important achievement was international agreement that emissions from land use change and forestry (now known as Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry, or LULUCF) would be treated much the same as other anthropogenic emissions. This was important for Australia because much of our target would be obtained through a reduction in emissions from a reduction in land clearing.

Even though Kyoto was done, the climate change caravan kept on rolling. Australia also had to settle its position for the fourth Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention (COP 4 – we’ve just had COP 25).

The interesting point in our position was that we decided to push for the widest possible and most flexible international emissions trading scheme. This did not come from any government convictions about the efficacy of emissions trading, but simply to keep our options open: the US had estimated that they might meet up to 75% of their emissions task by purchasing international permits, reducing compliance costs by something between 60 and 90%!

Domestically, Cabinet agreed to update the National Greenhouse Strategy (‘National’ indicating that the States were parties) in light of Kyoto, but without allocating extra money. This was because the Government had already announced a $180 million package in the lead-up to Kyoto.

But nothing on the EPBC Act

To my surprise, there was no Cabinet submission on the EPBC Bill. I find it hard to believe that Environment Minister Robert Hill got such a major reform through without a stand-alone Cabinet submission, but I double-checked and Archives does not list any submission related to this reform beyond an earlier authority to negotiate an EPBC precursor, what became the 1997 COAG Heads of Agreement on Roles and Responsibilities for the Environment. This was the document by which the States endorsed Hill’s set of ‘Matters of National Environmental Significance’.

So I’ve requested access to some related files to dig deeper. Watch this space: I’ll report what I find.

Show me the money

There were a number of submissions relating to environmental spending. Most are no longer interesting but there was one interesting money story.

In 1999 the Government persuaded the Australian Democrats to support the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) by funding a new environmental package, known as Measures for a Better Environment. This package included some significant reforms designed to reduce transport emissions and greenhouse gases.

Some reforms were vehicle-based, including incentives for buses and trucks to shift to CNG and LPG, while others were fuels- based, including a commitment to develop national fuel standards. There were also rebates for installing solar panels and increased support for the commercialisation of renewable energy.

I heard an interesting story recently that suggests that the strength of this package might have been fortuitous. Apparently Prime Minister John Howard asked Treasurer Peter Costello how much they should be prepared to spend on such initiatives. ‘About 400’ was the reply. Howard duly offered $400m. It seems Costello was thinking $400,000.

Could it be that this is how we get significant environmental reform? Through horse-trading or accident?

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

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