A toe in the water: Australia gets its first Federal environment minister (1971) and the world comes together in Stockholm (1972)

How do you deal with this thing called ‘the Environment’?

By Peter Burnett

Author’s Note: This is the second in an occasional series reflecting on the history of Australian environmental policy.

Nineteen Sixty Nine was a year of great environmental concern in the West. These concerns had been growing for some time, and were coming to a head. In America, there was a huge oil spill from a drilling platform off Santa Barbara, California, while in Ohio the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River, which flows into Lake Erie, caught fire!

Nineteen Sixty Nine was also the year in which the Gorton Coalition Government was elected in Australia. (If you’ve seen David Williamson’s play Don’s Party, it’s that election.)

In 1970 Gorton called a half-senate election — ie, a general election, but only for half of the members of the Senate. We’ve only had four of these, of which 1970 was the last, so they are something of a Constitutional curiosity. But I digress.

One of Gorton’s policy commitments in the half-Senate campaign was to establish an Office of the Environment within the Prime Minister’s Department. In his campaign opening Gorton acknowledged ‘mounting, and justified, concern’ about the risks of pollution which ‘represent[ed] a failure to take fully into account the environmental consequences of our actions …’

The first Minister for the Environment

Gorton fulfilled his commitment and set up an Office of the Environment in the Prime Minister’s Department. However, he was soon replaced as Prime Minister by William (Bill) McMahon. McMahon made environment a portfolio and appointed Peter Howson as the first federal environment minister in May 1971.

There was a big international environment meeting scheduled for 1972. In fact, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, to be held at Stockholm, was the first of what would become regular decadal international meetings between governments on the environment.

In the lead up to the Stockholm Conference, Howson made a Ministerial Statement to Parliament under the bland title ‘Australian Environment: Commonwealth Policy and Achievements’. The statement was pretty much intended to put a political toe in the water.

The key factor stressed in the statement was that the Commonwealth saw itself as having limited powers in an area. It saw the environment as being primarily a State responsibility. This was certainly true historically and the Commonwealth would not test its constitutional powers on the environment until the Tasmanian Dam case, a decade later.

Howson’s Ministerial Statement told of the recent establishment of a council of federal and state environment ministers, the Australian Environment Council, and announced a new requirement for “impact statements” to inform Cabinet decisions with environmental implications.

This was the first Australian requirement for environmental impact assessment. The idea was copied from the United States National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) although, unlike in the USA, there was no legislative backing.

Environmental principles

The Statement was also significant in its early domestic articulation of a number major principles of environmental policy. Two of the most important were the ‘polluter pays’ principle and the principle of harmonising international environmental standards to avoid trade distortions.

Both principles came from the OECD, which had recently moved into environmental issues, establishing a high level Environment Policy Committee, known as ‘EPOC’, in 1971. EPOC still exists today.

Although both the ‘polluter pays’ and ‘harmonised standards’ principles were really just applications of mainstream economics, their articulation as environmental policy broke significant new ground.

Despite regarding environment as mostly a State matter, Howson’s statement recognised that environmental concerns were a national problem requiring Commonwealth leadership, including public advocacy where necessary. This would obviously apply in international affairs but could also apply domestically because environmental problems were not confined to State boundaries.

The statement also recognised that environmental issues are not just a set of problems with common themes, but manifestations of an overarching challenge:

"So far as the Commonwealth is concerned the question is one of devising a pattern of national development in which environmental objectives go hand in hand with economic, social and cultural goals. Our philosophy is directed to this end—to devising and developing such a pattern in co-operation with the States, with local government, with business and industry and the community as a whole." [Emphasis added]

Indeed,

"The threat to man's environment is world-wide. It makes no distinctions. There is much to be gained, therefore, by Australia sharing its problems and the search for solutions with others."

And as a result:

"We are prepared to use all the international machinery at our disposal to achieve the sort of co-operation required for global action and to protect our own interests in problems with environmental implications."

On paper at least, Australia was recognising environment as an issue at all scales from local to global, and was reaching for some sort of overarching goal that would integrate environmental and other objectives – in other words, some form of sustainability.

This anticipated the soon-to-be-made Stockholm Declaration but doesn’t mean that the Australian government was prescient — the Government would have had fore-knowledge of the likely content of the Declaration through the circulation of official drafts.

The first major international environment meeting

In his later statement to the Stockholm Conference, Howson emphasised the need for better decision-making, firstly in terms of the need for environmental data to measure the full impact of human actions on the environment, and secondly in terms of improving the way in which economics addresses environmental issues, ‘though a spurious mathematical precision has to be avoided’.

As it turned out, excessive precision has never been the problem with environmental decision-making! Quite the opposite in fact: environmental decisions plagued by a lack of basic information, underdone policy guidance and in many cases a high degree of opacity.

Of course, Australia was not a major player at Stockholm and when we look at the Conference more broadly, the big story is that developing countries of the global South quickly forced a dramatic broadening of the original pollution-based agenda of rich Western countries, which, confusingly, also form the bulk of the global North.

Most members of the South were prepared to talk about fixing pollution, essentially a side-effect of the ever-increasing rate at which the North was consuming the Earth’s resources, as long as this didn’t constrain their right to a fair share of Earth’s resources. India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s intervention was pivotal. Her statement that ‘poverty is the worst form of pollution’ must rank as one of the most powerful short sentences ever spoken in diplomacy.

More like a foot than a toe

Back home, it seems that the significance of Stockholm didn’t sink in at the time. Records in the National Archives show that officials briefed the government that ‘in substance, the Stockholm Declaration is a miscellany of injunctions to which individual objection would be difficult to carry in a Stockholm forum. The whole is not greater than the sum of the parts …’

With the benefit of hindsight, the officials were wrong. The whole was greater than the sum of the parts. The pattern of North-South relations and the institutions spawned by the Stockholm Conference, especially UNEP (the United Nations Environment Program), still very much influence international environmental policy today.

The same is true of Howsen’s Ministerial Statement. Reflecting on it in his autobiography, Howson said that the Statement was more significant than he thought at the time, and I think he was right. Rather than a toe in the water, it was more like a foot (no pun intended).

Yet, these days, Howson and the Stockholm Declaration are largely forgotten. Such are the vicissitudes of history.

Fast forward fifty years to today and it seems that while the players have changed, too much of the script remains the same!

Image: The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) meets at Folkets Hus, Stockholm, in 1972. This became known as the Stockholm Conference, and was the first time governments met globally to talk about ‘the environment’. (Image by Yutaka Nagata, UN).

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