The Fraser Government 1975-1982, greener than you might think

By Peter Burnett

Another in our series on environmental policy under Australian governments of the past.

I lived through the Fraser years. Because he was controversial, I have strong memories of how he was regarded, but on matters environmental my only immediate memory was that one of the reasons Fraser lost government was because he would not match Labor’s promise to stop the Franklin Dam in Tasmania. And yet, if you actually dig into his record, his government did get things done for the environment.

Dogged at the outset

Malcom Fraser was Prime Minister from 1975 till 1982. He was dogged by the controversy of how he came to the Prime Ministership, having collaborated with Governor-General Sir John Kerr in the sacking of the Whitlam Government in 1975.

This was especially true during his early years. People used to turn up wherever Fraser was, yelling ‘Shame, Fraser, Shame!’ After all, Whitlam had urged his followers to ‘Maintain Your Rage!’

Yet everything mellowed with time. Whitlam and Fraser even became firm friends, something that would have appeared inconceivable during the ‘maintain-your-rage’ period.

Fraser went on to develop a strong personal record on human rights, especially on Apartheid, and late in his life, he even endorsed Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young for re-election, with the comment that she had been a ‘reasonable and fair-minded voice’!

And when I started researching Fraser’s environmental policies, I was more impressed than I expected to be.

Growing federal power on the environment

The Fraser Government came to power on a relatively bland platform of striking a balance between conservation and economic growth. It also made the specific commitment, which it did not deliver, to develop national pollution standards with the States. (These eventually came under the Keating government in the early 1990s.)

Its most prominent decisions were connected with major developments: the banning of sand mining on Fraser Island at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef; allowing the Ranger uranium mine while establishing Kakadu National Park to surround it; and failing to stop the proposed Franklin dam in Tasmania.

Yet Fraser was also active in ratifying and implementing international conventions, including the Ramsar Convention on internationally significant wetlands, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species; and the Japan Australia Migratory Bird Agreement.

On World Heritage, Fraser secured the listing of Australia’s first five properties: Wilandra Lakes in western NSW, Kakadu, the Great Barrier Reef, Lord Howe Island and the Tasmanian Wilderness.

Fraser also carried through on several major Whitlam Government reforms, despite the rancour of the Dismissal. He developed the Register of the National Estate and signed the Emerald Agreement with Queensland to provide for cooperative management of the Great Barrier Reef.

But back to development projects. In 1976, following an Inquiry, the Government decided to block sand mining on Fraser Island and to list the island on the Register of the National Estate. Lacking the constitutional power to block mining directly, it did so by refusing to grant an export permit, a decision which it then defended successfully in the High Court.

Constitutionally, this was a very significant decision, as it would confirm the Commonwealth’s ability to insert itself into many areas of traditional state responsibility, including the environment.

In 1977, this time following two Inquiries, the Fraser Government decided to allow uranium mining in the Northern Territory, but subject to extensive safeguards, including a dedicated statutory monitoring regime, due to the sensitive location of the Ranger mine within an area subsequently established as the Kakadu National Park. (Despite being located in the middle of the area concerned, the mine and its access road were excised from the area declared as national park. Over 40 years later, the Ranger uranium mine is only now closing.)

This might be regarded as an example of the ‘striking a balance’ platform on which the government was elected; mining was permitted but the National Park was created and the potential impacts of the mine on the park were regulated by special regime.

A dam in Tasmania

In the dying days of the Fraser Government, one environmental issue, the Tasmanian Government’s decision to build the Gordon below Franklin dam, would come to dominate the political discourse.

The Federal Government opposed the dam, but, despite the precedent of Fraser Island, regarded legislative intervention as a bridge too far. So, instead, Fraser offered Tasmania $500 million not to proceed with the dam, but the offer was rejected.

Despite acknowledging that it may have the legal power to stop the dam, the government argued that its World Heritage obligations did not require it to override responsibilities that it thought properly resided with the States. It would thus fall to the new Hawke government to stop the dam (something I’ll discuss in a future instalment).

The World Conservation Strategy

The Fraser Government also deserves to be remembered for its work on conservation policy.

The United Nations had adopted the World Conservation Strategy (WCS) in 1980. Fraser later announced that all Australian governments had adopted one of its principal recommendations, that every country should prepare its own National Conservation Strategy.

This was a significant initiative, not only because it initiated Australia’s first national statement on environmental policy objectives, but also because the government’s intention was that the national policy conform to the principal objectives of the WCS, which were visionary: maintaining essential ecological processes and life support systems; preserving genetic diversity, and ensuring ‘sustainable utilisation’ of species and ecosystems.

In fact, this concept of sustainable utilisation anticipated the concept of ‘sustainable development’ by seven years.

With the Fraser government losing office before the strategy, the strategy passed to the incoming Hawke government as unfinished business (again, more on this in my next instalment).

How green was the Fraser Government?

Although they couldn’t bring themselves to stop the Franklin Dam by legislation, the Fraser government presided over an active environment agenda and a significant expansion of the federal environmental role. They were particularly strong on World Heritage and got the ball rolling on a coherent national conservation policy.

And the ban on sand mining on Fraser Island is a landmark in our constitutional and environmental history.

Fraser would later write in his memoirs that if he had his time again he would have used the federal power to stop the Franklin Dam.

I once heard Fraser say of his exit from the Liberal Party, ‘I didn’t leave the Liberal Party, they left me.’ I’m not entirely sure that’s right.

Image: Malcolm Fraser emerges from Parliament House on 11 November 1975, after announcing that Governor-General Sir John Kerr had appointed him caretaker Prime Minister. Fraser’s pathway to the prime ministership now dominates our memory of his time. (NAA: A6180, 13/11/75/31; Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence, Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) 2019).

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