Let’s start with a bang, but then what? The early Hawke Governments: 1983-1987

This is another in our series on the environmental policies of previous Australian Governments.

By Peter Burnett

The blocking of Tasmania’s Franklin Dam project by the Hawke government in 1983 is legendary, even to many who weren’t around at the time. But who can remember what came next for the nation on the environment front?

The answer, for a few years at least, was ‘not that much’.

That dam case

The Hawke Labor government came to power partly on the back of a commitment to stopping the Franklin Dam. There had been a national groundswell against the project although, unsurprisingly, Hawke’s promise to block the dam was not popular in Tasmania, where the Labor Party failed to win a single seat.

Reflecting the prominent role the Franklin-Dam issue had played in the election, the Government made stopping the dam its first item of legislative business. The World Heritage Properties Conservation Bill, enabling the government to block the dam, waSs rushed through Parliament in a month.

And Tasmania immediately challenged the law in the High Court.

The High Court’s decision in the Franklin Dam Case, upholding the validity of the federal legislation, was of enormous significance. The Government won the case by a narrow 4-3 majority, but the implications of the majority’s wide view of the federal constitutional power to turn not just environmental commitments, but any international commitment, into domestic law, were by no means marginal.

Don’t forget Biggles

The case was also significant to political cartoonists, who from then on drew Attorney General Gareth Evans as a ‘Biggles’-style World War I flying ace.

This happened because the government needed some high-quality aerial photos of the dam site for the court case. What higher quality could there be than Air Force photo reconnaissance?

The problem was that the Air Force tasked an F-111 bomber to take high-altitude photos. No one would have noticed. Unfortunately for the Attorney General, the pilot, on finding the area overcast, decided to make his photographic runs at low altitude and high speed. You can guess the rest.

A national responsibility?

The effect of the Franklin Dam Case was to validate the theme of ‘national responsibility’ that Hawke had written into the Governor- General’s Speech for the opening of Parliament in 1983:

“My new Government has been elected with a very clear mandate from the people of Australia to protect the Australian environment. My Government is convinced that it would be a gross dereliction of its Constitutional responsibility were it to fail to carry out the clear wishes of the overwhelming majority of the Australian people.

“The national Government is obliged to protect Australia’s natural and cultural heritage, including the South-West Tasmanian wilderness.

The problem was that, aside from stopping the Franklin Dam itself, the Hawke government didn’t do much to implement this ‘national responsibility’ policy during its first two terms.

In fact, the post-Franklin Dam period, through to 1987, could be regarded as rather lacklustre when it came to the environment.

The National Conservation Strategy

This lack of lustre is particularly evident in the fate of the National Conservation Strategy.

This was a Fraser government initiative [see my blog on the Fraser years], continued by Hawke. The Strategy had involved two years’ consultation and culminated in a national conference under the chairmanship of scientist and former Vice Chancellor of the University of NSW, Sir Rupert Meyers.

Environment Minister Barry Cohen presented the completed strategy to Cabinet in 1984 as ‘a blueprint for tackling environmental problems’.

This presented the Government with an important opportunity to adopt a set of high-level objectives and principles of environmental policy and to translate these into action.

However, the States were tepid towards the strategy, even though they all ultimately endorsed it, and the Government’s central agencies gave some advice of which Sir Humphrey would be proud: that advice was summarised in the cabinet submission as ‘the definition of endorsement should not include a commitment to implement the Priority National Actions’!

Cabinet thus squibbed a major opportunity for early action, endorsing the strategy in principle and deciding that it would consider implementation later.

Of course, ‘later’ never came. This was despite Hawke emphasising in the published version that ‘[t]he real significance of the strategy … will be measured not so much by the words it contains but by the actions it generates’!

Unfortunately, this was by no means the last occasion on which Australian governments would talk the talk but not walk the walk.

More talking the talk …

This same failure can also be seen in Australia’s contribution to the OECD during this period.

Australia played significant role in persuading OECD environment ministers in 1985 to commit their governments to ‘an integrated approach, with a view to ensuring long-term environmental and economic sustainability’.

Indeed, in deploying the ‘natural capital’ metaphor in his speech to the meeting, Australia’s delegation leader, Employment Minister Ralph Willis, placed himself at the very cutting edge of policy:

“To our cost we have given inadequate attention to the need for an environmentally and economically integrated approach to the management of natural resources or ‘natural capital’…It is in our mutual interest that each country should manage its ‘natural capital’ as efficiently as possible and with the same concern as accorded the efficient use of other physical, financial and human capital.”

Domestically however we did nothing to develop programs based on maintaining natural capital.

In the meantime, the government had established national State of the Environment (SoE) reporting in 1985. The second SoE Report in 1986 reported that much had been achieved in establishing institutions, enacting laws and implementing programs, but warned that “continuation of these efforts is essential, and important environmental problems remain.”

And one of its conclusions was that “greater emphasis [needs] to be given to developing anticipatory policies designed to prevent future problems …”

Displaying a tin ear, the Government promptly discontinued SoE reporting as a budget savings measure. (National SoE reporting was re-established in 1996.)

Not the end of the story

If the Hawke Government were an environmental policy student in 1985, its report card would start with an A+, followed by a string of D’s. The card would bear the teacher’s comment that ‘this talented student has lost interest and is skipping class’.

However, things began to change in the lead-up to the 1987 election and Hawke would go on to become, in my view, Australia’s most pro-environmental Prime Minister to date.

But that’s another story for a future blog.

Banner image: The bright triangle ‘no dams’ sticker was emblematic of the Franklin Dam protests. It was the first big environmental issue tackled by the new Hawke Government in 1983.

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