And for my next environmental trick …

Will the federal government engage in real environmental reform before the election?

By Peter Burnett

One of my favourite environmental cartoons appeared in 2015 in the lead up to the Paris climate meeting. It depicts Australia’s environment minister (who was then Josh Frydenberg) as a magician performing for a domestic audience. The magician pulls a climate policy rabbit out of a hat. Meanwhile, a giant rabbit called ‘Paris’ peers round a curtain on the stage …

This October Prime Minister Morrison tried something of a similar trick, releasing the ‘Australian Way’, a climate ‘plan’ that ramped up Australia’s climate ambition to Net Zero by 2050, without the benefit of any new policy to support this heightened ambition.

With almost breathtaking hutzpah, Mr Morrison even told the domestic audience that ‘the Australian way shows a way for other countries to follow’! Meanwhile, a justified monstering awaited him at Glasgow …

A Magic Pudding

At the time of the PM’s announcement, my immediate thought was not of magicians but of Norman Lindsay’s 1917 children’s book, The Magic Pudding, in which Albert, the irascible pudding, is forever being eaten but is never consumed.

When the ‘modelling’ behind the plan was released, it confirmed my suspicion of ‘magical thinking’. For example, it uses an unrealistic baseline scenario called ‘No Australian Action’, in which every country except Australia reduces their emissions to achieve a below 2 degrees emissions trajectory. The scenario then assumes that the only adverse reaction to such free riding by Australia comes from investors imposing a capital risk premium.

Meanwhile, the costs of climate inaction, imposed by extreme weather, climate refugees and so on do not rate a mention.

Content-free reform

While the government has yet to display such blatant ‘magical thinking’ in its approach to reforming Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), it is certainly showing ‘magical’ tendencies in the sense that the ‘reforms’ it has announced to date contain nothing real.

Readers will recall that the EPBC Act was the subject of a major independent review by Professor Graeme Samuel in 2020. The centrepiece of the Samuel Review was a shift from process-based regulation to outcome-based National Environmental Standards.

Releasing a reform ‘pathway’ in response to the Samuel Review in June this year, the Government announced that it would adopt Interim Standards that — wait for it — reflected the (process-based) status quo!

Yet all is not quite as vacuous as it seems. The government does have an agenda, just not one concerned with halting environmental decline.

Rather, its priority is to devolve environmental approvals to the states. It has labelled its devolution proposals as ‘single touch’ approvals and declared these to be the ‘priority reforms’ in its response to the Samuel Review.

While, on paper, there’s a timeline for substantive environmental reforms to come later, in reality, nothing happens until Parliament passes the necessary legislation.

The subtext? If you want environmental reform, you’ll pass our devolution laws.

Trouble is, the devolution laws are stuck in the Senate and are looking increasingly unlikely to pass. Cross-benchers have called the government’s bluff.

So, with an election looming, will the government be content to leave it at that?

One more shot in the environmental reform locker?

Well, the government has another shot in its environmental reform locker, but it is not clear how they will use it.

In the last federal Budget, they announced $2.7 million over three years to pilot a Commonwealth-accredited regional plan to ‘support and accelerate development in a priority regional area’. Tiny as it is, this is a response to one of Professor Samuel’s 38 reform recommendations.

Accrediting bioregional plans under the EPBC Act holds the prospect of both better-protecting the environment while also fulfilling the government’s dream of getting the federal government out of giving environmental approvals on a case-by-case basis and leaving that to the states.

Especially in light of the Senate bottleneck with the ‘single touch’ legislation, you’d think the government would have moved quickly with this project, to get some runs on the board before the election.

This expectation is reinforced by the Budget itself, with the largest share of the funding, $1.179 million, allocated to the current financial year.

Yet with the year almost half over, there’s been no announcement of a partnership with a state or territory for the pilot plan.

Going to plan(?)

So, is the federal government taking regional environmental planning seriously? If it does, there’s a lot of groundwork to do and statutory requirements to be met. ‘Bioregional’ plans, as the EPBC Act calls them, can be disallowed by either House of Parliament; they could also be subject to court challenge if substantive requirements were not met.

With nearly half the year gone, there’s probably not time before the election for much more than an announcement of a deal with one lucky state or territory to develop a pilot regional plan.

Not a lot of electoral bang there.

And there are also potential downsides. For example, the exercise of preparing a regional plan might reveal that the environment in that region in fact needs more protection (and more investment in recovery) that the government might like.

There’s always the base political option of not taking regional planning seriously and simply putting a federal ‘koala stamp’ on an existing, or rustled up, state plan. This could then be trumpeted as the first instalment of a major reform, though it would almost certainly bring on Parliamentary and legal challenges.

Certainly nothing for the environment in that. But would the Coalition see votes in it?

Or will it simply roll out some ‘practical environmental restoration’ (known to the rest of us as marginal-electorate-targeted environmental pork barrelling) as it did last time with the $100 million Environmental Restoration Fund?

Magic Pudding anyone?

Banner image: And for my next trick (Image by u_dg9pheol at Pixabay)

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