‘The Big Shift’ begins – sustainable development comes to Australia

Environmental policy changes under the third Hawke government (1987-1990)

By Peter Burnett

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

The story so far: In the previous instalment in this series on environmental policy in Australia, we saw how the Hawke Government was elected in 1983 on the back of a wave of environmental concern surrounding the proposed Franklin Dam in Tasmania. Unfortunately, having stopped the dam, the Government lost its enthusiasm for the environment. But the wheel was turning …

In the lead-up to the 1987 election Hawke swung back to a fairly strong pro-environment stance. Environmental concerns were on the rise and, in return for Labor’s campaign commitments in relation to environmentally-significant areas such as Kakadu Stage II, the environment movement had advocated a vote for Labor.

Graham Richardson, a backbencher but nevertheless an influential party fixer, was instrumental in negotiating these commitments. After Labor won the election, Richardson’s reward was not just promotion to the ministry as Environment Minister, but the elevation of the environment portfolio to cabinet.

Suddenly the environment was back at the centre of policy-making.

What Now?

Labor implemented the promises it made about expanding Kakadu; it also protected some other very special places including the Wet Tropics forests and Shelburne Bay in North Queensland.

But this wasn’t where the action lay for policy nerds. The most interesting action was to be found inside the Cabinet.

The ‘environmental turn’ had been driven much more by politics than policy. Flushed with success and now a cabinet minister, Graeme Richardson pressed for more of what some insiders deprecatingly called ‘one-off forays’, or ‘icons’, interventions to protect prominent bits of the environment with high public appeal, without a larger vision or plan about how to care for the environment.

While this approach held the prospect of more political success, it also caused deep frustration on the part of ministers with economic portfolios.

Events intervened. While the Hawke Cabinet didn’t know it at the time, 1987 was the year in which (what I would call) ‘The Big Shift’ in environmental policy began.

Sustainable development: will it sink or swim?

In mid-1987 the United Nations published a report, Our Common Future, or Brundtland Report as it was known.

This was no ordinary report. On the back of a several environmental disasters including the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the Brundtland Report was grabbing headlines.

Brundtland put a new concept on the table, ‘sustainable development’, which it defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

The Environment Department advised Richardson to raise the Brundtland Report in Cabinet, but he rejected this idea.

The archives don’t reveal why, but my guess is that Richardson wanted to continue his ‘icons’ approach.

Politically, the ‘icons’ approach was simple and successful. ‘Sustainable Development’, on the other hand, was a nebulous policy idea. Why risk it?

Policy fights back

But if Richardson thought he could apply a little of Sir Humphrey’s ‘masterly inaction’, he’d underestimated the Clark Kent-like Primary Industries Minister John Kerin.

At the suggestion of the head of the mining lobby, Kerin read the Brundtland Report. He writes in his autobiography that he saw in Sustainable Development a possible way to reconcile competing arguments on environmental management and began promoting the idea.

But Kerin had also built up a head of steam. In his submission to Cabinet, he was highly critical of:

“eleventh hour ad hoc responses to proposals … minimal recognition of the multiple objectives involved in resource allocation decisions and a propensity for parties to seek “winner take all outcomes” without understanding economic, social or environmental consequences.”

Kerin persuaded Hawke and other ministers to send Richardson and himself away to develop options for rationalising and improving the policy framework for decisions on what was blandly described as ‘competing land uses’.

Surprisingly, Kerin didn’t actually suggest that the government endorse Sustainable Development per se. Instead, perhaps hoping to hoist Richardson on his own policy petard, he made sure that Cabinet directed that the two ministers take into account the policy principles embodied in the dormant Nature Conservation Strategy from 1984.

While this strategy pre-dated the Brundtland report, it took a Brundtland-like approach of pursuing both conservation and development as essential.

Working the policy through

The work was delegated to officials. It must have been hard going, because it took officials from the environment and economic departments 11 months to prepare a report for Cabinet, during which they identified no less than 47 objectives and principles to be applied in resolving conflicting land-use claims! (Admittedly the principles were divided into categories; eg, economic principles, conflict resolution principles.)

And it seems that 11 months of dialogue had exhausted everyone, because, rather than telling the public servants to whittle the 47 principles down to a manageable few, Cabinet endorsed the lot!

Things weren’t as bad as they looked though, because the three principles at the head of the list of 47 were given primacy by being endorsed as ‘notable’.

More than this, Cabinet agreed to establish the Resource Assessment Commission (RAC), an independent body which was to assess and report on major environment and development issues (but only if the government gave them a reference). And the three ‘notable’ principles were written into the RAC legislation.

So, round one in the fight for good policy went to Kerin and the economic ministers.

We now had a set of environmental policy principles and a body, headed by a judge, to report on major environment and development issues. (I’ll tell you what happened to the RAC another day.)

The principles

But what about the principles, I hear you say?

The first dealt with policy integration. Common sense really: consider conservation and development together, as early as possible.

The remaining two principles reflect the downsides of compromise.

The second principle was that there should be ‘benefit optimisation’, which seems like an attempt to graft environmental and equity considerations onto economic efficiency. But it takes the easy way out: while saying that decision-makers should look at all three factors (environment, society, economy), the principle gives no guidance as to how they can be reconciled to produce a single outcome.

The third principle, that in some cases both conservation and development can be accommodated concurrently or sequentially, and, in other cases, choices must be made between alternative uses, seems like weasel words to me, to play down the need to make hard decisions.

For example, the idea that a mine-site could be cleared of critical habitat and later returned to its previous condition without enduring loss, is wishful thinking. (Yet we can see that thinking in recent decisions that count site restoration as environmental offsets!)

The remaining 44 principles, never announced, included a number of existing principles, such as ‘polluter pays’ and some prosaic statements, for example that the costs of environmental consultation should be kept down.

The Big Shift begins

Despite all the hard work put into them, at the end of the day, this was a flawed set of principles. But they did mark a start, the start of ‘The Big Shift’ from an ad hoc protection of special places, to a systematic and integrated approach to environmental policy.

It’s ironic that this move was championed by the Minister for Agriculture, John Kerin, head of a ministry that has traditionally been focussed on production and not seen as a good friend to the environment, while at the same time the Environment Minister seemed disinterested in wider or deeper policy reform.

Top marks to John Kerin for a big effort.

Unfortunately, one attempt would not be enough. In fact, 35 years later, The Big Shift is by no means complete.

In many ways our environmental policy settings are just as ad hoc, opaque and reactive as they were in the late 1980s.

Banner image: Mossman Gorge, part of the Daintree National Park in Tropical North Queensland. The area was given World Heritage Status in the 1980s, a time in which there was considerable political reward for protecting iconic bits of nature. It was during these years that environmental policy began its big shift, moving towards a bigger picture on sustainable development. (Image by David Salt)

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