A new government and a new environment minister – what now for Australian environmental policy?

By Peter Burnett

So Australia has a new Labor government, having secured its win on the back of a ‘small target’ strategy that meant saying as little as possible about substantive policy (including on the environment).

That’s nice for them, but what now for the environment itself, especially since Labor’s intended environment minister, Terri Butler, lost her seat to a Green?

Before I get to that, a little more on the environmental implications of the election results.

Despite both major parties largely ignoring the environment (see my last blog), it was quite a ‘green’ election, with the Greens picking up three inner-city Brisbane seats in the lower house to add to their base of just one, while also jumping from nine to 12 seats in the Senate, a 33% increase.

More than this, there was a ‘Teal wave’ in the lower house, with five supposedly-safe ‘blue-ribbon’ Liberal Party seats falling to pro-climate-change ‘Teal’ Independents, joining Zali Steggall and several others to create a loose pro-climate cross-bench ginger group of up to nine.

Meanwhile, the Senate, with the addition of Canberra-based Independent David Pocock, now has a pro-climate majority.

Together these changes represent a major shift in favour of environmental action. (I’m going to assume that the pro-climate MPs will be generally pro-environment, although the degree to which this is ‘on the record’ varies between these MPs.)

While it’s hard to divine the reasons for this shift, I’ll go with conventional wisdom for the moment, which is that our recent horror years of drought, fire, smoke, storm and flood have brought climate change in particular into the homes many millions of Australians, literally.

Policy on the record

Until just before the election, Labor had well-developed policies on climate and water, but a small grab-bag of policies on the rest. At the last minute, Labor released a policy on environmental law reform, in the context of the previous government’s failure to table a full response to the 2020 Samuel Review of Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

Labor promised a full response to the Samuel Review, but in the meantime says they will establish an independent Environment Protection Agency. The agency will have two roles, one concerned with gathering and analysing environmental information and the other focused on compliance with environmental regulation and assurance that environmental standards are being met.

Labor highlights that, as well as being a custodian for national environmental information, the EPA’s data division will take a ‘leadership role’ in environmental accounting. This is a welcome and overdue development for a decision tool that remains largely unrecognised.

Policy off the record

While Labor lifted its game at the last minute with its environmental law reform policy, they can hardly be said to be environmental-policy high performers.

Their ‘43% by 2030’ climate target, while a significant advance on the ‘26 to 28%’ target of the outgoing government, is still much criticised as falling well short of what the Paris target of ‘well below 2 degrees’ requires.

And the environmental law reform commitment remains, for the most part, a commitment to come up with answers rather than an answer in itself. Once the new government starts work on fleshing its policy out, they will find that the job requires much more than just a streamlining of environmental regulation and some extra money for a resource-starved department.

The really big challenges are a lack of clarity and ambition about environmental outcomes and a major under-investment in environmental restoration.

While the Paris targets and our ‘Net Zero by 2050’ commitments provide a clear policy objective for climate policy, the same cannot be said for other areas, biodiversity in particular.

Australia (and almost everyone else) has failed to engage seriously with international targets based on halting and reversing biodiversity decline and our existing domestic biodiversity policies are either meaningless waffle or non-existent.

And our data is so poor that even the experts find it hard to tell us what a policy to halt biodiversity decline would look like on the ground.

Our history of policy failure to date suggests strongly that if reversing biodiversity decline is to be the goal, major institutional change and major investment in environmental restoration will be needed, far beyond anything seen to date.

And the new minister?

The good news is that Tanya Plibersek has been appointed environment minister in the new government. Announcing her appointment, the Prime Minister said Ms Plibersek had a long-term interest in the environment and would be ‘outstanding in that area … particularly in the area of the Murray Darling Basin Plan … it’s very important that that actually get delivered.’

Ms Plibersek is a very experienced and capable operator with previous ministerial experience. She is often spoken of as a future leader and has political heft.

The bad news is that her challenge is not simply to be a political success in the role, nor even to deliver real progress on the ground. The real challenge is to lay the foundations for ongoing success, against a backdrop in which the goal-posts, thanks to climate change, keep moving further away.

Tanya Plibersek will need all her considerable skill and experience, and a significant dollop of Parliamentary and stakeholder goodwill, if she is to have any prospect of meeting this daunting challenge.

We wish her luck.

Banner image: The Australian numbat, now listed as Endangered. Widespread clearing of their habitat and predation by feral animals have led to their steep decline. Arresting the collapse of our biodiversity is just of several major environmental challenges Australia’s new government needs to tackle. (Image by Seashalia Gibb from Pixabay)

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