It’s ‘business as usual’, but at least there actually is plenty of business

Senate Budget Estimates on the environment, November 2022

By Peter Burnett

Australia’s environment department has been run down over the past decade. I’m pleased to see from this month’s Estimate hearings that it’s getting extra resources. What does that mean? Let’s consider two areas, biodiversity and Indigenous heritage.

2022 is unusual in that the new Labor government has handed down a Budget, even though the previous government had already tabled the ‘normal’ Budget in March. The main objective for this extra October Budget was to fund election commitments and to de-fund programs from the former government that Labor did not support. Larger reforms have been held off until the next (normal) Budget, due in May 2023.

Some funding was redirected from old to new programs. For example, most of the money from the old ‘single touch approvals’ program, under which the former government wanted to accredit States to take environmental approval decisions under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, was redirected into reforming the Act itself, in response to the Samuel Review of 2020.

The environment department has been run down over the last ten years. It has lost core capabilities as well as programs. The budget put $275 million over four years into strengthening corporate areas of the department.

This sounds like dull stuff, but it bodes well for building capacity to get things done. However, it’s impossible to tell how close this amount goes to enabling the department to do things it needs to be doing, like putting boots on the ground to deliver programs.

Environment is such a big agency now — covering climate and energy as well as biodiversity, water and heritage, that it’s impossible to cover everything here. So, I’ve picked just two topics of interest for a closer look, biodiversity and Indigenous heritage.

Endangered possum ‘on notice’

To illustrate just how low is the base from which the government is starting in this area, take Senator Rice’s attempts over 9 successive years to pin the government down on a credible recovery plan for the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum, the faunal emblem of Victoria.

Senator Rice pointed out that a 1997 recovery plan for the possum had expired in 2002 — 20 years ago. A draft replacement plan had not been sent to the Victorian government for comment until 2019; moreover, it remains a draft.

Officials assured Senator Rice that things had changed under the new government and that ‘we’ve really been asked to give this priority’. Unfortunately, however, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee had identified the need for further research as to exclusion zones for possums in forestry areas.

Apparently, funding had been identified and ‘we’d expect that the research would start quickly’. How long would it take? ‘We will be able to take on notice the exact timeframe’ said the official. ‘I’m not sure how long it needs to …’

Aargh! Leadbeater’s possum may be a particularly bad example, but it is by no means unique. Things are crook.

Modelling pathways to goals?

David Pocock is a new Independent Senator for the ACT. He displayed both a strong interest in environment and a good policy brain by asking about two government commitments, ‘no more species extinctions’ and its ‘30-by-30’ commitment (to have 30% of land and sea in reserve by 2030).

Had the government done its homework? Specifically, could the government deliver on these commitments with the $56 million p.a. it had allocated to threatened species, and the zero new funding it had allocated to the National Reserve System?

Senator Pocock pointed out that a recent academic study suggested that it would cost $1.7 billion p.a. just to save threatened species.

And another senator asked, had the government modelled the path to these goals?

‘Have you modelled this?’ has become something of an easy (but often valid) question in Estimates, asked mostly in relation to economic policies, but now it is being asked of environment policy.

For the record, no, the department had not modelled these outcomes.

The threatened species money was an election commitment — ie, the Labor Party came up with the amount while in Opposition, though we don’t know how, and Senators did not ask. So we remain in the dark about why $56 million p.a. is the right number.

On the 30 by 30, officials told the Committee that existing proposed reserves, including Indigenous Protected Areas, would get the government to 27%, leaving a 3% gap, unfunded but possibly met through no-cost additions, including Defence land (which, counter-intuitively, is often of high biodiversity quality) and State-owned land that they might be persuaded to place in reserve (presumably at their own cost of maintaining).

While modelling may not always be useful, we do need to move away from this kind of ‘a-wing-and-a-prayer’ approach.

Both major parties tend to announce modest yet very specific amounts for environment programs. The specificity implies that budgets have been carefully costed, while the modesty of the amounts involved often points to the opposite — that the calculations involved were probably based on a political calculus (‘this sounds credible’) rather than technical assessment of the costs of reaching the policy objective.

To be fair to the government, a target such as preventing threatened species loss can be delivered through multi-pronged approaches, including tighter regulation of development. Direct on-ground spending may be only one string to their bow.

The point remains however, that serious environmental policy needs to be taken more seriously than it is, and grounded in detailed strategy, fully and transparently costed.

Indigenous heritage

In 2020 Rio Tinto demolished, with state heritage approval, a 46,000-year-old Indigenous site at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara. The site was probably of global cultural and archaeological significance. The outrage at this destruction was global; it was made worse by the fact that national safety net mechanisms to protect Indigenous heritage failed to trigger.

As part of its response to the resulting crisis, the previous government began a process of co-designing a new national First Nations’ cultural heritage regime.

The new government has allocated $14.7 million over the next four years to continue this process. Officials described an ongoing process of detailed consultation:

“It’s very much our intent to talk not only with bodies and representative bodies but actually with communities and community members in order to get feedback about, if we are going to have a structure or approach which potentially gives First Nations people and traditional owners a much greater role in decision-making about heritage protection, understanding their concerns and approaches around all of that.”

All of this is welcome, though decades overdue and prompted by an unmitigated and avoidable disaster.

As an indication of the long-term neglect of this area, one of the national safety net laws, enacted in 1984, was intended to be interim, and included that word in its title to make this clear. The Act was amended several years later — not to insert a permanent mechanism but to remove the word ‘interim’!

Also welcome is the attention the government is giving to include sites with significant Indigenous heritage values in its World Heritage program, with nominations under development for sites in Cape York, the West Kimberley, and Murujuga (also known as the Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara, the site of over a million ancient petroglyphs of unknown origin.)

A small down payment

The Indigenous heritage processes in train are a rare example of good news in the environment portfolio.

On biodiversity, I think we could say that the new government has made a small down payment, but on a veritable mountain of environmental debt. The repayment schedule will be taxing and stretches out into the far distant future …

As to the rest, it’s a case of ‘watch this space’. Officials told Senators that the government was on track to announce its promised overhaul of national environmental law by Christmas and to legislate next year.

Here’s hoping the reforms are bold and innovative, because as Prince (now King) Charles has pointed out, we’ve been drinking in the Last Chance Saloon.

Banner image: “So, I see the Australian Government is back in the business of resourcing environmental management. I’ll believe it when I see the outcomes.” (Image by David Salt)

One thought on “It’s ‘business as usual’, but at least there actually is plenty of business

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s