At last, an international standard for ecosystem accounting! Now what?

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A backgrounder on the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting – Ecosystem Accounts

By Peter Burnett

Just last month the United Nations Statistical Commission adopted an international standard for ecosystem accounting. The new standard is the latest addition to the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) and is often known by its acronym, SEEA EA.

SEEA EA has been a long time coming. Countries agreed to pursue environmental accounting at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, but it took until 2012 to develop and adopt the SEEA ‘Central Framework’. There was a companion draft ecosystem standard at that point, but countries couldn’t agree on its content, so they adopted it as ‘experimental’.

Joyful family welcome new arrival

It’s taken another eight years to adopt the SEEA EA as a full international standard, so it’s not surprising that top international officials were enthusiastic in their media releases:

‘A historic step towards transforming the way how we view and value nature’ said UN Secretary General António Guterres. ‘No longer will we allow mindless environmental destruction to be considered as economic progress.’

‘This is a major step forward’, said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UN Environment. ‘The new framework can be a game changer in decision-making. By highlighting the contribution of nature, we now have a tool that allows us to properly view and value nature. It can help us bring about a rapid and lasting shift toward sustainability for both people and the environment.’

‘This is a giant leap towards measuring nature’s contributions to the economy’ said World Bank Global Director for Environment, Karin Kemper.

There were more quotes from more officials, but you get the drift. This is definitely good news.

Is this a big deal?

So will the SEEA EA be all that it’s cracked up to be?

Just having a standard is quite a big deal. It means authority and consistency. It should mean that national statisticians, treasury departments and other key government agencies will accept statistics derived from ecosystem accounts as being just as authoritative as mainstream economic statistics, which are derived from the National Accounts. (The SEEA and System of National Accounts, SNA, are designed to be compatible.)

It should also mean general government acceptance of the dependence of the economy on the environment, because the SEEA EA opens as follows:

1.1 It is well established that healthy ecosystems and biodiversity are fundamental to supporting and sustaining our wellbeing …

1.2 … there has been growing recognition that the degradation of nature is not purely an environmental issue requiring environmental policy responses. Thus, decision makers across all sectors need to consider their environmental context and the associated dependencies and impacts.

If that’s good enough for national statisticians, it should be good enough for government as a whole. While these statements may reflect old news in the academic literature; they could be new news for official analysis and government decision-making.

For starters, it certainly should mean that State of the Environment reports should be replaced by comprehensive ecosystem accounts. The resulting statistics on environmental degradation should then be just as authoritative as inflation or unemployment statistics. And a proposal for a new environmental program based on such statistics should be taken just as seriously by a Cabinet as a proposal for a program to support an emerging industry.

What’s in the box?

The SEEA EA is built on five core accounts:

1. Ecosystem extent accounts, which record the total area of each ecosystem, by type, within an ecosystem accounting area (eg, nation, political or natural region, river basin, protected area);

2. Ecosystem condition accounts, which record the condition of ecosystem assets in terms of selected characteristics (eg, physical and structural state, soil condition) over time;

3. Physical ecosystem services flow accounts, which record the supply of ecosystem services by ecosystem assets and the use of those services by economic units, including households;

4. Monetary ecosystem services flow accounts, as for physical flow accounts but measured, of course, in money;

5. Monetary ecosystem accounts record information on stocks of ecosystem assets and changes in those stocks (gains and losses).

The SEEA EA also supports ‘thematic accounting’, which organizes data around specific policy-relevant environmental themes, such as biodiversity, climate change, oceans and urban areas. Other important thematic accounts would include accounting for protected areas, wetlands and forests. It also contains a section on ‘applications and extensions’, such as using accounting data to support decision-making on biodiversity, or how to account for the oceans.

Is this a sell-out?

People often worry that environmental accounting means putting a dollar value on everything, the so-called ‘commodification of the environment’. Although the SEEA EA provides for ecosystem accounting in monetary terms, it does not require it. It is up to the user and could be a matter of horses for courses.

Where ecosystems provide direct ecosystem services to human economic activity, it might be both feasible and useful to keep monetary accounts. For example, a mountain native forest adjacent to both urban and horticultural areas might readily support monetary flow accounts for ecosystem services such as water purification, pollination and carbon sequestration, because it is possible to derive economic values for all of these.

Equally, it might not be feasible or useful to attempt monetary accounts for a remote island, little visited but providing habitat for listed threatened species. Here the benefits to humans are largely indirect, through biodiversity conservation. Monetary accounts would be very difficult to construct, because of the difficulty of valuing biodiversity for its own sake, but physical accounts would be very useful, offering the benefits of a standardised approach, not only to monitoring the extent and condition of the species concerned but for managing those characteristics.

What now?

I’d like to go on but I’ve run out of space! I think ecosystem accounts could have something in common with lasers: when first discovered, nobody knew quite what to do with them, but over time they have become indispensable.

Now that the hard technical work has been done, the big challenge is for governments to pick up this powerful new tool and put it to good use. That’s a much harder task than developing the SEEA EA. And we can’t wait nearly as long.

Image by Ronny Overhate from Pixabay

Environment as Quality of Life: The Whitlam Government 1972-1975

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By Peter Burnett

Author’s Note: This is another in our series covering the environmental policies of past Australian Governments

Most Australians have heard of ‘the Dismissal’, but to actually remember it you’d have to be at least into your 50s. The government headed by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was perhaps Australia’s most controversial, and certainly the only one to have be sacked by the Governor General.

This was a bold and sometimes reckless government, with a ‘crash through or crash’ reputation.

But it was also a visionary government. Even now, many Australians would know of Whitlam’s 1972 ‘It’s time’ election slogan and policy speech, though few would recall anyone else’s election policy speech, including those of our current leaders.

Whitlam and Environment

Environment had become a ‘thing’ by 1972, and Whitlam was all for it. However, the relevant parts of his policy speech were cast in terms of quality of life rather than environment per se. He did however make specific environmental commitments relating to urban tree-planting, national parks, water conservation and heritage.

Once Whitlam came to power, and consistent with his ‘crash through or crash’ reputation, he focused on passing legislation. His Government did not waste much time developing policy statements; they were a government of action.

To the extent that it articulated an environmental vision, it is best captured in the Governor-General’s Speech on the opening of the Parliament in 1973:

“[My Government] is, however, deeply conscious that economic growth and material well-being no longer reflect the whole aspirations and expectation of the Australian community, and that prosperity alone is no longer exactly equated with true progress. The Department of the Environment and Conservation proposes to develop a ‘human progress’ index to reflect the new and emerging human and social values in a modern society.

“In planning for this generation, my Government intends to protect the rights and national inheritance of future generations of Australians. The Government will institute a program requiring environment impact statements for all major projects involving national funds and national constitutional powers.

From vision to action

This sense of an enduring quality of life, which echoed campaign policy speeches, flowed through to three of the four laws that constitute the bulk of the environmental record of the Whitlam Government. (The promised human progress index never saw the light of day.)

The Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 (EPIP Act) delivered on the commitment in the Governor General’s speech to require environmental impact statements.

The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 provided for the establishment of federal parks and reserves, while the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 established the GBR Marine Park and the GBR Marine Park Authority to look after it.

From the 1960s, the Queensland Government had advocated oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest structure made of living organisms, and one of the most complex known ecosystems. The Wallace Royal Commission into drilling on the Reef, called by the Gorton Government in 1970, reported in 1974 but Whitlam immediately announced an intention to pass what became the Marine Park Act, to protect the reef from oil drilling.

The Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975 which established the Australian Heritage Commission and the Register of the National Estate, which would eventually list more 13,000 natural, Indigenous and historic places around the country.

While the EPIP Act was directed to the utilitarian purpose of improved environmental decision making, the remaining three laws concerned either the protection of natural places of significance to the nation and the conservation of its heritage. As Minister for Urban and Regional Development Tom Uren put it when introducing the Heritage Commission Act, the Government’s philosophy was to “beat the bulldozer mentality”.

The Whitlam government also made an early federal foray into water policy. In a ministerial statement entitled A National Approach to Water Resources Management, environment minister Moss Cass articulated the need for an integrated and planning-based approach to water resource management, applying social as well as economic objectives and the polluter-pays principle, supported by an extensive program of data-gathering and analysis.

Mainstream to the modern eye

All of this seems fairly mainstream stuff now, but it was radical at the time.

EIA was still cutting edge, having made its first appearance only five years before in the US National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). And heritage had only recently entered the popular consciousness with the imposition of ‘Green Bans’, by the radical Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, on demolition sites in The Rocks and other inner-Sydney locations in the early 1970s.

All of these laws took the Federal Government into the States’ backyards, not only Constitutionally but literally. And, as anyone who’s watched our State governments over time would expect, the States opposed such intrusions vigorously. The Feds, after all, were tromping all over traditional State responsibilities.

And yet, the statements about water resource management would not raise a policy eyebrow these days.

We’ve come such a long way since then … or have we?

Image: Whitlam’s Ministry in 1974. (National Archives of Australia, the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

‘Standards’ in name only?

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The government’s National Environmental Standards don’t do what you might expect

By Peter Burnett

Last month the federal government introduced the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 (the Standards and Assurance Bill).

The Standards and Assurance Bill is a follow-on to an earlier bill (the Streamlining Bill), which I’ve written about before (see Red Lines for Green Values).

The Streamlining Bill would amend the EPBC Act to ‘streamline’ environmental decision-making by enabling development approvals, following environmental impact assessment, to be devolved to states and territories. This idea used to be called the ‘one-stop shop’ approach but the government now calls it ‘single-touch approvals’.

The Standards and Assurance Bill provides for National Environmental Standards; it also establishes an independent statutory position of Environment Assurance Commissioner, tasked mainly with monitoring and auditing decision-making by states under devolved arrangements.

The standards should set hard environmental bottom lines, but if this bill goes through, they won’t. More on this in a minute, but first a little context.

Where are we going with this?

The government presents both bills as first steps in responding to the comprehensive reforms recommended by Professor Graham Samuel in his 2020 Independent Review of the EPBC Act.

While it is true that Professor Samuel envisaged the devolution of development approvals to the states as part of his reform package, it is quite a stretch to argue that these two bills are the first steps of a comprehensive reform process, for several reasons.

The most significant reason is that the government has not tabled a response to the Samuel Review and so we have no idea what the government’s environmental reform agenda is, if indeed it has one.

If these two bills are the first steps, then they are steps towards a secret, perhaps even unknown, destination. All we know about the government’s intentions is that its policy narrative on environmental reform has rarely strayed beyond its ‘cutting-green-tape’ mantra of regulatory efficiency.

Stuck in the Senate

But back to the two bills. The Streamlining Bill got stuck in the Senate after three crucial cross-benchers opposed it, not because they were fundamentally opposed to devolution, but because they wanted to be satisfied that devolved approvals would be made properly.

At that point, in November 2020, the government had tabled neither the Samuel Review, nor the template for bilateral agreements setting out accreditation arrangements. In other words, it was asking the Parliament to take it on trust (see Trust us? Well let’s look at your record.)

The government then introduced the Standards and Assurance Bill in February 2021. Environment minister Sussan Ley presented the Bill as a step in the reform process but, in the absence of a broader vision from the government, it’s hard not to see the Bill as an attempt to get the Streamlining Bill over the line by responding to cross bench concerns.

At first blush, the Standards and Assurance Bill does advance two key recommendations from Professor Samuel.

The problem is, that’s all it does. It’s very concerning that the government is resorting to a piecemeal approach to legislative reform.

With yet more horrific environmental news emerging in recent weeks (see ‘Existential threat to our survival’: see the 19 Australian ecosystems already collapsing), the government’s approach is mystifying: they just don’t seem to get how urgent the need for action is, or don’t want to.

When is a standard not a standard?

As to the Standards and Assurance Bill itself, it’s the provisions on the standards that worry me.

In fact, I don’t think the ‘standards’ are standards at all. If standards for decisions are set by law, you’d be forgiven for expecting that an environmental approval that failed to meet the standards would automatically be invalid and that an interested party could get a court decision to that effect.

Not so with these standards. Here, compliance with standards will be a subjective question for the decision-maker. And the question will not be about compliance, but inconsistency. In other words, the question for the federal environment minister, or an accredited state decision-maker, won’t be ‘have I complied with the standard?’ but ‘in my opinion, is this decision not inconsistent with the standards?’

Because the question of inconsistency is made a matter of opinion, the courts will tend to uphold any decision based on that opinion, provided there is a rationality of some sort to it, because the courts are extremely reluctant to substitute their opinion for that of a statutory decision-maker.

This is particularly the case when one reads on in the bill and discovers that, in forming her or his opinion about inconsistency, the decision-maker can have regard to federal or state policy, plans, programs or spending decisions, indeed anything that might conceivably be relevant.

Lowering the bar

This opens up a giant back door to ‘trade-off’ decisions, the very antithesis of meeting standards.

The explanatory memorandum tabled by the government gives the example of a decision-maker approving impacts on the values of a National Heritage place if those impacts are ‘balanced by mechanisms that promote those values (which may, for example, be delivered through funding of activities by a state relating to the promotion of those values)’.

I have my own examples, hypothetical of course.

The federal environment minister might decide that a decision to demolish part of the Australian War Memorial (a National Heritage place) is ‘balanced’ by a government decision to spend a lot of money on building a new exhibition hall. Thus a standard that says the fabric of heritage buildings should be conserved could be met by demolishing some of that fabric!

Or a state minister might decide that the loss of a population of a critically endangered species is ‘balanced’ by an investment in research on the species, even if the standard says that all populations of critically endangered species should be maintained.

Note that these ‘balancing’ decisions would not required to comply with federal offsets policy, even though they are offsets by another name. So the bill opens a possible reduction in standards.

And just in case a nervous state decision-maker thought they couldn’t come up with a ‘balancing’ state policy, plan, program or spending decision (hardly likely), they can apply to the federal minister for an exemption in the ‘public interest’! Perhaps states will resort to this if they want to approve a controversial development and shift the environmental blame to Canberra!

But wait, there’s more

As if this wasn’t enough, the minister said in her second reading speech that the initial set of standards would reflect the existing EPBC Act, ie she will ignore the standards recommended by Professor Samuel, even though she’s had them since 30 October last year. The problem with the existing standards is that they are all either process driven, or so broad that only the most extreme decision would contravene them.

Moreover, once the states are accredited under existing standards, they, and development interests, can be expected to push back hard against any proposals to tighten the standards, probably relying on arguments about moving the goal posts and costing jobs.

Standards in name only

It all boils down to this: if the Standards and Assurance Bill is passed, the standards we will get will be standards in name only. They won’t be a step forward, but backwards.

Cross-benchers looking to be satisfied that devolved approvals would protect the environment are surely facing disappointment.

Postscript: The Senate Environment and Communications Committee is conducting an Inquiry into the Standards and Assurance Bill. Submissions are due by 25 March. See: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/Protectionandbiocon

Image by Alain Audet from Pixabay

A toe in the water: Australia gets its first Federal environment minister (1971) and the world comes together in Stockholm (1972)

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How do you deal with this thing called ‘the Environment’?

By Peter Burnett

Author’s Note: This is the second in an occasional series reflecting on the history of Australian environmental policy.

Nineteen Sixty Nine was a year of great environmental concern in the West. These concerns had been growing for some time, and were coming to a head. In America, there was a huge oil spill from a drilling platform off Santa Barbara, California, while in Ohio the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River, which flows into Lake Erie, caught fire!

Nineteen Sixty Nine was also the year in which the Gorton Coalition Government was elected in Australia. (If you’ve seen David Williamson’s play Don’s Party, it’s that election.)

In 1970 Gorton called a half-senate election — ie, a general election, but only for half of the members of the Senate. We’ve only had four of these, of which 1970 was the last, so they are something of a Constitutional curiosity. But I digress.

One of Gorton’s policy commitments in the half-Senate campaign was to establish an Office of the Environment within the Prime Minister’s Department. In his campaign opening Gorton acknowledged ‘mounting, and justified, concern’ about the risks of pollution which ‘represent[ed] a failure to take fully into account the environmental consequences of our actions …’

The first Minister for the Environment

Gorton fulfilled his commitment and set up an Office of the Environment in the Prime Minister’s Department. However, he was soon replaced as Prime Minister by William (Bill) McMahon. McMahon made environment a portfolio and appointed Peter Howson as the first federal environment minister in May 1971.

There was a big international environment meeting scheduled for 1972. In fact, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, to be held at Stockholm, was the first of what would become regular decadal international meetings between governments on the environment.

In the lead up to the Stockholm Conference, Howson made a Ministerial Statement to Parliament under the bland title ‘Australian Environment: Commonwealth Policy and Achievements’. The statement was pretty much intended to put a political toe in the water.

The key factor stressed in the statement was that the Commonwealth saw itself as having limited powers in an area. It saw the environment as being primarily a State responsibility. This was certainly true historically and the Commonwealth would not test its constitutional powers on the environment until the Tasmanian Dam case, a decade later.

Howson’s Ministerial Statement told of the recent establishment of a council of federal and state environment ministers, the Australian Environment Council, and announced a new requirement for “impact statements” to inform Cabinet decisions with environmental implications.

This was the first Australian requirement for environmental impact assessment. The idea was copied from the United States National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) although, unlike in the USA, there was no legislative backing.

Environmental principles

The Statement was also significant in its early domestic articulation of a number major principles of environmental policy. Two of the most important were the ‘polluter pays’ principle and the principle of harmonising international environmental standards to avoid trade distortions.

Both principles came from the OECD, which had recently moved into environmental issues, establishing a high level Environment Policy Committee, known as ‘EPOC’, in 1971. EPOC still exists today.

Although both the ‘polluter pays’ and ‘harmonised standards’ principles were really just applications of mainstream economics, their articulation as environmental policy broke significant new ground.

Despite regarding environment as mostly a State matter, Howson’s statement recognised that environmental concerns were a national problem requiring Commonwealth leadership, including public advocacy where necessary. This would obviously apply in international affairs but could also apply domestically because environmental problems were not confined to State boundaries.

The statement also recognised that environmental issues are not just a set of problems with common themes, but manifestations of an overarching challenge:

"So far as the Commonwealth is concerned the question is one of devising a pattern of national development in which environmental objectives go hand in hand with economic, social and cultural goals. Our philosophy is directed to this end—to devising and developing such a pattern in co-operation with the States, with local government, with business and industry and the community as a whole." [Emphasis added]

Indeed,

"The threat to man's environment is world-wide. It makes no distinctions. There is much to be gained, therefore, by Australia sharing its problems and the search for solutions with others."

And as a result:

"We are prepared to use all the international machinery at our disposal to achieve the sort of co-operation required for global action and to protect our own interests in problems with environmental implications."

On paper at least, Australia was recognising environment as an issue at all scales from local to global, and was reaching for some sort of overarching goal that would integrate environmental and other objectives – in other words, some form of sustainability.

This anticipated the soon-to-be-made Stockholm Declaration but doesn’t mean that the Australian government was prescient — the Government would have had fore-knowledge of the likely content of the Declaration through the circulation of official drafts.

The first major international environment meeting

In his later statement to the Stockholm Conference, Howson emphasised the need for better decision-making, firstly in terms of the need for environmental data to measure the full impact of human actions on the environment, and secondly in terms of improving the way in which economics addresses environmental issues, ‘though a spurious mathematical precision has to be avoided’.

As it turned out, excessive precision has never been the problem with environmental decision-making! Quite the opposite in fact: environmental decisions plagued by a lack of basic information, underdone policy guidance and in many cases a high degree of opacity.

Of course, Australia was not a major player at Stockholm and when we look at the Conference more broadly, the big story is that developing countries of the global South quickly forced a dramatic broadening of the original pollution-based agenda of rich Western countries, which, confusingly, also form the bulk of the global North.

Most members of the South were prepared to talk about fixing pollution, essentially a side-effect of the ever-increasing rate at which the North was consuming the Earth’s resources, as long as this didn’t constrain their right to a fair share of Earth’s resources. India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s intervention was pivotal. Her statement that ‘poverty is the worst form of pollution’ must rank as one of the most powerful short sentences ever spoken in diplomacy.

More like a foot than a toe

Back home, it seems that the significance of Stockholm didn’t sink in at the time. Records in the National Archives show that officials briefed the government that ‘in substance, the Stockholm Declaration is a miscellany of injunctions to which individual objection would be difficult to carry in a Stockholm forum. The whole is not greater than the sum of the parts …’

With the benefit of hindsight, the officials were wrong. The whole was greater than the sum of the parts. The pattern of North-South relations and the institutions spawned by the Stockholm Conference, especially UNEP (the United Nations Environment Program), still very much influence international environmental policy today.

The same is true of Howsen’s Ministerial Statement. Reflecting on it in his autobiography, Howson said that the Statement was more significant than he thought at the time, and I think he was right. Rather than a toe in the water, it was more like a foot (no pun intended).

Yet, these days, Howson and the Stockholm Declaration are largely forgotten. Such are the vicissitudes of history.

Fast forward fifty years to today and it seems that while the players have changed, too much of the script remains the same!

Image: The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) meets at Folkets Hus, Stockholm, in 1972. This became known as the Stockholm Conference, and was the first time governments met globally to talk about ‘the environment’. (Image by Yutaka Nagata, UN).

Did farmers do the ‘heavy lifting’ under Kyoto?

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Did anyone?

By Peter Burnett

My ears pricked up last week when I heard Michael McCormack, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party, say that farmers should be exempt from any commitment Australia might make to a Net Zero by 2050 emissions target because farmers had done the heavy lifting under Kyoto.

My ears were not to deceiving me because the Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, would soon repeat the comment (Regional Australia ‘should not pay bill for climate target‘).

Australia’s Kyoto policies

This struck me as passing strange, since I had been researching the Howard Government’s Kyoto policies, which were based on a principle of ‘no regrets’ – ie, that policies to abate emissions of greenhouse gases should not place a significant burden on the economy, the budget or key stakeholders.

And farmers are certainly key stakeholders.

Over time, this ‘no regrets’ principle started to fray at the edges. First, the government enacted a Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) in 2000. And in 2004, it committed a non-trivial $700 million for emissions reduction programs, although the lion’s share of this was aimed at fossil fuel industries, who were key government supporters.

Finally, in 2006, the government announced a domestic Australian cap-and-trade emissions trading scheme to be established by 2012, although it lost office before the scheme was fully developed.

Anyhow, the point is that even though the Howard Government did start to move away from ‘no regrets’ as public opinion shifted, at no time did any of their Kyoto- or climate-badged policies place any significant obligations on farmers (or on anyone for that matter).

They were some programs aimed at supporting farmers to take voluntary action, such as the Farm Forestry Program, which sought to encourage the incorporation of commercial tree growing and management into farming systems, but of course these don’t count as burdens.

So, if there were no Kyoto regrets, might ministers McCormack and Littleproud been thinking of something else?

Maybe the heavy lifting was for the EPBC Act?

Perhaps they were thinking of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)? Many farmers were outraged in 2001 when Environment Minister Robert Hill listed the Brigalow Ecological Community in Queensland as endangered. This meant that a farmer could not clear a significant area in brigalow country without an approval under the EPBC Act.

In practice, however, very few farmers seek land clearing approvals under the EPBC Act. Between the commencement of the Act in July 2000 and July 2008 (ie, early in the first Kyoto commitment period) the EPBC Act was only applied to 10 agricultural-related land clearing projects involving the removal of 6,200 ha of vegetation, constituting less than 0.2% of total national land clearing over the period (Macintosh 2009).

In any event, the EPBC protects biodiversity, not the climate.

Perhaps they were thinking of state land clearing laws? Certainly, several states did pass land-clearing laws in the 1990s. The most significant states here are Queensland and New South Wales, because that is where most of Australia’s land clearing was occurring at the time.

New South Wales began to limit the land clearing in a significant way in 1995, initially by policy and then by law, passing the Native Vegetation Conservation Act in 1997 and replacing this with the Native Vegetation Act 2003.

Land Clearing in Queensland in the First Kyoto Commitment Period

Queensland also began to restrict land clearing in 1995, enacting the Vegetation Management Act in 1999 and introducing a new regime in 2003-2004 with the aim of ending broad-scale land clearing by 2006. This new regime was apparently extremely effective, so, as a case study, it is the more interesting of the two states.

Andrew Macintosh from ANU has explained that when the Queensland reforms of 1999 and 2003-2004 were introduced, the Australian Government was engaged in negotiations with Queensland over the design of the laws and financial assistance for affected landholders.*

These negotiations were acrimonious and failed. As a result, the 1999 laws were watered-down and their commencement delayed, and there was no financial assistance, federal or state.

In fact, the Australian Government wasn’t just negotiating with Queensland, but with all states and territories. And its objective, at least on the surface, was not to support Kyoto but to strengthen the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia’s Biodiversity, which had just received a poor review.

But back to Queensland, which rolled out a $150 million package to support the 2003-2004 laws. Macintosh found that while this helped farmers, it by no means eliminated their opposition and there were ongoing complaints about the scheme in operation.

Interestingly, Macintosh interviewed Peter Beattie about the Queensland scheme some years later. Mr Beattie, who was Queensland Premier at the time, said that there was little doubt the laws would have been introduced irrespective of concerns about climate change.**

Apparently it’s the same story with New South Wales; the laws made no mention of climate change and it was not raised as a significant issue when the laws were being designed.**

Who’s been doing the heavy lifting?

So, did farmers do the heavy lifting under Kyoto? The answer is ‘no’, because nobody did any heavy lifting under Kyoto. It is certainly true however that environmental laws have had an impact on farmers and that this has been the cause of considerable grief over the years, although sometimes affected farmers have been compensated.

The underlying and more difficult question is whether it is fair to curtail or even prevent land clearing, in the interests of protecting and conserving the environment?

For my own part, although I would not acknowledge an absolute right to clear land, as some farmers claim, I do argue that environmental laws are for the benefit of all. As a result, where they have a disproportionate impact, for example by removing from farmers a right to clear land, I believe we should spread the burden of those impacts across the entire community.

This might mean that we should be making structural adjustment payments to some farmers.

Or perhaps we should pay them for ecosystem services from their properties.

In that regard, the government is currently developing (again)*** trials for an Environmental Stewardship Program. If the trials are successful, we may see farmers being paid to protect or restore biodiversity on an ongoing basis.

In my view this would be a welcome development.

*Andrew Macintosh, ‘the Australia clause and REDD: a cautionary tale’, Climatic Change, 2012, Volume 112, Issue 2.

** Andrew Macintosh, ‘Mitigation Targets, Burden Sharing and the Role of Economic Modelling in Climate Policy’, (2014) Australian Journal of Public Administration, Volume 73 No 2.

*** An earlier Environment Stewardship Program was closed down.

Image by Alistair McLellan from Pixabay

A major report excoriated Australia’s environment laws. Sussan Ley’s response is confused and risky

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By Peter Burnett

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s official: Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in deep trouble. They can’t withstand current and future threats, including climate change. And the national laws protecting them are flawed and badly outdated.

You could hardly imagine a worse report on the state of Australia’s environment, and the law’s capacity to protect it, than that released yesterday. The review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act, by former competition watchdog chair Professor Graeme Samuel, did not mince words. Without urgent changes, most of Australia’s threatened plants, animals and ecosystems will become extinct.

Federal environment minister Sussan Ley released the report yesterday after sitting on it for three months. And she showed little sign of being spurred into action by Samuel’s scathing assessment.

Her response was confusing and contradictory. And the Morrison government seems hellbent on pushing through its preferred reforms without safeguards that Samuel says are crucial.

A bleak assessment

I was a federal environment official for 13 years, and from 2007 to 2012 was responsible for administering and reforming the EPBC Act. I believe Samuel’s report is a very good one.

Samuel has maintained the course laid out in his interim report last July. He found the state of Australia’s natural environment and iconic places is declining and under increasing threat.

Moreover, he says, the EPBC Act is outdated and requires fundamental reform. The current approach results in piecemeal decisions rather than holistic environmental management, which he sees as essential for success. He went on:

The resounding message that I heard throughout the review is that Australians do not trust that the EPBC Act is delivering for the environment, for business or for the community.

A proposed way forward

Samuel recommended a suite of reforms, many of which were foreshadowed in his interim report. They include:

  • national environmental standards, legally binding on the states and others, to guide development decisions and provide the ability to measure outcomes
  • applying the new standards to existing Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs). Such a move could open up the forest debate in a way not seen since the 1990s
  • accrediting the regulatory processes and environmental policies of the states and territories, to ensure they can meet the new standards. Accredited regimes would be audited by an Environment Assurance Commissioner
  • a “quantum shift” in the availability of environmental information, such as accurate mapping of habitat for threatened species
  • an overhaul of environmental offsets, which compensate for environmental destruction by improving nature elsewhere. Offsets have become a routine development cost applied to proponents, rather than last-resort compensation invested in environmental restoration.

Under-resourcing is a major problem with the EPBC Act, and Samuel’s report reiterates this. For example, as I’ve noted previously, “bioregional plans” of land areas – intended to define the environmental values and objectives of a region – have never been funded.

Respecting Indigenous knowledge

One long-overdue reform would require decision-makers to respectfully consider Indigenous views and knowledge. Samuel found the law was failing in this regard.

He recommended national standards for Indigenous engagement and participation in decision-making. This would be developed through an Indigenous-led process and complemented by a comprehensive review of national cultural heritage protections.

The recommendations follow an international outcry last year over mining giant Rio Tinto’s destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia. In Samuel’s words:

National-level protection of the cultural heritage of Indigenous Australians is a long way out of step with community expectations. As a nation, we must do better.

Confusing signals

The government’s position on Samuel’s reforms is confusing. Ley yesterday welcomed the review and said the government was “committed to working through the full detail of the recommendations with stakeholders”.

But she last year ruled out Samuel’s call for an independent regulator to oversee federal environment laws. And her government is still prepared to devolve federal approvals to the states before Samuel’s new national standards are in place.

In July last year, Ley seized on interim reforms proposed by Samuel that suited her government’s agenda – streamlining the environmental approvals process – and started working towards them.

In September, the government pushed the change through parliament’s lower house, denying independent MP Zali Steggall the chance to move amendments to allow national environment standards.

Ley yesterday reiterated the government’s commitment to the standards – yet indicated the government would soon seek to progress the legislation through the Senate, then develop the new standards later.

Samuel did include devolution to the states in his first of three tranches of reform – the first to start by early 2021. But his first tranche also includes important safeguards. These include the new national environmental standards, the Environment Assurance Commissioner, various statutory committees, Indigenous reforms and more.

The government’s proposed unbundling of the reforms doesn’t pass the pub test. It would tempt the states to take accreditation under the existing, discredited rules and resist later attempts to hold them to higher standards. In this, they’d be supported by developers who don’t like the prospect of a higher approvals bar.

A big year ahead

Samuel noted “governments should avoid the temptation to cherry pick from a highly interconnected suite of recommendations”. But this is exactly what the Morrison government is doing.

I hope the Senate will force the government to work through the full detail of the recommendations with stakeholders, as Ley says she’d like to.

But at this stage there’s little sign the government plans to embrace the reforms in full, or indeed that it has any vision for Australia’s environment.

All this plays out against still-raw memories of last summer’s bushfires, and expected pressure from the United States, under President Joe Biden, for developed economies such as Australia to lift their climate game.

With the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow in November, it seems certain the environment will be high on Australia’s national agenda in 2021.

Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University

Image by pen_ash from Pixabay

From Silent Spring to the Franklin and back to Lake Pedder?

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Some things never seem to change. Some things change in unexpected ways.

By Peter Burnett

What might be described as the ‘modern environmental era’ is often dated from the publication in America of Rachel Carson’s hugely influential book, Silent Spring, in 1962. This book, which dealt with the impacts of the indiscriminate use of pesticides such as DDT is widely credited with spawning modern environmental action.

Don’t cry over spilt oil?

It was not until the late 1960s that environmental awareness really took off however, accelerated by a spate of major pollution incidents including the shipwreck of oil tanker Torrey Canyon off Cornwall in 1967 and two incidents in America in 1969, a huge oil spill from a drilling platform off Santa Barbara, California, and the spontaneous ignition of the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River near one of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie.

These events helped propel the world’s first comprehensive environment law, the US National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, known as NEPA, through the US Congress with an overwhelming 372-15 vote in the House of Representatives and unanimous support in the Senate. Shortly afterwards, Americans celebrated 22 April as ‘Earth Day’, an event marked in America by an estimated 20 million friendly marchers in various cities.

All this consensus and community spirit in America seems strange to the contemporary observer.

Meanwhile, in Australia, things were getting electric

Environmental concern was also rising dramatically in Australia. These international events were influential, but the dominant issue at the time was the proposal to dam the pristine Lake Pedder in Tasmania, known especially for its stunning pink quartzite beaches.

The protests began in 1967 when the Tasmanian government, led by Premier ‘Electric Eric’ Reece, revoked Pedder’s National Park status as a precursor to damming the lake.

The campaign to save Lake Pedder failed, but it did spawn a number of political and policy firsts with enduring impacts, including the formation of the United Tasmania Group, now seen as the world’s first green party, and a campaign to secure federal intervention to stop the dam.

Some things change, some things don’t

Sixty years later, one thing about Silent Spring that still speaks strongly to us is the response it elicited. The chemical industry launched a fierce campaign to discredit Carson and to frame the real threat to society as pest insects, not insecticides.

Unfortunately but not unsurprisingly, this kind of ‘hard ball’ response is still found today, a recent Australian example being then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s campaign to portray a fixed price for carbon introduced in 2011 as a ‘tax’. Only some years after Abbott had won government on the back of this campaign would his then Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, acknowledge that ‘it wasn’t a tax as you know… we made it a tax … [T]hat was brutal retail politics …’

Our inability to find a collaborative way of dealing with what are, after all, shared problems, remains our heaviest policy shackle.

On the other hand, while federal intervention didn’t save Pedder in the 1970s, it did save the nearby Gordon-below-Franklin (‘Franklin’) dam in the 1980s.

In fact, the Hawke Labor government came to power in 1983 on the back of a promise to do just that. Even my conservative mother wrote ‘No Dams’ on her ballot paper, something I still find hard to believe nearly 40 years later.

The Pedder campaign and the subsequent campaign to block the nearby Gordon-below-Franklin dam a decade later present a graphic illustration of just how rapidly environmental politics and power could evolve.

The Pedder campaign failed where the Franklin campaign succeeded. Pedder was protected but its (State) protected status did not save it; the Franklin was saved by gaining that status (federally).

Federal intervention failed in the case of Pedder but succeeded for Franklin. More accurately, federal intervention in the form of federal offers, in effect, to buy Tasmania out of its development plans, failed in both cases; federal intervention ultimately succeeded for the Franklin because of federal legislation.

The Commonwealth was able to use a Constitutional springboard, World Heritage listing, that did not exist at the time of Pedder. By the time of the Franklin controversy this springboard had come into existence by dint of Australia’s ratification of the World Heritage Convention in 1974. (The full legal mechanics of this, including the High Court battle over the Commonwealth’s World Heritage Properties Act 1983, are a story for another blog).

And when things do change, sometimes it’s forever and sometimes maybe not …

But the Lake Pedder story may not be finished. Now there’s a campaign, fifty years after it was flooded, to restore the lake to its original glory. They say restoration is possible.

Unfortunately, for many things environmental, restoration is not possible. But dialogue about our shared environmental problems, including the need to invest in restoration, remains possible, no matter how unlikely it may appear at present.

About as likely as the restoration of Lake Pedder.

Post Script: This is the first instalment of a new series of occasional blogs I am working on that reflects on environmental policy failures and successes, and the lessons they provide. The series has the working title of ‘policy lessons’.

Image: The shores of Lake Pedder prior to it being drowned in 1972 for a hydro-electric scheme. (Photo by Stefan Karpiniec, CC BY 2.0)

Red lines for green values

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What ‘standards’ are we prepared to accept in an overhaul of Australia’s national environment protection laws?

By Peter Burnett

When Professor Graeme Samuel’s Independent Review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) is tabled, which must occur by early February, we can expect to see recommendations for a complete overhaul of Australia’s national environment protection laws.

In an interim report in July, Samuel declared the EPBC Act to be a failure. Auditor-General Grant Hehir reached similar conclusions in his contemporaneous review of federal environmental approval processes under the same Act.

Despite having received the Samuel Review on 30 October, the Government continued to press a bill it had introduced in August to ‘streamline’ environmental approvals by devolving approval powers to the States in advance of the Review.

Professor Samuel had supported devolution in his interim report in July, but only in the context of a full reform package built on a foundation of his proposed National Environmental Standards.

A Senate Inquiry into the streamlining bill prompted key crossbench Senators to oppose it, not because they were necessarily opposed to devolution but because the government refused to provide them with the Samuel Review and other key supporting documents.

At the last moment, environment minister Sussan Ley provided the Inquiry, and thus all of us, with a copy of the draft Standards from the Samuel Report.

The draft Standards are the key to national environmental reform and thus worth a closer look, even without the benefit of the full Samuel Report.

Why set standards?

The standards deal with the so-called ‘matters of national environmental significance’ that are protected by the EPBC Act. Some of these like World Heritage and threatened species are well known. Others, such as internationally significant ‘Ramsar’ wetlands, are not.

Despite being confined to the Commonwealth’s responsibilities, the standards address the bulk of Australia’s most significant natural environmental and heritage values (other than climate), and have implications for the rest.

A key problem with many environment protection laws, including the EPBC Act, is that they require decision makers to follow due process and to consider various policies and principles (in Australia, often built around the concept of ‘ecologically sustainable development’) but without setting a bottom line based on maintaining essential environmental values and functions.

This enables a culture in which decision-makers can, and often do, pay lip service to the environment while approving its ongoing decline. Sometimes this lip service is paid by burdening industry with numerous ‘strict conditions’, thus delivering a ‘lose-lose’ outcome.

National Environmental Standards could change all that. Their key purpose is to set minimum environmental outcomes, including for decisions devolved to states.

A good set of environmental standards will identify our most important environment and heritage values and define the level of environmental function needed to maintain those values over time. The effect of standards is to place off-limits any deliberate degrading of these values and functions. One result is that significant or irreversible environmental loss cannot be traded for an economic or social gain, no matter how large, except possibly in national emergencies.

The Samuel Standards

Professor Samuel delivered a set of 10 national environmental standards, one overarching and one for each of nine matters of national environmental significance. The Standards would be relevant to activities and decisions at all scales but their most obvious application would be in assessing development proposals.

Apart from being innovative in themselves, the standards introduce policy concepts such as a ‘principle of non-regression’ and the ‘ecological feasibility’ of biodiversity offsets.

They also give new recognition to some not-so-new concepts such as the need to consider the impacts of development proposals on a cumulative basis. This would address a long-standing concern of environmentalists that individual developments chip away at environmental values, a process known colloquially as ‘the death of a thousand cuts’.

Addressing cumulative impacts implies there should be a bottom line for each species and ecosystem. To take a current example, it implies that government should determine a minimum viable habitat and population for koalas, probably for each population region. As this threshold of viability was approached, development approvals with koala impacts would become increasingly difficult and ultimately impossible to obtain. (The corollary is that if the threshold has been crossed, investment in recovery and restoration is an imperitive).

The standards are certainly not perfect. In discussions within a consultative group of which I was a member, Professor Samuel made clear his dislike for ‘weasel words’, a dislike that I share.

Unfortunately, the standards retain too many of these undesirable creatures. Some, such as ‘promote’ and ‘not inconsistent with’ come from the existing Act, while others such as ‘all reasonable efforts’ are new.

There is much to welcome and discuss in these standards, but I would start with an edit. This would be for policy clarity, not drafting elegance.

Red lines for a green solution?

The standards present the Government with a conundrum. On the one hand, with the EPBC Act declared a failure and the environment in ongoing and increasingly obvious decline, the case for reform is overwhelming and the potential of the standards as a foundation for action is great.

On the other hand, implementing standards would require a major and costly upgrade of our regulatory infrastructure, starting with what Samuel has described as a ‘quantum shift’ in the availability of environmental information.

Setting standards would also amount to drawing red lines for nature. As the Brexit negotiations most-recently illustrate, red lines can attract a world of political pain.

Image by Shell brown from Pixabay

Reforming national environmental law: first get rid of it, then fix it?

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By Peter Burnett

While our country (and the world) has been gripped by the unravelling saga of the CoVID pandemic, our national government has been conducting a quiet plan to devolve most decision-making under our national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act), to the States, before a major review of the Act hit the deck.

I think this plan has now been derailed, though as I write, a couple of sitting days remain for cross-bench deal making in the Senate.

Some background

Regular readers will know that I often write about the EPBC Act. In part this is because I have worked with this law for a long time (both as a public servant and as a researcher) and have developed a strange kind of affection for its labyrinthine ways.

But I am also keenly interested in the performance of this legislation because its ups and downs are a reasonable proxy for the general health of Australian environmental policy. Unfortunately, the EPBC Act has been having a lot more downs than ups recently.

The Act has just undergone its second 10-year review by Professor Graeme Samuel AC. Professor Samuel was scathing in his Interim Report delivered in July. He found that the Act was ineffective and had lost the trust of business and environmentalists alike. An Auditor-General’s report tabled at the same time was equally scathing of the way the Act was being administered.

The key recommendation of Samuel’s Interim Report was that a revamped EPBC Act should be based on National Environmental Standards. These would actually set some bottom lines for environmental approvals and put an end to the current ‘tick-the-process-boxes-and-then-decide-anything-you-like’ approach.

The Government received Professor Samuel’s Final Report at the end of October 2020. The Government has yet to release it.

The ‘green tape’ narrative and ‘streamlining’ environmental decisions

In the meantime, and even after the Interim Report revealed the story of a failed law and ongoing environmental decline, the Government has maintained its single-track narrative of ‘cutting green tape’ and the need for ‘streamlining’ to increase regulatory efficiency.

In fact, the Government has long wanted to devolve Federal environmental approvals to the States and it would be fair to say that since it won the 2019 election it has been champing at the bit to make it happen.

Unfortunately for the Government, the mechanism built into the EPBC Act to allow this devolution cannot work without some mostly-minor legislative tweaks, requiring the support of a Senate it does not control.

The Government’s sense of urgency seems to have got the better of it, possibly because the Prime Minister tagged environmental devolution as one of the ingredients for a post-Covid economic recovery. Documents released under freedom of information reveal that back in February the Prime Minister’s position was that to avoid pre-empting the Samuel review, the legislative tweaks would need bipartisan support.

By August, when the ‘Streamlining Bill’ was introduced, this was no longer the Government’s position. Now, the narrative was that the Streamlining Bill, although a replica of a failed bill from back in 2014 (when Tony Abbott was in charge) and lacking any of the Samuel reforms including provision for National Environmental Standards, was in fact the first tranche of reform linked to the Samuel Review.

It was left to others to make the argument that the Streamlining Bill was pre-emptive and should not proceed ahead of Samuel’s Final Report.

Initially the Government was in a great hurry, to the point that it guillotined the vote in the House of Representatives and prevented independent MP Zali Steggall from introducing an amendment to provide for National Environmental Standards.

Still in a hurry, the Government successfully opposed two attempts to have the Bill considered by a Senate Committee. Eventually however it rolled over and supported a third motion to refer the bill to committee; presumably when it became clear that the Government would not have any chance or wooing the cross-bench without committee consideration.

Senate Inquiry

So the Senate Environment and Communications Committee established an Inquiry into the Bill. Normally these things take some months, but on this occasion the Inquiry was to report within several weeks, which meant that submissions had to be written quickly and a hearing conducted within days of submissions closing.

Was this part of a deal with the cross-bench, I wondered? Is there any point in dropping everything to dash off a submission? Putting my doubts aside I wrote a submission and was lucky enough to be invited to give evidence before this Committee.

Although I had often appeared before Senate Estimates Committees as a public servant, this was the first time in which I had appeared on my own behalf and was free to say pretty much anything I wanted.

I have to say I enjoyed the experience. It was good to be having my say and to be heard by members of our apex institution.

What’s more, the questions were relevant and informed. A colleague had recently been on the receiving end of some politically-loaded questions in another committee, but there were no such antics here.

The Committee reported quickly. At the end of the day the crucial cross-bench Senators accepted the argument that it was pre-emptive to be pushing this bill through ahead of Samuel’s Final Report.

So it looks like the Streamlining Bill will not pass before that report is tabled; this must occur before the end of February.

An unexpected revelation

Sometimes this kind of proceeding produces some unexpected revelations, which is one reason that governments don’t like them: such developments can derail a carefully constructed narrative.

On this occasion, officials revealed that in addition to the Streamlining Bill, the Government had drafted, but not tabled, a provision to provide for the making of National Environmental Standards by legislative instrument (ie, something similar to what Ms Zali Steggall MP had tried to do).

This is significant because by long-standing policy, set out in the Legislation Handbook, legislation is only drafted once the Government has approved the underlying policy. In other words, laws are only drafted for introduction. The system does not allow for drafting on a contingent or speculative basis, including by individual ministers.

The implication is that the Government has actually decided to support the idea of legislated National Environmental Standards. The fact that draft legislation for the standards has not been tabled suggests one of two things.

The first is that the government is breaking its own rules by drafting legislation on a contingent basis, presumably to introduce only if it couldn’t get its Streamlining Bill through. This would be an attempt to game the Senate and is a display of bad faith.

An alternative explanation is that there was some kind of rear-guard action within the Government, most likely a move from conservatives to block legislation for national standards that might constrain State development approvals under devolved arrangements.

Both explanations seem somewhat unikely but I favour the second, as a display of bad faith towards the Senate could cruel the pitch for other government proposals. If I am right, the cause of reforming biodiversity and heritage protections could be as fraught as that of climate policy reform.

Assuming the Streamlining Bill is dead, the next step is for the Government to table the Samuel Review. Hopefully this will trigger a wide-ranging debate on the environment, focused around a set of draft environmental standards and overwhelm the government’s one-track focus on ‘green tape’.

In my view we have never really had this debate and it would be good for us all to be confronted with the question, in the broad, of how much environment protection we want and whether we are prepared to pay for it.

But will the Government table an effective reform package to replace an Act which, all seem to agree, is a failure? Or, based on the climate policy precedent, should we expect a continued one-track focus on ‘green tape’ and ‘reforms’ that do little to address the policy failures that Professor Samuel and the Auditor General have identified?

Image by 3Dinaani from Pixabay

Game of Species: Budget Estimates October 2020

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“Yes Senator? When will we save that adorable possum? I’ll take that on notice.”

By Peter Burnett

It seems that there are 172 species and ecological communities awaiting a recovery plan and that not a single plan had been finalised in the last 16 months! How do we hold government to account about this? Maybe the Senate Estimates Committee can extract some answers.

The average person is unlikely to have heard of Senate Estimates Committee hearings. Even when these obscure (and typically dull) proceedings generate the occasional political frisson, as they did with last month’s unexpected revelation that Australia Post had rewarded high performing executives with Cartier watches, the brand ‘Estimates’ will barely register.

Yet the Cartier watches revelation has now cost Christine Holgate, Australia Post’s Chief Executive, her job, and there were also casualties in the corporate regulator, ASIC. So, despite their obscurity, these are definitely proceedings to keep an eye on.

While Environment Estimates produced nothing as coruscating as the toppling of a CEO, for the aficionado there were, as ever, a few small gems among the dross.

To illustrate my point, in this blog I’ve focused on a perennial favourite with Senators in Environment Estimates – programs dealing with threatened species.

Nothing to see here, possums

One reason for the popularity of threatened species in estimates is that individual ‘cute-and-cuddly’ species such as the koala are very useful in drawing political attention to the complex issues of biodiversity decline and the parlous state of government efforts to do something about it.

Take for example the ongoing failure of the Commonwealth and Victorian governments to produce a recovery plan for Leadbeater’s possum after more than a decade.

Despite the very long delay in producing a recovery plan for the possum, officials gave evidence that they were “working very closely with Victoria”. Was the problem with the Victorian end, asked a Senator? Admirably, the Commonwealth official replied that she did not want to pass the buck to Victoria and so would “take responsibility for the timeframes”.

In that case, could the official give the Senator any information about why it was taking so long and what were the problematic issues? It turned out that Commonwealth officials were trying to understand the implications of Victoria’s 2019 decision to exit native forest industries. Were Victorian officials not being forthcoming with the details? “It is taking longer than I would have expected to get those details from Victoria” came the understated reply.

In that case, could the official tell the Senator what monitoring there was of the possums? Answer: “there is a range of monitoring underway undertaken by the Victorian government under the regional forest agreement” [RFA] but the detail was a matter for the officials who looked after RFA’s and they would not be available until the evening.

What then was the official’s expectation as to the timeframe for completing the recovery plan negotiations? Official: “Knowing that I said ‘shortly’ last time, I’m hesitant to repeat that time frame.”

And so it went on, ultimately leaving us none the wiser as to why the plan was taking so long or when it might be finished.

Not much to see anywhere else, either

The story is no better and the information no more forthcoming at a higher level. So, on this matter of 172 species and ecological communities awaiting a recovery plan and not a single plan being finalised in the last 16 months: And how long will it take to get through this backlog, asked one Senator? “It will take a very long time,” came the helpful senior official’s reply.

The Senator moved on to the government’s Threatened Species Strategy. This initiative was announced by then-environment minister Hunt in 2015. It set targets to improve the recovery trajectories of 20 mammals, 20 birds and 30 plant species by 2020. Although the announcement included several grants in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, there was no ‘new’ money associated with the initiative.  

In thinking about a flagship strategy such as the Threatened Species Strategy, one can almost see the political wheels turning in the minister’s mind. The ‘cute-and-cuddly’ factor works for governments just as well as it does for oppositions and cross-benchers. If one is responsible for nearly 2000 listed species and communities, has a small budget and cannot even keep pace with the paperwork involved in producing recovery plans, what does one do?

The answer, one might infer from the Threatened Species Strategy, is to focus on eliminating something can be the ‘enemy’ (feral cats), and on turning things around for a small number of well-known and/or photogenic species, representing about 3.5% of all listed species and communities. Even these limited objectives are characterised as a ‘stretch target’.

The evidence of officials at Estimates was that, although a final report would not be available until early 2021, after three years the trajectories of the 6 of 20 birds and 8 of 20 mammals had improved. It’s clearly hard to make progress even with a narrow focus.

Perhaps the final results will be better. Perhaps in anticipation of this the current environment minister, Susan Ley, announced recently that there would be a follow-on strategy, this time with a 10 year horizon.

Officials were coy, but the tenor of their evidence concerning this new program was that, once again, there would be no new money involved. So we should probably expect something much like the strategy just ending.

Of course, the government had recently put some significant new money on the table, announcing $150 million for bushfire recovery. Officials said that $28 million of this would go to the department for administration, including to support the preparation of recovery plans.

So we may be about to see a jump in production, and even implementation, of recovery plans. However, this is a one off figure in the context of the enormous environmental damage done by the Black Summer, so it’s hardly something to be welcomed.

And the game goes on

As a former public servant, now an outsider looking in, I find Estimates frustrating to watch. Although you do stumble upon the odd gem, most of what you hear consists of politicians asking politically loaded questions of bureaucrats, who respond with reams of blather, including repeated procedural statements like “I’ll take that on notice” and “that question needs to be directed to [someone else who isn’t here]”.

After one estimates committee which I attended, nearly 30 years ago, my department head commented that “they didn’t lay a glove on us.” From the public servant’s point of you, it’s about running the gauntlet without being wounded.

From my present vantage point as a citizen however, estimates is yet another accountability mechanism where the practice of holding governments to account falls far short of the theory. The game goes on: non-government politicians try and extract information from public servants for political purposes, while ministers and public servants work studiously to reveal nothing beyond the mundane.

As serious as the accountability issue is, the more significant problem lies with programs such as the Threatened Species Strategy, which target a tiny slice of the problem and even then struggle to achieve a modest set of objectives.

Like Rome, the Australia’s environment has been burning. And, like Nero, it seems that for government, the fiddle will remain the instrument of choice.

Image by David Salt