By Peter Burnett
With Australia heading to the polls at the end of this week, what better time to look at election policies on the environment, especially those of the two parties capable of forming government: a re-elected Coalition, or Labor?
Climate gets the lion’s share of environmental attention these days, so I’ll focus on the rest, but I can’t resist a couple of quick comments on climate before doing so.
First, both major parties have committed to net zero by 2050, but Labor is more ambitious in the short term, with a 2030 target of 43% (adopted in 2021), compared to the Coalition’s target of 26-28% (adopted in 2015).
Second, the issue is not just the target but whether there’s a credible path to achieving it. I’ve already criticised the government for tabling a plan for its new 2050 target without any new policy to go with it.
As for Labor, they don’t have any measures for getting to zero by 2050 either, though they have supported their ‘43% by 2030’ target with policies and modelling.
Whoever wins government, they’ll need to get cracking on post-2030 policy, as 2030 is less than eight years away and climate is by far the biggest challenge for governments since World War II.
As to environmental policy on everything else, it boils down to ‘not a focus for us’ vs ‘not telling’. Let me explain.
The Coalition on the Environment
The Coalition at least has a policy, but that’s the high water mark of my compliments.
Climate aside, three things stand out.
First, for a party that likes to claim the mantle of being the best economic managers, they are heavily into creative accounting. A number of the claims in the Coalition policy contain big numbers, such as the claim that they are investing $6 billion for threatened species and other living things, but they puff these up by counting past spending and/or projecting a long way forward.
I’ve criticised this practice as ‘disingenuous bundling’. Certainly, one of the headline policies, ‘$1 billion for the Reef’ represents little more than business as usual.
The second stand-out theme is making a virtue of necessity. The Coalition has a reasonable policy on waste and recycling. And they quote the Prime Minister himself as arguing that ‘It’s our waste, it’s our responsibility’.
The back-story however is that we used to ship a lot of domestic waste to China, but they banned this from 2018. In reality, we had no choice but to fix the problem.
Again, the Coalition policy recites money spent on bushfire recovery and flood response, but practically speaking they had no choice in this. Hardly inspiring.
Finally, they tell you that they have put another $100 million into the Environment Restoration Fund. I’ve criticised this elsewhere as pork-barrelling.
All in all, if you ignore the pork, necessary disaster-response and the smoke and mirrors, it’s pretty much an empty box, though freshly wrapped.
Labor on the Environment
While the Coalition reached for the wrapping paper, Labor have gone for ‘keeping mum’.
Pursuing a small-target strategy overall, but forced by circumstance to engage with the high political risks of climate policy, Labor have gambled that they can run dead on the rest.
They have released a few topic-specific policies. Labor will double the number of participants in the successful Indigenous Rangers program and spend $200m on the Great Barrier Reef, on top of the Coalition’s $1 billion by 2030. They’ll also spend $200m on up to 100 grants for urban rivers and catchments.
A little more significantly, Labor’s Saving Native Species Program commits $224.5 million over four years to preparing overdue species recovery plans and investing in the conservation of threatened species, especially the koala.
Like the Coalition, however, Labor likes to make virtue out of necessity: more than 10% of this money goes to fighting Yellow Crazy Ants in Cairns and Townsville.
All of this is at the margins.
But on the big issues … silence.
What of the 2020 review of Australia’s national environmental law by Professor Graham Samuel? What about the ongoing decline identified by successive State-of-the-Environment reports?
Labor’s website cheerily tells us that: ‘Labor will commit to a suite of environmental policies that continues Labor’s legacy on the environment, and we’ll have more to say about this over the coming weeks’ (my emphasis).
Well, if the ‘coming weeks’ refers to the election campaign, time’s up.
And the winner is …
If you are looking to the major parties for vision and boldness on environmental policy then, with the possible exception of Labor’s climate policy, you’re destined for disappointment.
The Greens are always strong on environment, and have some well-founded hopes of winning an extra seat or two, so they are a definite option for environmentally-concerned voters.
With minority government a real possibility and the major parties reluctant to associate with the Greens, it’s the ‘Teal’ and other climate-focused independents like David Pocock in the ACT (collectively, ‘Teals’ for short) who look to have the most potential to up the ante on the environment.
Standing mostly in well-off inner-city seats and blending liberal blue with environmental green, the Teals may find themselves holding the balance of power, at least in the Senate and possibly in the House of Representatives as well. While climate is clearly their focus, I’d expect the Teals to push strong environmental policy generally, if the chance comes their way.