And for my next environmental trick …

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Will the federal government engage in real environmental reform before the election?

By Peter Burnett

One of my favourite environmental cartoons appeared in 2015 in the lead up to the Paris climate meeting. It depicts Australia’s environment minister (who was then Josh Frydenberg) as a magician performing for a domestic audience. The magician pulls a climate policy rabbit out of a hat. Meanwhile, a giant rabbit called ‘Paris’ peers round a curtain on the stage …

This October Prime Minister Morrison tried something of a similar trick, releasing the ‘Australian Way’, a climate ‘plan’ that ramped up Australia’s climate ambition to Net Zero by 2050, without the benefit of any new policy to support this heightened ambition.

With almost breathtaking hutzpah, Mr Morrison even told the domestic audience that ‘the Australian way shows a way for other countries to follow’! Meanwhile, a justified monstering awaited him at Glasgow …

A Magic Pudding

At the time of the PM’s announcement, my immediate thought was not of magicians but of Norman Lindsay’s 1917 children’s book, The Magic Pudding, in which Albert, the irascible pudding, is forever being eaten but is never consumed.

When the ‘modelling’ behind the plan was released, it confirmed my suspicion of ‘magical thinking’. For example, it uses an unrealistic baseline scenario called ‘No Australian Action’, in which every country except Australia reduces their emissions to achieve a below 2 degrees emissions trajectory. The scenario then assumes that the only adverse reaction to such free riding by Australia comes from investors imposing a capital risk premium.

Meanwhile, the costs of climate inaction, imposed by extreme weather, climate refugees and so on do not rate a mention.

Content-free reform

While the government has yet to display such blatant ‘magical thinking’ in its approach to reforming Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), it is certainly showing ‘magical’ tendencies in the sense that the ‘reforms’ it has announced to date contain nothing real.

Readers will recall that the EPBC Act was the subject of a major independent review by Professor Graeme Samuel in 2020. The centrepiece of the Samuel Review was a shift from process-based regulation to outcome-based National Environmental Standards.

Releasing a reform ‘pathway’ in response to the Samuel Review in June this year, the Government announced that it would adopt Interim Standards that — wait for it — reflected the (process-based) status quo!

Yet all is not quite as vacuous as it seems. The government does have an agenda, just not one concerned with halting environmental decline.

Rather, its priority is to devolve environmental approvals to the states. It has labelled its devolution proposals as ‘single touch’ approvals and declared these to be the ‘priority reforms’ in its response to the Samuel Review.

While, on paper, there’s a timeline for substantive environmental reforms to come later, in reality, nothing happens until Parliament passes the necessary legislation.

The subtext? If you want environmental reform, you’ll pass our devolution laws.

Trouble is, the devolution laws are stuck in the Senate and are looking increasingly unlikely to pass. Cross-benchers have called the government’s bluff.

So, with an election looming, will the government be content to leave it at that?

One more shot in the environmental reform locker?

Well, the government has another shot in its environmental reform locker, but it is not clear how they will use it.

In the last federal Budget, they announced $2.7 million over three years to pilot a Commonwealth-accredited regional plan to ‘support and accelerate development in a priority regional area’. Tiny as it is, this is a response to one of Professor Samuel’s 38 reform recommendations.

Accrediting bioregional plans under the EPBC Act holds the prospect of both better-protecting the environment while also fulfilling the government’s dream of getting the federal government out of giving environmental approvals on a case-by-case basis and leaving that to the states.

Especially in light of the Senate bottleneck with the ‘single touch’ legislation, you’d think the government would have moved quickly with this project, to get some runs on the board before the election.

This expectation is reinforced by the Budget itself, with the largest share of the funding, $1.179 million, allocated to the current financial year.

Yet with the year almost half over, there’s been no announcement of a partnership with a state or territory for the pilot plan.

Going to plan(?)

So, is the federal government taking regional environmental planning seriously? If it does, there’s a lot of groundwork to do and statutory requirements to be met. ‘Bioregional’ plans, as the EPBC Act calls them, can be disallowed by either House of Parliament; they could also be subject to court challenge if substantive requirements were not met.

With nearly half the year gone, there’s probably not time before the election for much more than an announcement of a deal with one lucky state or territory to develop a pilot regional plan.

Not a lot of electoral bang there.

And there are also potential downsides. For example, the exercise of preparing a regional plan might reveal that the environment in that region in fact needs more protection (and more investment in recovery) that the government might like.

There’s always the base political option of not taking regional planning seriously and simply putting a federal ‘koala stamp’ on an existing, or rustled up, state plan. This could then be trumpeted as the first instalment of a major reform, though it would almost certainly bring on Parliamentary and legal challenges.

Certainly nothing for the environment in that. But would the Coalition see votes in it?

Or will it simply roll out some ‘practical environmental restoration’ (known to the rest of us as marginal-electorate-targeted environmental pork barrelling) as it did last time with the $100 million Environmental Restoration Fund?

Magic Pudding anyone?

Banner image: And for my next trick (Image by u_dg9pheol at Pixabay)

Looking for little gems: Senate Environmental Estimates, October 2021

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Government priorities revealed in the detail of evidence from officials

By Peter Burnett

The Australian Senate holds ‘Estimates’ hearings three times each year. The official purpose of these hearings is to scrutinise estimates of proposed expenditure contained in Budget-related legislation.

In practice, the hearings are used mostly to extract information from public servants that can be used to attack the Government. The Senate rules aid in this by allowing questions on any spending, including money already spent, or any activity supported by government funds, including the activities of ministers and officials.

A favourite ‘game’ for Opposition MPs and journalists over the years has been to use the information to suggest that government members have their snouts in the trough. Examples include spending on redecorating the Prime Minister’s Lodge, or on flying ministers to Party fundraisers under the pretext of official business (including in helicopters).

Environment Estimates

I follow Estimates hearings for different reasons. I look for little gems of information about environmental programs, the sort of information that reveals something new, but which is not significant enough to attract the attention of the mainstream media.

The Senate held its second round of Estimates hearings for 2021 in late October. The Environment and Communications Committee heard evidence from officials administering a wide range of environment programs, including on climate change.

The government ‘team’ is always led by a government minister, who must be a Senator.

This often means that the minister at the table is not the actual minister for the portfolio concerned. For example, Environment Minister Sussan Ley was represented by Senator Jane Hume, Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and the Digital Economy.

As a result, the minister at the table often does not have a deep knowledge of the portfolio. This amplifies the tendency, already strong in all ministers, to rely on speaking points and otherwise to argue, deflect and otherwise stonewall.

But the minister at the table can’t block officials from answering factual questions about government activities, like how much was spent flying the environment minister around the world to lobby against the proposed World Heritage ‘in danger’ listing of the Great Barrier Reef, where she went and who went with her?

The answer may or may not be a ‘little gem’.

On this occasion, I didn’t find the answer to the question about Sussan Ley’s peregrinations all that interesting. Rather, my little gems relate to climate, environment protection and Indigenous heritage.

Climate

These Estimates hearings took place before the government announced its switch to a ‘Net Zero by 2050’ climate goal. So, a lot of the questions were directed to pressuring officials to reveal what they knew about the as yet unannounced deal between the Liberals and Nationals on climate policy.

This generated a lot of verbal jousting, but little information. Much heat, little light.

My climate gem, however, involved an official confirming that the government’s projections on emissions (and thus its measure of progress towards targets) counted commitments made by the states, but only where officials had some confidence that the state concerned would actually take the promised action.

For example, if a State announced funding for a commitment, Commonwealth officials would count it in projections, but they wouldn’t if the announcement were ‘just a statement, for example’.

Later, once the government had released its plan to deliver Net Zero, ‘The Australian Way’, this gave me pause for thought.

I had read all 126 pages of this plan but could not find any new policies. This must mean that Australia’s projections before and after the release of the plan would be identical — some plan!

Environmental protection

Labor Senator Nita Green quizzed officials about media reports that the deal with the Nationals included changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Sources said that changes proposed to the Act would make it easier for farmers and miners to do what they do, rather than have obstacles in the way.

Had the department been asked to provide any advice on potential changes or amendments to the Act in the last two weeks?

‘No, Senator’ was the reply.

If the Liberals and Nationals have agreed to amend the EPBC Act, and without advice from officials, the most likely amendment for farmers would be to exempt them from applying for approval to clear native vegetation on their properties, where this vegetation might be habitat for nationally-listed threatened species.

For miners, the exemption might be for the clearing of sites under a certain size.

I expect the justification would be that native vegetation is already protected by State land clearing laws and that the EPBC act should only apply where there was a direct impact on a known population of threatened species.

Such amendments would ignore the fact that threatened species rely on habitat to survive, that they are not always present in habitat and that State native vegetation laws are not necessarily designed to protect Matters of National Environmental Significance.

They would also fly in the face of the intent implied by the government in its limited response to the recent Samuel Review of the EPBC Act, that it ‘agrees with the central pillars of reform recommended by the Review’.

Those pillars include reversing the unsustainable trajectory of Australian environmental decline through comprehensive and legally enforceable National Environmental Standards.

Would this inconsistency concern the government? I don’t think so. In fact, without advice from officials, they might not even be aware of it.

Indigenous heritage reform

Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge Caves in May 2020 precipitated a national outcry. Although the approval was given by a WA Minister under its fifty-year-old Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, attempts by Traditional Owners to seek federal intervention through environment minister Ley’s office came to nought.

This was despite the existence of federal laws which might have been invoked to prevent the destruction.

The government scrambled to defend itself against allegations of bungling by Minister Ley.

This included convening a national roundtable meeting on Indigenous heritage reform. At the meeting, Ley linked reform to the then-current Samuel Review of the EPBC Act and advised of the government’s intention to address Indigenous heritage protection reform as part of its response to that review.

In its subsequent, partial, response to the Samuel review, the government committed only to ‘engaging’ with Indigenous peoples to ‘further canvass options and determine the key priorities and a pathway for this important area of reform.’

Asked whether this process was underway, an official replied that:

We have been discussing the issue with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance in relation to a pathway for consultation that would include Indigenous groups. So I would characterise that as certainly being underway but still at relatively early stages from the department’s perspective.

This is bureaucratic speak for consulting about consulting.

Officials then advised that they were close to an agreement with the Alliance. Once that was done, they planned to start consulting about the substantive issues of Indigenous heritage protection.

‘Is there a timeline for that?’ asked a Senator. ‘Not as yet’ replied the official. ‘What we are hoping is that when the partnership agreement is finalised and put forward will also be able to release an implementation plan at the same time.’

More process, more delay!

Was there ‘any truth to the assertion that this whole process is being run by the Prime Minister’s office and the environment minister, your boss, is just the face of the show?’ asked a Senator.

This prompted an intervention by the Secretary of the department, Andrew Metcalfe:

I think that’s a very unfair assertion given we have worked extensively with the minister and her office … But I can absolutely assure the committee that the minister is very heavily across the detail and has been very much determining the progress of the matter.

With all respect to Mr Metcalfe, a distinguished public servant, the minister could be ‘heavily across the detail’ and giving his department specific directions, without him knowing that she was being directed by the Prime Minister.

This is borne out by the next question: How involved has the Cabinet Secretary [a political staffer in the Prime Minister’s office] been? asked the Senator. ‘We have no knowledge of that …’ replied the Secretary.

While I have no inside knowledge, it would certainly be consistent with Scott Morrison’s political style, and the high risk of embarrassment associated with the destruction of the Juukan Gorge, that his office would be calling the shots

And that the government would be dragging things out to avoid having to make any substantive calls on Indigenous heritage reform before the election due by May 2022.

What these little gems reflect

While these little gems hardly sparkle, they do shed some light on the directions of the Morrison Government on environment.

Unfortunately, it looks to me to be politics all the way down with little priority on good policy reform.

On climate, the government has delivered a content-free ‘strategy’ on achieving its Net Zero target, while officials have confirmed that the federal government can claim the benefit of substantive state action. Great politics, poor policy.

On environment protection, it seems that the government is willing to ignore the parlous state of the environment and to run counter to its own rhetoric on reform, to buy off the National Party.

And on Indigenous heritage, it appears the strategy is to kick the can down the road, avoiding real reform before the next election. This is because real reforms would involve an impossible (for the government) choice between popular support for proper Indigenous heritage protection and maintaining the ability of industry to operate in culturally-sensitive places without having to risk a veto from Traditional Owners.

Good government requires hard decisions, doesn’t it? That’s why we have them!

Banner image: When it comes to the environment, the devil’s in the detail. (Image by pen_ash from Pixabay)

Where to now with biodiversity after Dasgupta?

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Will Australia follow the UK’s lead on significant biodiversity policy reform?

By Peter Burnett

Author’s note: this is the second part of a two part blog: See Leaders and laggards for part one.

At the end of my earlier blog on Professor Partha Dasgupta’s recent review of The Economics Of Biodiversity for the UK Government, I posed the question of why the UK Government seems to be taking the challenge of biodiversity decline reasonably seriously while the Australian Government had made the biodiversity crisis such a low priority?

After all, it’s hard not to agree with Dasgupta’s basic argument that Nature is our most precious asset, that it is biodiversity that enables Nature to be productive, resilient and adaptable, and that our demands on Nature far exceed its capacity to continue supplying us with the goods and services on which we will rely.

And, helpfully, Dasgupta has given us a clear recipe for fixing the problem:

First, ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply.

Second, change our measures of economic success to base them on wealth, not income alone (ie GDP).

Third, transform our institutions and systems to enable these changes for the long term.

The UK response

The UK’s response to Dasgupta formed part of a multi-pronged environmental push, taking advantage of the coincidence of three major global meetings being held in 2021. The first two were or are being hosted in the UK: the G7 in Cornwall, (June) and the COP 26 Climate Convention meeting in Glasgow (November). Then there was the COP 15 Biodiversity Convention in Kunming, earlier this month.

The Dasgupta Review helped the UK negotiate the G7 2030 Nature Compact, in which the G7 leaders committed to halting and reversing biodiversity loss by 2030, as part of a double commitment that ‘our world must not only become net zero, but also nature positive’.

A ‘nature positive’ outcome would be actioned across four ‘core pillars’:

Transition for example by reviewing environmentally-harmful subsidies;

Investment in nature, including identifying ways to account for nature in economic and financial decision making;

Conservation, including through new global targets to conserve or protect at least 30% of land globally and 30% of the global oceans by 2030; and

Accountability, including by producing ambitious and strengthened National biodiversity plans and more transparent metrics and success indicators.

The UK is also seeking to leveraging its COP 26 Presidency in Glasgow to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable international supply chains (supply chains that factor in impacts to biodiversity).

In its domestic response to the Dasgupta Review, the UK’s headline commitments were first, to adopt the ‘nature positive’ goal, defining it as ‘leaving the environment in a better state than we found it, and reversing biodiversity loss globally by 2030’; and second, to reform economic and financial decision-making, including the systems and institutions that underpin it, to support the delivery of a nature positive future.

Specifically, the government amended its Environment Bill, which already contained a mechanism for setting environmental targets, to include a legally binding target on species abundance in England for 2030. It is also legislating a ‘biodiversity net gain’ standard for nationally-significant infrastructure projects.

Finally, the UK co-sponsored a ‘30 by 30’ Leaders’ Pledge for Nature at the CBD COP 15 in Kunming, China. This pledge, currently supported by some 70 countries, is to protect at least 30% of global land and at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030.

What about Australia?

While Australia has now moved, with great reluctance, to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, it has displayed no interest in the Dasgupta Review or in making serious biodiversity commitments more generally.

In fact, our current biodiversity strategy, Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019-2030 is a lightweight document that has was heavily criticised during public consultation.

We did join the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and commit to the 30×30 target although, as I explain below, our commitment is not what it seems.

Nevertheless, because Prime Minister Morrison announced this at the G7 meeting in Cornwall (as an invited guest) I think we can give part of the credit for this to Dasgupta and the UK: the PM would not have wanted to attend without a good ‘announceable’ in his pocket.

Anyhow, our 30×30 commitment comes on top of having exceeded (or, as the PM would say, beaten) our Aichi 2020 targets of 17% of land in reserve and 10% of marine areas in reserve, by reaching nearly 20% of land in reserve and 37% of marine areas.

In announcing our 30×30 commitment, the PM announced an intention to increase the area in marine reserves to 45%.

In her subsequent statement to COP 15 in Kunming, Environment Minister Sussan Ley announced plans to increase Australia’s Indigenous Protected Area network by another 3.7 million hectares of land and sea, and to establish  two new Australian Marine Parks around the waters of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. These would increase the percentage of protected Australian waters from 37% to 45%.

Despite the size of this increase, I think it represents talking up easy goals. As you can see, the marine reserves are in the Indian Ocean, well away from areas of significant economic activity on the Australian mainland.

Similarly, I think the government has found it easy to add further Indigenous Protected Areas to the reserve system because, again, most of them are away from areas of significant economic activity. The government has acknowledged this in Australia’s most recent report to the CBD in our most recent national report:

“despite this growth [in the size of the reserve system], only minor progress has been made since 2011 in meeting representation targets for ecosystems and threatened species. In part, this is because most growth has been in desert bioregions, so that representation improvements have been highly localised.”

UK v Australia: what’s the difference?

While no doubt there’s plenty of politics and padding in the UK’s response to Dasgupta, I think there is also plenty of substance to the actions they are taking. And legislating targets for species abundance and biodiversity net gain for major developments (along with an independent monitoring agency) should reduce the wriggle room substantially.

Australia, on the other hand, is all for the talk but not much for the walk.

At the end of the day, Australia’s position on biodiversity is similar to our position on climate change. We are all for signing up to the goals, as long as, to use the words of Scott Morrison in announcing Australia’s net zero by 2050 commitment:

Its not a plan at any cost. There’s no blank cheques here. It will not shut down our coal or gas production or exports. It will not impact households, businesses or the broader economy with new costs or taxes imposed by the initiatives that we are undertaking. It will not cost jobs, not in farming, mining or gas, because what we’re doing in this plan is positive things, enabling things. It will not increase energy bills. It won’t. It is not a revolution, but a careful evolution to take advantage of changes in our markets.

That’s right. We’re all in favour of action, provided this comes at no significant cost to the budget, no taxes or other costs to households and no loss of production, exports or jobs (ie no costs to the economy. And no legislation.

Can you imagine what kind of policies meet these stringent no-cost, no-obligation criteria? That’s right. Marine reserves thousands of kilometres from both population centres and economically-significant activity.

UK v Australia: why the difference?

And why is this ‘Australian way’, as Morrison calls his approach, so different to the British way? I think it’s just the way the politics have played out. In Australia, the Coalition has demonised environmental policy for so long as being a creature of the ‘green left’, that the political cost of substantive action on the environment is just too high.

In the UK, it played out differently. Margaret Thatcher was in favour of climate action in the 1980s, while in the 2000s, David Cameron, then still in Opposition, was able to galvanise support for the Conservative Party with his line ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’.

Will the Coalition in Australia ever run such a slogan? Not in this political generation.

Banner image: Image by Angelo Giordano from Pixabay

Leaders and laggards: The Dasgupta Review of Economics of Biodiversity

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United Kingdom acts on biodiversity, while Australia says ‘Das who?’

By Peter Burnett

Author’s note: this is the first part of a two part blog.

In our colonial past (and, more recently, as a pre-World War II British ‘Dominion’), Australia used to look routinely to the United Kingdom for policy leadership.

For example, when we were hit by the Great Depression, the Australian Government invited Sir Otto Niemeyer, of the Bank of England, to visit and advise on how to respond to the crisis. Mind you, we owed the Brits a lot of money, which we were now struggling to pay, so in many respects the visit was a negotiation between debtor and creditor.

More relevant to the environment, Australia’s post-war planning laws were heavily influenced by British reforms such as their Town and Country Planning Act 1932.

These days, while Australia retains a strong affinity with Britain, the UK is just one among many countries whose policies we might consider as possible models.

In the case of biodiversity, it’s a pity we aren’t still a little tied to the old apron strings, as the British are leaders in this area while we are laggards. (As one recent example, Australia has been singled out for mammal extinction in a recent UN biodiversity report.)

Review and response

The Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity was written by Sir Partha Dasgupta, a professor of economics at Cambridge. It was commissioned by the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer (ie, the Treasurer) and published in early 2021.

Within a few months, in July 2021, the UK Government published a formal response.

I know they were in a hurry, so as to leverage their hosting and thus chairing, two out of three major international meetings this year — the G7 Summit in Cornwall (June), the Biodiversity COP 15 in Kunming (this month, October) and the Glasgow Climate COP 26 (November) — but the speed and substance of this response are impressive nonetheless. This is especially true given the limited impact of an earlier report from 2010, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), an initiative of the G8 environment ministers.

What Dasgupta found

Some of Professor Dasgupta’s findings will not surprise readers of this blog:

  • Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on our most precious asset: Nature. Nature is more than an economic good: many value its very existence and recognise its intrinsic worth too …
  • Biodiversity enables Nature to be productive, resilient and adaptable. Our demands far exceed its capacity to supply us with the goods and services we all rely on …
  • Our unsustainable engagement with Nature is endangering the prosperity of current and future generations …

Some of Dasgupta’s conclusions about existing policy will also have a familiar ring to many readers, though they bear a welcome clarity (remember, this is an economist advising a Treasury):

  • At the heart of the problem lies deep-rooted, widespread institutional failure …
  • Nature’s worth to society – the true value of the various goods and services it provides – is not reflected in market prices because much of it is open to all at no monetary charge …
  • These pricing distortions have led us to invest relatively more in other assets, such as produced capital, and underinvest in our natural assets …
  • Many of our institutions have proved unfit to manage the externalities …
  • Governments almost everywhere exacerbate the problem by paying people more to exploit Nature than to protect it … A conservative estimate of the total cost globally of subsidies that damage Nature is around US$4 to 6 trillion per year …

From this point, the narrative becomes less familiar and more enticing. Choosing a sustainable path, says Professor Dasgupta, will require transformative change, underpinned by levels of ambition, coordination, and political will akin to, or even greater than, those of the Marshall Plan*.

(*The Marshall Plan was a huge five year US program that invested in rebuilding Western Europe after World War II and which spawned the OECD and, in part, the EU itself.)

Although Dasgupta does not make specific policy recommendations, he does provide clear advice for change, geared towards three broad transitions:

(i) Ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply,
and that we increase Nature’s supply relative to its current level.

In this regard, he says we cannot rely on technology alone. Instead, we need to restructure our patterns of reduction and consumption, fundamentally.

Consistent with this strong advice, Dasgupta favours some types of policy that one might expect to find in a report on biodiversity policy, such as major investment in environmental restoration.

But nor does he hesitate to go into more controversial areas.

For example, many of Dasgupta’s economist colleagues, including those in government, will balk at his rejection of the economic truism that correct pricing will solve all problems:

  • In the face of significant risk and uncertainty about the consequences of degrading ecosystems, in many cases there is a strong economic rationale for quantity restrictions over pricing mechanisms.

(ii) Change our measures of economic success to guide us on a more sustainable path.

It is not new to argue that GDP does not account for the depreciation of assets, including Nature, and that an inclusive measure of wealth is needed.

Nor is Dasgupta breaking new ground in finding it critical that natural capital be incorporated into national accounting systems. In fact, the UK has been a leader in natural capital accounting.

Nevertheless, until governments really take policy integration to heart, especially by measuring and managing the natural capital impacts of every significant decision, it is good to see strong advice on this point going from an internationally-eminent economist direct to Treasury and government.

(iii) Transform our institutions and systems – in particular our finance and education systems – to enable these changes and sustain them for future generations.

Here, Dasgupta has again been brave enough to enter controversial territory. He says that ecosystems that are global public goods require supra-national institutional arrangements. This is indeed sensitive territory for a government that has just ‘Brexited’ from such a supra-national institution.

For those ecosystems or biomes located within national boundaries such as tropical rainforests, Dasgupta says we need a system of payments to nations for protecting the ecosystems on which we all rely.

Where ecosystems are beyond national boundaries, eg, the oceans beyond exclusive economic zones, he says there should either be globally-accepted charges for their use, eg, for fisheries or, in ecologically sensitive areas, prohibitions.

And this collective international action would not be confined to direct protection of the physical environment. Sustained collective action is needed to transform the systems that underpin our engagements with Nature, above all our financial and education systems.

The global financial system should channel public and private investment towards economic activities that enhance stocks of natural assets and encourage sustainable consumption and production.

Businesses and financial institutions could be required to measure and disclose, not only climate-related risks but Nature- related risks as well. And central banks and financial regulators could support increased understanding by assessing the systemic extent of Nature-related financial risks.

Ultimately, says the report, a set of global standards is needed, underpinned by credible, decision-grade data.

Finally, individual citizens could be empowered to make informed choices and demand the change that is needed. For example, citizens could be educated to insist that financiers invest their money sustainably and that firms disclose environmental conditions along their supply chains, and even to boycott products that do not meet standards.

This recommendation, too, will tread on many toes.

Where to next?

At the end of the day, Dasgupta acknowledges the enormous challenge of the biodiversity crisis but concludes that the same ingenuity that has led us to make such large and damaging demands on Nature can also be deployed to bring about the transformative change we need.

‘We and our descendants deserve nothing less,’ he says.

In other words, we know how we came to fall into this hole, and we have both the capacity and the duty to climb out.

Why then does the UK Government seem to be taking this challenge reasonably seriously while Australian Government makes our biodiversity crisis such a low priority? It’s a question I’ll attempt to answer in my next blog …

Banner image: Detail from the cover of the Dasgupta Report.

A tale of two wetlands – what a difference a minister makes

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Or is this about different approaches to political lobbying?

By Peter Burnett

This is the story of two ‘Ramsar’ wetlands, one on the west coast of Australia, and one on the east. And it’s also the tale of two large developments, one affecting each wetland.

Ramsar wetlands are listed under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, made at Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. Australia has 65 Ramsar sites and we tell the world we look after them.

Domestically, Australian Ramsar wetlands are listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) as ‘matters of national environmental significance’. This protects them from any developments that are likely to have a significant impact upon them, unless the environment minister approves the development, following an environmental impact assessment (EIA).

The two wetlands

The first wetland borders a part of Moreton Bay, near Brisbane in Southeast Queensland. This wetland is subject to a $1.3 billion residential and tourism development by Walker Corporation at Toondah harbour. Originally submitted to then federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg in 2015, this controversial development appears to be stalled, as a draft environmental impact statement forecast by Walker for release in ‘early 2021’ has yet to be submitted to the federal environment minister.

The other wetland is on Eighty Mile Beach between Broome and Port Hedland in Western Australia. This wetland lies near the proposed site for a large-scale wind and solar renewable energy project (known as the Asian Renewable Hub) being proposed by NW Interconnected Power Pty Ltd.

The Renewable Hub would occupy a huge area of 6,500 square kilometres in the East Pilbara and produce a staggering 26 Gigawatts from a combination of wind turbines and solar panels. This is equivalent to the output of 15 or more large coal-fired power stations.

Originally aiming to supply power by undersea cable, the now-enlarged hub project will use renewable energy to extract hydrogen from desalinised water. The hydrogen will be converted to ammonia and piped 20 km out to sea, for loading onto tankers. The project was given ‘major project’ status by the federal government in October 2020 and is said to cost around $22 billion.

Both these wetlands provide important habitat for a range of water birds and migratory birds in particular. Migratory birds are also ‘matters of national environmental significance’, being protected by the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species. This meant that the species most affected by the developments are, in theory at least, twice protected.

Two recommendations for rejection but only one accepted

In both these cases the federal environment department advised the minister that the projects should be rejected upfront as ‘clearly unacceptable’, without going through the full EIA process.

In the Toondah Harbour case, minister Josh Frydenberg rejected the advice and allowed the project to proceed to its current assessment.

But it’s not as simple as that. Using Freedom of Information, The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) discovered that the minister received two consecutive briefs on the same topic, on the same day (see the ACF Submission to the independent review of the EPBC Act April 2020, pages 28, 29). One conveyed the department’s advice that the development was clearly unacceptable — this was the advice that Frydenberg rejected.

The second brief advised that the impacts on the Ramsar wetland and migratory species were significant and, in the case of the wetland itself, difficult to mitigate and offset. Frydenberg accepted this advice and decided that because significant impacts were likely, the matter should proceed to environmental assessment.

In the Renewable Hub case, current environment minister Sussan Ley accepted the department’s advice and stopped the project from moving into full EIA, at least for the time being.

In her official statement of reasons, she accepted that the installation of a marine infrastructure corridor through the Ramsar area would disrupt tidal flows, ultimately affecting the foodwebs on which the migratory birds depend. She also found that the foodwebs would be affected by ammonia spillage, desalination brine and a chronic increase in pollutants from a new town and shipping route.

Unusually, though not unsurprisingly given the identified impacts and uniqueness of the area concerned, the Minister also found that these impacts could not be compensated for by biodiversity offsets. Overall, there would be permanent and irreversible impacts to Eighty-mile Beach and its migratory species if the project proceeded in its current form.

Why the different decisions?

Why did one minister reject the department’s advice while the other minister accepted it? The differences might be down to simple differences in ministerial values or style.

But I think the two cases show different to approaches by developers to regulation.

Walker Corporation’s approach might be described as old style politicking, involving significant political donations to both major parties and backroom influence — Walker lobbied extensively against a ‘clearly unacceptable’ decision.

Frydenberg seemed so keen to allow the project to proceed that he wrote to a Queensland (Labor) minister floating the ‘option’ of the two governments working together to amend the boundary of the Moreton Bay wetland under the ‘urgent national interest’ clause of the Ramsar Convention. Frydenberg went on to note that ‘any proposed boundary change would need to have a ‘clear benefit to the ecological character of the wetlands a whole’, something that seems to me like clutching at straws to me (and also a bad look politically).

Walker Corporation sent executives to Geneva, to discuss a boundary change with the Ramsar Convention Secretariat, a most unusual move. The move was even more strange given that a file note subsequently released under FoI disclosed that Walker Corporation told the Secretariat that it could potentially reconfigure its development, including by restricting construction to an area outside the wetlands, or by looking ‘for other suitable development areas nearby’.

This was news to the department. ‘I wonder whether that is an error of what was discussed, given that it is at odds with Walker’s discussion with us to date, and the referral (which states that there are no alternatives to the proposal)’ wrote a senior department official to colleagues.

The hub consortium on the other hand appears to be playing with a straight bat. Despite the enormous size of the project, and its significance to Australia’s future as a ‘hydrogen superpower’, as Professor Ross Garnaut has termed it, apparently the consortium was not consulted about this unusual decision.

Yet the consortium issued a flat media release accepting the minister’s decision and committing to revising their proposal. ‘We will take [the Minister’s] concerns on board as we continue to work on the detailed design and engineering aspects of the project,’ they said. ‘[We] will address fully any concerns in preparing future project referrals.’

A tale of two approaches to political lobbying?

Both of these developer reactions are unusual. The chutzpah of Walker Corporation, to the point of taking its lobbying to Geneva, presumably to convince the Ramsar Secretariat that yet another Australian foreshore development represented an ‘urgent national interest’ is breathtaking.

And the environment department’s sending two briefs to minister Frydenberg, containing either conflicting or ‘alternative’ advice, is very suspicious. At a minimum, it represents an attempt by officials to avoid disclosure under FoI of a minister’s rejection of their advice by ‘splitting’ their brief. It should be investigated by the Public Service Commission as a possible breach of the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct.

On the other hand, the apparently mild (to say the least) reaction of the Asian hub consortium is also breathtaking. I would have expected the proponents of something this big to have been throwing their weight around with vim and vigour.

Perhaps these developers are cool customers playing a very long high stakes game and figuring that the best strategy is to hold the tongues and get on with the job.

Perhaps they are expressing outrage privately and we just don’t know about it. If so, there is no sign of it in a recent FoI release.

In any case, these two wetland decisions leave some significant unanswered questions, the most important of which concerns the power of lobbying. These cases provide another illustration of why the EPBC Act is badly in need of reform.

Banner image: Australia has signed international conventions committing it to protect migratory bird species and wetlands used by migratory birds. Proposals to develop on or near Ramsar listed wetlands deserve close scrutiny, and shouldn’t be allowed if they threaten these wetlands. (Image by David Salt)

Unleashing the environmental watchdogs?

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Court tells NSW EPA to do its duty and make policies to protect the state environment from climate change

By Peter Burnett

Governments know that most of us would place more trust in a seller of used cars than in a politician.

One by-product of this lack of trust is that politicians like to tell us that they are solving a problem by setting up an independent authority. Or, better still, an ‘independent watchdog’. People you can trust.

The trouble is, governments also like to be in control; especially in this age of ‘gotcha’ political journalism. Governments don’t like to create legitimate opportunities for public officials, including those who staff independent authorities, to embarrass, or, worse, defy them.

So, when governments establish these bodies, often enshrining their independence in law, they do so in the knowledge that there are ‘back door’ ways to control them.

Watchdog on a leash

One obvious method of controlling the watchdog is to punish ‘bad’ behaviour by reducing rations. A recent example is the Morrison government’s decision to cut the Auditor General’s budget, just when the auditor is proving very successful at sniffing out corruption in government grant programs — think ‘Sports Rorts’ and ‘Car Porks’.

Another approach is to nobble the authority in plain sight. Federal environment minister Sussan Ley took this option in response to a recent recommendation to create an ‘independent cop on the beat’ to oversee the devolution of environmental approval powers under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

While the independent Environment Assurance Commissioner proposed by Minister Ley has superficial appeal, the bill establishing this ‘watchdog’ also puts him or her on a leash by requiring them to seek the minister’s input to their annual workplan, to report to the minister rather than Parliament, and not to investigate individual cases.

If the minister manages to get this bill through the Senate, which is currently looking unlikely, the minister may get to have her (watchdog) cake while eating (leashing) it too.

The case of Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action v the EPA

One recent case that does not fit so comfortably into this theory involves the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) and its engagement with climate change.

A group of bushfire survivors sued the EPA in the Land and Environment Court to compel them to develop policies to protect the state environment from climate change.

Given that the EPA’s founding legislation makes no mention of climate change, I would have expected it to argue that climate change was not part of its brief. However, when the case came to court, the EPA conceded that it did have power to address climate change. Instead of arguing a lack of power, it raised two technical legal arguments as to why it shouldn’t be forced by the court to exercise its climate powers.

The first argument was based on the fact that the EPA’s powers to develop environmental policies and standards are expressed in broad general terms. Because the EPA had indeed been getting on with the job of developing policies and standards on various environmental issues, the EPA argued that the court could not and should not intervene to tell it to develop a policy on this specific topic at this particular time.

In other words, given the EPA’s broad and multi-faceted role, the Court should not hijack the EPA’s agenda, which was a matter for its own expert judgement over time.

The second argument was a back-up, in case it lost the first argument. The EPA said that it had in fact complied with any duty it might have to deal with climate change, by issuing policies and plans that dealt with climate change in various minor ways.

For example, the EPA’s Regulatory Strategy 2021-24 identified climate change as a ‘global challenge’ and set out various ways in which it would contribute to addressing it, including by ‘encouraging’ industry to respond to climate risks and by reporting on NSW government (ie not EPA) climate policies in the State of the Environment Report.

Chief Judge Preston rejected both these arguments and directed the EPA to ‘develop environmental quality objectives, guidelines and policies to ensure environment protection from climate change’.

In effect, the Court said that while the EPA’s duty to develop environmental policies was indeed cast in general terms, giving the EPA significant discretion as to how it should go about its business, this duty would require, at a minimum, that the EPA address threats of greater magnitude and impact, obviously including climate change.

By implication, it would be irrational to fix small problems while ignoring big ones. (Irrationality is one of the few grounds on which a court can intervene in the exercise of administrative discretion).

What’s going on here?

But back to the theory of governments exercising back door control. If the EPA had the power all along to address climate change, why hadn’t they done so in any substantive way?

The reasons might have been cultural. Given that the EPA’s founding legislation makes no mention of climate change, and that its regulatory heritage goes all the way back to the regulation of ‘smoke stack’ industries under the NSW Clean Air Act of 1961, it may have been that the EPA simply saw climate policy as falling outside its mandate.

Alternatively, under the theory of backdoor control, perhaps the NSW government had been whispering in the EPA’s ear, or rejecting climate-related budget bids, all along, without this being public knowledge.

In any event, the government’s response to the court case certainly doesn’t fit the theory.

I had expected them to announce that they would be appealing the decision. If nothing else, statements in the High Court about the ‘irrationality’ ground being one to invoke only in extreme cases certainly suggest an appeal would have some prospects.

But in a surprising and refreshing development NSW Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean announced on Friday that the government would not be appealing the decision, saying that “the Board and myself have decided … we’ll be putting in place the policies that are needed to give effect to the court ruling”.

Not only that, but “in fact, we’ll be doing everything necessary to give it full effect … [this] is significant because we want to use all our agencies, all the levers within government, to set the quality objectives, guidelines and policies to ensure that we protect the environment from climate change, as we should be doing”…

I suspect this unexpected embracing of a loss in court is mostly down to Kean himself, who certainly seems to be an ‘out-of-the-box’ politician. I reckon he would have had a hard time winning the NSW Cabinet over to this approach of leaning into the wind.

Here comes Matt Kean

But more power to his arm. When Kean first annoyed the Prime Minister last year by calling for stronger action on climate change, Morrison commented that most federal ministers ‘wouldn’t even know who Matt Kean was.’

I can’t think of a better way to raise one’s profile than by having the Prime Minister tell the media that one has no profile!

In any event, I have a feeling that if Kean doesn’t already have a national profile, he soon will.

Image by monicore from Pixabay

Administrative law: like the Curate’s egg, boring in parts, but environmentally useful nonetheless

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By Peter Burnett

“Off with her head”, said the Queen of Hearts to Alice in Wonderland, when Alice couldn’t read the values of some face-down playing cards. The word of the Queen of Hearts was law. Not a good law, actually.

In the real world, ‘Bad King John’ of England (1166-1216) wanted his word to be law as well. While he might not have been quite so capricious as the Queen of Hearts, he was arbitrary and unjust enough to drive his barons to rebellion.

And that rebellion was settled by a set of rules called the Magna Carta in 1215.

While the Magna Carta is best known for establishing the mother of Parliaments and guaranteeing trial by jury (at least for ‘free men’), it also contained a number of guarantees against arbitrary action by the King and his officials — in other words, by government.

For example, King John guaranteed not to take anyone’s corn or chattels without payment and not to appoint incompetent or corrupt judges and officials.

As a result, the Magna Carta is also known for establishing the principle that government is not above the law and thus cannot behave in arbitrary and unjust ways.

This is the foundational principle of administrative law.

Now some believe ‘law’ is dry and boring, with the very mention of administrative law enough to send you to sleep.

I’m here to convince you that administrative law is far too important to be boring, though I will concede that it can be dry and tedious in the detail. In his book The Rule of Law, one of the great modern British judges, (Lord) Tom Bingham, gives the example par excellence of a tedious regulation:

    Any reference in these regulations to a regulation is a reference to a regulation contained in these regulations. (!!)

And administrative law certainly has failings, as we shall see.

What has this got to do with the environment?

How is this relevant to the environment?

Anyone who has followed environmental issues through the courts will know that many court cases concerning the environment turn not on environment-specific principles (such as precaution or intergenerational equity), but on general principles of administrative law.

One such principle is that decision-makers should not be biased, or even appear biased.

A recent, if extreme, example of an environmental case involving that principle concerned the proposed extension to New Acland Coal’s mine near Oakey, Queensland.

This case has a history of appeals and re-hearings too long to recount, but in brief, an environmental assessment was done and a draft approval issued. However, because there were objections raised, the case was referred to the Land Court of Queensland, which had the role of making non-binding recommendations to the Minister for Natural Resources.

The key point for our purposes is that when the case eventually reached the High Court, they sent it back to the Queensland Land Court for a third hearing. This unusual outcome was required because the first and second hearings were affected by the appearance of bias, rendering both hearings invalid.

In the first hearing, the judge had apparently been deeply offended by a newspaper article on the mine extension, raising the possibility that his subsequent decision to recommend against approving the development might have been biased by his taking offence, while the reasoning of the judge in the second hearing became ‘infected’ by the apprehended bias of the first because she adopted some of his findings (at the direction of one of the intermediate appeal courts).

The High Court’s decision was hailed by the Environmental Defender’s Office as a major victory, and in one sense it is. High standards of decision-making have been upheld.

Yet the case also highlights the process-heavy downside of administrative law. Even if the third hearing is finalised without further appeal, there will have been a total of seven court hearings and a decisional timeframe spanning nine years and counting.

And we still don’t know whether the mine will be approved!

Of course, this is grist to the mill to industry and politicians running a campaign against ‘lawfare and green tape’, but the delays are more due to poor regulatory design than to administrative law itself.

A new line of attack

One feature of administrative law is that although its substantive principles are relatively constant, governments provide new ways to apply those principles by passing a constant stream of new laws.

Take for example the current challenge by the Environment Centre of the Northern Territory (ECNT) to the $21 million grant by Minister for Resources Keith Pitt to Imperial Oil and Gas, to expedite gas exploration activities in the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory.

In the past, it has not been easy to bring legal challenges to government decisions to give money away. Some recent High Court decisions and federal legislation have changed this.

For example, since 2013, federal government grants must comply with the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, which requires, among other things, that the minister making the grant be ‘satisfied, after making reasonable inquiries, that the expenditure would be a proper use of [public] money’.

A ‘proper’ use of money is defined in the Act as one that is ‘efficient, effective, economical and ethical’.

ECNT’s argument is that Minister Pitt committed an (administrative) error of law by failing to make enquiries about the climate risks associated with the development of the Beetaloo Basin, as well as the economic risks of that development as the world transitions to a zero carbon economy.

As far as I can tell this is the first time this line of attack has been used, although the Beechworth Lawn Tennis Club, which is challenging the ‘Sports Rorts’ grants made by the Australian Sports Commission, may well be using similar arguments. (Did I hear you mention ‘car parks’ as well?)

Boring in parts, but definitely useful

So, there you have it. While aspects of administrative law can be boring, overall it is far too useful in securing good environmental decisions to be ignored.

It does however have its problems, as the tortured and scandalously expensive chain of decisions in the New Acland Coal case show.

As a result, one of the challenges of environmental reform, beyond saving the environment of course, is to design decision-making processes that are not only fair and effective, but efficient as well.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Let’s start with a bang, but then what? The early Hawke Governments: 1983-1987

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

By Peter Burnett

The blocking of Tasmania’s Franklin Dam project by the Hawke government in 1983 is legendary, even to many who weren’t around at the time. But who can remember what came next for the nation on the environment front?

The answer, for a few years at least, was ‘not that much’.

That dam case

The Hawke Labor government came to power partly on the back of a commitment to stopping the Franklin Dam. There had been a national groundswell against the project although, unsurprisingly, Hawke’s promise to block the dam was not popular in Tasmania, where the Labor Party failed to win a single seat.

Reflecting the prominent role the Franklin-Dam issue had played in the election, the Government made stopping the dam its first item of legislative business. The World Heritage Properties Conservation Bill, enabling the government to block the dam, waSs rushed through Parliament in a month.

And Tasmania immediately challenged the law in the High Court.

The High Court’s decision in the Franklin Dam Case, upholding the validity of the federal legislation, was of enormous significance. The Government won the case by a narrow 4-3 majority, but the implications of the majority’s wide view of the federal constitutional power to turn not just environmental commitments, but any international commitment, into domestic law, were by no means marginal.

Don’t forget Biggles

The case was also significant to political cartoonists, who from then on drew Attorney General Gareth Evans as a ‘Biggles’-style World War I flying ace.

This happened because the government needed some high-quality aerial photos of the dam site for the court case. What higher quality could there be than Air Force photo reconnaissance?

The problem was that the Air Force tasked an F-111 bomber to take high-altitude photos. No one would have noticed. Unfortunately for the Attorney General, the pilot, on finding the area overcast, decided to make his photographic runs at low altitude and high speed. You can guess the rest.

A national responsibility?

The effect of the Franklin Dam Case was to validate the theme of ‘national responsibility’ that Hawke had written into the Governor- General’s Speech for the opening of Parliament in 1983:

“My new Government has been elected with a very clear mandate from the people of Australia to protect the Australian environment. My Government is convinced that it would be a gross dereliction of its Constitutional responsibility were it to fail to carry out the clear wishes of the overwhelming majority of the Australian people.

“The national Government is obliged to protect Australia’s natural and cultural heritage, including the South-West Tasmanian wilderness.

The problem was that, aside from stopping the Franklin Dam itself, the Hawke government didn’t do much to implement this ‘national responsibility’ policy during its first two terms.

In fact, the post-Franklin Dam period, through to 1987, could be regarded as rather lacklustre when it came to the environment.

The National Conservation Strategy

This lack of lustre is particularly evident in the fate of the National Conservation Strategy.

This was a Fraser government initiative [see my blog on the Fraser years], continued by Hawke. The Strategy had involved two years’ consultation and culminated in a national conference under the chairmanship of scientist and former Vice Chancellor of the University of NSW, Sir Rupert Meyers.

Environment Minister Barry Cohen presented the completed strategy to Cabinet in 1984 as ‘a blueprint for tackling environmental problems’.

This presented the Government with an important opportunity to adopt a set of high-level objectives and principles of environmental policy and to translate these into action.

However, the States were tepid towards the strategy, even though they all ultimately endorsed it, and the Government’s central agencies gave some advice of which Sir Humphrey would be proud: that advice was summarised in the cabinet submission as ‘the definition of endorsement should not include a commitment to implement the Priority National Actions’!

Cabinet thus squibbed a major opportunity for early action, endorsing the strategy in principle and deciding that it would consider implementation later.

Of course, ‘later’ never came. This was despite Hawke emphasising in the published version that ‘[t]he real significance of the strategy … will be measured not so much by the words it contains but by the actions it generates’!

Unfortunately, this was by no means the last occasion on which Australian governments would talk the talk but not walk the walk.

More talking the talk …

This same failure can also be seen in Australia’s contribution to the OECD during this period.

Australia played significant role in persuading OECD environment ministers in 1985 to commit their governments to ‘an integrated approach, with a view to ensuring long-term environmental and economic sustainability’.

Indeed, in deploying the ‘natural capital’ metaphor in his speech to the meeting, Australia’s delegation leader, Employment Minister Ralph Willis, placed himself at the very cutting edge of policy:

“To our cost we have given inadequate attention to the need for an environmentally and economically integrated approach to the management of natural resources or ‘natural capital’…It is in our mutual interest that each country should manage its ‘natural capital’ as efficiently as possible and with the same concern as accorded the efficient use of other physical, financial and human capital.”

Domestically however we did nothing to develop programs based on maintaining natural capital.

In the meantime, the government had established national State of the Environment (SoE) reporting in 1985. The second SoE Report in 1986 reported that much had been achieved in establishing institutions, enacting laws and implementing programs, but warned that “continuation of these efforts is essential, and important environmental problems remain.”

And one of its conclusions was that “greater emphasis [needs] to be given to developing anticipatory policies designed to prevent future problems …”

Displaying a tin ear, the Government promptly discontinued SoE reporting as a budget savings measure. (National SoE reporting was re-established in 1996.)

Not the end of the story

If the Hawke Government were an environmental policy student in 1985, its report card would start with an A+, followed by a string of D’s. The card would bear the teacher’s comment that ‘this talented student has lost interest and is skipping class’.

However, things began to change in the lead-up to the 1987 election and Hawke would go on to become, in my view, Australia’s most pro-environmental Prime Minister to date.

But that’s another story for a future blog.

Banner image: The bright triangle ‘no dams’ sticker was emblematic of the Franklin Dam protests. It was the first big environmental issue tackled by the new Hawke Government in 1983.

Fixing the Environment is the right thing to do? Isn’t it?

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Beware the Siren’s call of populism

By Peter Burnett

The Grattan Institute’s latest report, ‘Gridlock: removing barriers to policy reform’, argues that Australia’s governance is going backwards and that, without reform, there is little prospect for many policy reforms that would ‘increase Australian prosperity’.

To which we at Sustainability Bites would add ‘and avoid environmental catastrophe’.

The report identifies a number of barriers to public interest reforms. These include vested interests, a weakened media, increasing tribalism in politics and society, and, ultimately, plain old unpopularity.

Grattan also gather a number of sensible recommendations for reform: increasing the expertise and independence of the public service, reducing the number of political advisers in ministerial offices, a federal anti-corruption commission and so on.

Interestingly, the report also confirms that the 1980s and 1990s were indeed ‘golden years’ of reform (something we too believe here at Sustainability Bites) and that this view is not just a rose-tinted longing for the ‘good old days’.

Why the gridlock?

This is all good stuff. But what’s really going on here? We are an advanced liberal democracy, better off in material terms than any society in history — so why do we find ourselves stuck in reform gridlock?

In some cases, the explanations are obvious. The decline of traditional media for example is largely due to the rise of social media.

But it’s much harder to explain the recent rise of tribalism and populism, and a corresponding decline in the willingness of our leaders to champion unpopular reforms.

Of course, these things are all manifestations of human nature, but why are they so prevalent now?

The rise of neoliberalism, and the decline of Conservatism

I put much of the current prevalence down to the rise of neoliberalism, pushing out ‘capital C’ Conservatism and other ways of thinking now seen by many as old-fashioned.

Let me explain.

Neoliberalism is based on classical liberal ideas of individual choice and the efficiency of free markets. However, unlike classical liberalism, it is much less focused on governance-oriented themes such as equality before the law and democracy.

As a result, the prescriptions of neoliberalism tend to be focused on economic policy, such as deregulation and privatisation.

In common with economics, neoliberalism is utilitarian, a philosophy which is focused on maximising ‘utility’ or happiness. And utilitarianism belongs to the family of moral philosophies that are consequentalist, assessing the morality of actions on the basis of their consequences.

In contrast, various other moral philosophies are deontological (from the greek word for ‘obligation’ or ‘duty’) and thus concerned about ‘doing the right thing’.

‘Capital C’ Conservatism has a strong deontological theme, as it seeks to conserve institutions and values on the basis that they are good in themselves. Most religions also have strong deontological foundations, as does humanism.

Does it really matter?

Why all the philosophy? Isn’t it enough that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, to point out that neoliberalism has made us all much wealthier and indeed lifted millions out of poverty?

These things are true but there’s more to it. Remember, we are looking for an explanation for a loss of reform momentum and decline in standards of governance.

The philosophy is relevant because it does provide an explanation.

In looking for explanations of the changes in our politics over the last 40 years, it is not enough to point to the rise of neoliberalism. There has also been a corresponding decline in deontological thinking such as Conservatism and traditional religion.

In short, while material wealth is up, it’s just as important to note that commitment-driven behaviour, such as church-going, volunteering and even sticking with one football team for life, is down. We are not as ‘rusted on’ as we used to be.

So how does this explain the politics?

Consistent with the neoliberal focus on ends rather than means, good government does not matter as much as it once did. The most recent examples of this come from two very capable and well-respected centre-right politicians, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham.

Both were asked to defend pork-barrelling by their respective governments. The Premier said:

“The term pork barrelling is common parlance. And if that’s the accusation … I’m happy to accept that commentary … I think all governments and political parties make promises to the community in order to curry favour … it’s not an illegal practice; unfortunately it does happen from time to time.”

The Finance Minister said (and then promoted it on his own website):

“[T]he Australian people had their chance and voted the government back in at the last election, and we’re determined to get on and deliver those election promises that we made in relation to local infrastructure as we are nation building infrastructure.”

Shocking. Gladys says ‘everyone does it’ and Simon says ‘you had your chance and you chose us, pork and all’.

Yet, other than a few outraged columns from political commentators, these frank admissions of very poor political behaviour seem to have had little impact or generated much backlash.

If that’s our attitude to pork barrelling, is it any wonder that we are in trouble?

Environmental implications

At the most general level, the solution to environmental decline is to keep our consumption of nature’s services to the rate at which nature produces those services. If we fail to do this, we consume nature itself (natural capital), to our own detriment but especially to the detriment of future generations.

This is why ‘intergenerational equity’ is the fundamental principle of environmental sustainability.

Intergenerational equity is a classic example of deontological thinking. It is a moral imperative to do the right thing by future generations, even at the expense of our own consumption.

So if this kind of thinking is out of fashion, what can we do?

A return to moral codes that many have abandoned seems rather unlikely.

The next best thing might be to emulate the pragmatism of the Greek hero, Ulysses. When he knew that the voyage home from Troy would take his ship past the island of the Sirens, he had himself lashed to the mast so that he would be restrained from giving in to their velvet-like and irresistible call.

We too can lash ourselves to the mast of the ship of state, by setting up institutions such as a federal anti-corruption commission, or, for the environment, a legislated ‘net zero’ target and the independent Climate Change Commission (as proposed by independent MP Zali Stegall).

Of course, it would be better just to ‘do the right thing’. Failing that, when we are tempted to give in to the siren call of populism, good institutions can help save us!

Image: To save ourselves from the Siren’s call of populism we need greater institutional integrity — bring on the independent watch dogs! Image by Andy Faeth from Pixabay