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

2040 foresight – humanity’s shifting niche in the Anthropocene

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Banking on yesterday’s ‘normal’ is the worst form of denial

By David Salt

As 2020 draws to a close everyone is praying for a return to ‘normal’. We crave free social (mask-less) interaction and we all want to go to the beach for a swim without fear of catastrophic bush fires. And we want to jump on a plane and head to exotic locations and not worry about our health. And we also want the economy to be strong so we and our children are gainfully employed.

None of this was available to us in 2020 but hopes are high for decent rain this summer (in Australia, anyway), and effective CoVID vaccines are being deployed so there are growing expectations that we may now be able to control the CoVID pandemic.

But does that mean a return to ‘normal’ is coming our way? Our political leaders would like you to believe it; and all the rhetoric is about firing up the economy so the good times can flow.

Three new reports on what climate change is doing to our environment, society and economy paint a very different picture.

Bye bye world heritage

Last week the IUCN released a sobering Outlook report on the condition and trajectory of the planet’s 252 natural World Heritage sites. It found that a third of these sites are being threatened by climate change.

The outlook for five Australian World Heritage sites including the Great Barrier Reef, the Blue Mountains and the Gondwana rainforests, has deteriorated markedly in recent years. The conservation outlook for the Great Barrier Reef has worsened from “significant concern” to “critical” – the most urgent status under the IUCN system. Of course, the GBR is in serious trouble having suffered its third mass coral bleaching in five years during the 2019-20 (Black) summer.

Three years ago UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre predicted that under a business-as-usual emissions scenario all 29 coral-containing World Heritage sites would cease to exist as functioning coral reef ecosystems by the end of this century.

Keep in mind that World Heritage status is only awarded to places of outstanding universal value and where national governments make commitments to protect those values. Australia acknowledges the existential threat that climate change poses to the Great Barrier Reef but still refuses to taken any meaningful action on reducing our own emissions, let alone campaigning for better emission reductions around the world. That contradiction makes my country a major convention abuser.

Hello health blues

And if the loss of our world’s most precious natural ecosystems doesn’t sober you up, then maybe the annual report from The Lancet on Health and Climate Change will. Among other things it found:

-there were 296,000 heat-related premature deaths in people over 65 years in 2018 (a 54% increase in the last two decades),

-that global yield potential for major crops declined by 1.8–5.6% between 1981 and 2019

-145 million people face potential inundation with global mean sea-level rise of one metre. This jumps to 565 million people with a five metre sea-level rise.

These numbers put CoVID impacts into the shade but our political leaders feel free to ignore them because they range over temporal and spatial scales that lie beyond their electoral timeframes.

However, as the authors of The Lancet report note: “We cannot afford to focus attention on the COVID-19 pandemic at the expense of climate action.”

Adding up our sovereign climate risk

Mirroring The Lancet’s report but coming from the economic end of town, a new report from Four Twenty Seven (an affiliate of Moody’s) has assessed sovereign climate risk. Among other things it found:

-Heatwaves: Over 25% of the world’s population in 2040 could be in areas where the frequency and severity of hot days far exceeds local historical extremes, with negative implications for human health, labour productivity, and agriculture. In some areas of Latin America, climate change will expose 80-100% of agriculture to increased heat stress in 2040.

-Flooding: By 2040, the number of people exposed to damaging floods is predicted to rise from 2.2 billion to 3.6 billion people, or from 28% to 41% of the global population, with roughly $78 trillion, equivalent to about 57% of the world’s current GDP exposed to flooding.

-Tropical storms: Over half of the population in small island developing nations are exposed to either hurricanes and typhoons or coastal flooding amplified by sea level rise. In the United States and China alone, over $10 Trillion worth of GDP (PPP) is exposed to hurricanes and typhoons.

The new normal

These are just three reports in recent weeks. They are backed by hundreds of other reports, analyses and research programs from all sectors of society that have emerged throughout this year and over recent decades. And they all bear the same message – human induced climate change has disrupted the ‘normal’. The devastation of recent years is but a foretaste of what is to come.

Yes, we need action on carbon emissions today but we also need a real acknowledgement from our governments of what is happening around us.

In Australia we are led by a Conservative government that is in profound denial of what the ‘new normal’ means. They place their faith in technology to deliver an endlessly growing economy in which no-one needs to sacrifice a scintilla of their way of life – it’s win win all the way.

They believe the certainty of yesteryear will return with a few percentage points of extra productivity and maybe a slightly better resourced emergency services sector.

And this can be seen in their refusal to commit to zero net emissions by 2050. They claim they won’t make such a commitment till they fully understand its impact on economic growth, till they know its cost.

They believe their economic modelling of what lies over the event horizon is more robust and dependable than the hundreds and hundreds of evidence-based reports warning us of the impacts of the climate change today, tomorrow and in the coming decades.

The economy of 2050 will be so totally different, both in form and function, to the economy of 2020 that our Government’s position of using future economic cost to defend its lack of action on climate change today is fatuous, abhorrent and immoral. It is a fundamental denial of everything that’s happening around us today.

(This implicit denial also frequently spills over into explicit statements of denial. Consider yesterday’s outburst from Australia’s Resources Minister, Keith Pitt who castigated a climate change warning from the United Nations secretary-general as an inconsequential “grand statement”.)

A new niche for humanity

Our Government’s denial of what the new normal means for society leaves us vulnerable. They claim they are making Australia resilient, when in truth they are doing the opposite, leaving us exposed.

Humanity has changed the very Earth system and we are only just beginning to appreciate what life in the Anthropocene means.

Earlier this year a group of eminent Earth systems scientists asked what this new normal meant for humanity. They found that temperature increases over the coming 50 years will see the migration of 1 to 3 billion people. One of the scientists, Marten Scheffer, explains the logic behind this analysis in a short engaging YouTube clip.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing Syria’s civil war destabilised much of Europe. We still don’t know what lasting scars this migration event will have. Multiply that by a hundred, by a thousand, and the world looks quite a different place.

We live in challenging times with an uncertain future. To be better prepared for that future we need real, widespread and effective efforts to eliminate carbon emissions. But we also need our leaders to acknowledge that this world is changing, and that they (with us) need to work with that change, not deny it.

Image by Pete Linforth 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 ‘streamling’ 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

Trust lies bleeding

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A world of science is there to save us – and nobody trusts it

By David Salt

Every day the world goes a little crazier, and with every slip everyone grows more fearful of what the future holds. Central to our fears is trust, or a lack of it. If we can’t trust our leaders, or the institutions upon which civilisation is founded, then how can we trust in the future?

2020 has been an awful and tumultuous year full of ‘natural’ disasters, plague and populist politics. We want it to be over; we want some return to normal; but most of us are too scared to honestly engage with what science is telling us – that there is no return to ‘normal’ in respect of the Earth System.

Yesterday, as I write this, Trump announced he was CoVID positive (one of his few ‘positive’ tweets quipped one larrikin tweeter), one month out from the US election. Today it’s turning out the White House is actually a hotbed of infection. If things were uncertain, now they seem to be slipping towards deep chaos.

And chaos creates a feedback loop that can lead to despair.

The antidote to chaos is trust. When the chips are down, when the fire is lapping at our front door, when a pandemic stalks the streets; it’s trust in our leaders, our friends, our neighbours, our mainstream media, our emergency workers, and health workers (and other miscellaneous experts) that will see us through.

Trust is one of the bulwarks of community resilience, and in this year of tumult, I fear it’s often forgotten and been allowed to whither.

Science and truth

Trust lies bleeding and this has enabled our partisan politics to eviscerate truth; and that comes with some awful consequences. Consider the strange paradox of the power of science (and technology). It has enabled us to transform our planet while seemingly being impotent to save it.

On the one hand we have an enormous bank of evidence and a scientific consensus telling us that human activity has pushed Earth into a new state of being, referred to by many as the Anthropocene. Global modification involving too many carbon emissions, biodiversity decline and nutrient pollution (to name three planetary boundaries) is causing changes to our climate and life support systems. Our coral reefs are bleaching while our great forests are going up in flames. Sea ice is disappearing, the permafrost is melting and seas are rising – it’s everything science has been predicting but 2020 has seen those predictions become horrifyingly real.

Science has also told us what we need to do to reduce the impact of these changes.

On the other hand we see our political leaders pandering to the lowest common denominator; prioritising the short term over the long; and ignoring, discounting or rubbishing the science.

Consider this exchange a couple of weeks ago between President Trump and the California Secretary for Natural Resources in the wake of California’s horror fires:

“It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch.” – President Trump.

“I wish science agreed with you” – CA Natural Resources Secretary.

“I don’t think science knows actually.”- President Trump.

Trump has been denigrating and discounting the institution of science since he took office, as have many other populist leaders. It serves his political agenda and the coterie of vested interests that stand behind him.

He can stare into the flames of a massive and unprecedented conflagration and simply deny its reality and the science that explains it. That he is allowed to get away with this strikes me as surreal and absurd. However, that a sizeable chunk of America will simply accept what he says (they don’t think ‘science actually knows’ either) I find horrifying. They don’t trust science.

Trust this knowledge

It’s strange to think that we live at a time in history when science and technology (and specifically Information Technology) has made the world’s storehouses of knowledge (think libraries, universities and scientific journals) available to anyone with a smart phone or tablet. We have more scientists working today than at any time in history, and the power of science enables us to see further, or closer or finer than ever before.

And yet, in this same age, some 40% of Americans lap up every falsehood blurted out by a sociopathic anti-science president who has ignored all the warnings on climate change and CoVID to the detriment of his own country (and now looks to have fallen to the same infection he has shown no leadership on). A time when anti-vaxxers are on the rise, conspiracy theories abound and voodoo cures have as much currency as mainstream science.

I try to understand what explains this growing abyss between our burgeoning knowledge and the floundering confidence in that knowledge being shown by so many in the community; with one symptom of this gulf being the rise and rise of anti-truth tellers like Trump (and Bolsonaro in Brazil). And I think the answer has everything to do with the loss of trust.

Inequity and dispossession

It’s widely said that a major reason that Trump won in 2016 was because Hilary Clinton inadvisably described Trump’s supporters as “basket of deplorables”, people of little worth, who are ignorant and wrong-headed. It was enough, some believed, to rile them up and get them to spit in the eye of traditional politics and vote for Trump the outsider.

I think of that basket of deplorables as more of a barrel of the dispossessed. They largely come from poor socio-economic backgrounds and they no longer believe the future holds much for them. The status quo in recent decades seems to have enabled the rich to get even richer (truly filthy rich) while most of humanity looks at a bleaker and bleaker future.

Science reinforces this bleakness, shouting from the side lines that we’ll all be ruined if society doesn’t change to a more sustainable pathway.

And all the time inequity grows, while the winners of the status quo increase their stranglehold on the levers of power.

Trust lies bleeding.

In such an atmosphere, hyper charged by the reach and speed of social media, the simple solutions put forward by the Trumps, Johnsons and Bolsonaros of the world find fertile ground. And rather than solving the complex challenges rising around us, they sow further distrust and chaos.

Here’s just one topical example. According to Anne Applebaum at The Atlantic, 38% of media stories containing misinformation about the virus refer to the President: Trump is literally, not metaphorically, the single most important reason so many Americans distrust information they receive about the disease.

Cause or symptom

But the rise of the sociopathic liars I believe is a more a symptom than the cause of the problem. Their capacity to spread untruth is only made possible when a significant portion of the community don’t trust the mainstream media or the science it reports on.

Anti-vaxxers and Q-Anonists don’t get to spread their vicious conspiracies if the broader public is resistant to their poison; informed and responsive to real emerging threats.

And climate deniers (and the many vested interests that use them to sustain their wealth) won’t be able to distort and pervert important policy reform to move humanity to a more sustainable footing.

Today leaders are so obsessed with the impact of CoVID on our economic life (which clearly preferences society’s winners). Maybe we should all be rethinking our slavish neoliberal obsession with protecting traditional stocks of capital and investing more in social and environmental capital, and specifically making a few deposits into the rapidly draining trust bank.

Our capacity to absorb disturbance and sustain a quality life as we move into an increasingly uncertain future absolutely depends upon it.

Images by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Environmental Standards: are they really the treasure at the end of the rainbow?

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What would happen if we actually got decent environmental standards?

By Peter Burnett

After several months of turbulent debate over what will become of Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, we are approaching the end zone of Professor Graeme Samuel’s review. ‘Environmental Standards’ look set to become part of environmental regulation in Australia and many people, including me, are wondering whether they will be good enough and, even if they are, how will it change things.

Professor Samuel’s Independent Review of the EPBC Act is due in a month. The Government has jumped the reform gun by introducing ‘streamlining’ amendments to the Act designed to enable ‘single touch’ environmental decisions by states, replacing the dual system of federal and state decisions that we have now.

Although pitched by federal environment minister Sussan Ley as ‘the first tranche of EPBC Act reforms linked to the independent statutory review of the Act’, [link: ] this Bill is no more than a rebadged version of the Abbott Government’s 2014 ‘one stop shop’ Bill that failed to pass the Senate. It doesn’t include any of the reforms identified by Professor Samuel in his Interim Report, such as the application of binding National Environmental Standards to accredited State environmental decisions.

Once again the Government finds its path blocked in the Senate, although this time the three cross-benchers concerned are not necessarily opposed to the Bill, but only to the idea of passing ‘reforms’ without seeing the report to which the Government links them, or without a Senate Inquiry into the Bill, or perhaps both.

How will things play out?

My crystal ball isn’t good enough to see how all this might play out. Perhaps we’ll see a Senate Inquiry, not just into the streamlining Bill but into the full Samuel Report. This would put everything on the table, from threatened species protection to Indigenous heritage failures (think Juukan Gorge).

On this scenario, instead of being able to deliver the ‘single touch’ model by Christmas as part of its COVID-19 recovery plan, the Government might find itself wading through the environmental policy swamp in the Senate for months, where it does not control the numbers.

Another scenario is that, in an effort to avoid wading into the swamp, that the government cuts a deal with Labor on the policy. What if we ended up with bipartisan support for accreditation based on standards?

Are standards the answer?

On the surface, such a deal could be attractive politically and environmentally. We’d get the efficiency of ‘single touch’ decisions, with checks and balances in the form of standards: quick decisions, but not at the expense of the environment.

Unfortunately it’s not that simple.

Professor Samuel recommended a phased approach, starting with interim standards, but refined over time with increasing ‘granularity’. This might mean that early standards are too general to be enforceable and so make little difference on the ground. Moreover, once interim standards were in place, States and developers alike would probably resist the progressive tightening that would come if the Commonwealth embarked on a program of rolling out progressively more-detailed standards.

Standards would be a new element in the environmental decision-making equation. As such, they represent something of a wild card and would probably attract legal challenges as environment groups tried to establish that standards should make a real difference to decisions.

So we could get standards that don’t really work, or standards that generate controversy. Not all standards are good standards.

But what if we actually got a decent set of standards?

But what if the standards were ideal, clearly and accurately identifying what was needed to maintain or enhance the condition of important environmental values such as threatened species?

We’d still face significant problems.

First, we lack the ability to measure what’s happening to the environment on a routine and ongoing basis. We’d need to complement the standards with quality and up-to-date information. Professor Samuels said a ‘quantum shift is required in the quality of information, accessible data and information available to decision-makers’. This would be expensive and take years to implement.

Then there’s the politics. Given the parlous state of the environment, well-defined standards, applied with precision, would often throw up the answer ‘You can’t approve that. It would result in the degradation or loss of [insert environmental value here, eg significant area of critical habitat, river-flow needed to maintain a Ramsar wetland, etc]’.

I think many politicians know this, if not consciously, at least instinctively, and would not wish to go down this track. We’d be tapping into what makes the environment such a wicked problem.

‘Doing the right thing’ could come at significant opportunity cost to the economy, not to mention direct impacts on various vested interests, while the standards would place any failure to do so in stark relief. There’d be nowhere to hide, no fudges available.

The recent threatened walk-out from Government by the National Party in NSW, over new and more precise guidelines concerning koala habitat provides a foretaste of this.

Standards alone are not enough

To me, the missing link is a means to bring society along with new standards, to create a broad acceptance that maintaining a quality of life for our children, even our future selves, will require difficult decisions.

The Gillard Government sought to do this in its ‘Clean Energy Future’ climate package in 2011. One element of the package was a Climate Commission, charged with engaging with the ordinary person, through ‘town hall’ meetings and the like, to explain the need for climate action. Unfortunately, the Commission bit the dust along with the carbon price, in 2014.

I know that anything associated with the repealed carbon price is political anathema, but this is where we need to go. We need broad community acceptance that we can’t live beyond our environmental means, and to explain what that means.

After 75 years of ‘jobs and growth’ messages from Western governments, going back to US President Truman’s urging in his State of the Union address in 1945 to ‘move forward … to the full utilisation and development of our physical and human resources’, that’s a tall order indeed.

Image by Albrecht Fietz from Pixabay

Trust us? Well let’s look at your record

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Can governments be trusted to set and enforce effective environmental standards?

By Peter Burnett

Can Governments be trusted to set and enforce effective environmental standards? By ‘effective’, I mean standards that protect the environment to the point of halting long-term environmental decline?

I’m asking this question because in the current debate about reform of Australia’s national environmental law, the EPBC Act, environment minister Sussan Ley is saying ‘trust me’ on two major issues, both arising from Professor Graeme Samuel’s Independent Review of the EPBC Act.

First, she is rushing through a small but controversial set of legislative changes while promising more extensive reforms to come.

These initial changes are about reducing duplication and ‘green tape’ by introducing ‘single touch’ environmental decisions. They are posing as the first tranche of reform but are in fact a recycled version of the Abbott government’s ‘one stop shop’.

Second, the Government has rejected the recommendation of the Independent Review that there should be an ‘independent cop on the beat’ to regulate States accredited to make ‘single touch’ decisions. Without such a regulator, it would be up to Minister Ley to call to account any State making decisions that didn’t comply with Samuel’s proposed National Environmental Standards.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the government can be trusted on this. But it’s not about anyone’s personal qualities. It’s about the politics. I base my argument on two examples, Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) and the Environment Restoration Fund (ERF).

Trust us on the forests

RFA’s were developed in the 1990s as the solution to the ‘forest wars’, especially over the harvesting of old growth forests to produce wood chips. The idea was that, following an environmental assessment, Federal and State governments would produce a 20-year plan, in the form of an RFA, for each forestry region.

There are 10 RFAs across southern Australia. Each one identifies areas for harvest and sets out how the State will conserve ecological values such as threatened species. In return, the Commonwealth grants export licences for forest products covered by the RFA and exempts forestry in RFA areas from the need for development approvals under the EPBC Act.

In 2006 Bob Brown challenged a Tasmanian RFA on the ground that Forestry Tasmania were failing to deliver the protection required by the RFA for several threatened species. He won the initial challenge but lost on appeal.

The interesting point however is not who won or lost but what happened between the initial case and the appeal.

Obviously the Federal and Tasmanian governments were concerned that the appeal court would uphold Brown’s win. So they changed the wording of the RFA. Instead of requiring that the species be protected (by applying agreed management prescriptions), the amended RFA specified that the establishment of the CAR (Comprehensive Adequate and Representative) Reserve System, together with the application of the agreed prescriptions, protected the species.

In other words, instead of requiring an actual environmental outcome, the RFA deemed the agreed inputs to be delivering the outcome.* The two governments were concerned that the law might require, not just that they take action, but that they actually achieve a result!

Trust us on endangered possums

Similar sentiments can be seen at play in the Leadbeater’s Possum Cases of 2018 and 2020, in which environment group Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum took VicForests to court, twice, arguing that the corporation was failing to comply with the RFA and that as a result it had lost its RFA exemption under the EPBC Act. (The cases also related to the Greater Glider.)

The cases are complex, but in brief the Court held that to maintain its EPBC Act exemption, VicForests had to conduct its forestry operations ‘in accordance with’ the RFA.

The first challenge failed because it was based on the failure of the Federal and Victorian governments to conduct, in a timely way, the five year reviews required under RFAs. The court said these reviews, though performing a ‘critical’ role in preserving the currency, appropriateness and effectiveness of the RFA, were not integral to forestry operations.

The second challenge was based on VicForests’ failure to comply to apply the precautionary principle, as required by the Victorian Code of Practice for Timber Production, in planning its logging activities. This time the challenge succeed, because the planning process was integral to forestry operations.

Again, the interesting point here is not so much the outcomes of the cases but the attitude of governments.

First, the Federal and Victorian governments were significantly late in conducting regular reviews of the RFAs. In fact, they missed the first one altogether. And, in playing ‘catch up’, they didn’t review the five Victorian agreements individually but rolled the reviews into one.

This creates a strong impression of initial neglect on both sides, followed by a scramble to get into compliance.

Second, rather than comply with the precautionary principle by undertaking serious on-ground monitoring work, VicForests relied on ‘desktop and other theoretical methods’ which the Court found to be flawed. In fact, the Court said that VicForests had prepared ‘defensive documents … suggesting VicForests felt obliged to have a policy addressing further protection for the Greater Glider, but was reluctant to implement it’.

Again, one is left with the strong impression that protecting the environment was far from the minds of those concerned.

Trust us on restoration

As I’ve written about the Environment Restoration Fund before, I’ll just recap briefly.

This $100m fund was announced in the 2019 Federal Budget, just before the election. The fund was presented as representing ‘practical environmental action’.

The government committed nearly 80% of the funds in the form of election commitments, ie. immediately, without calling for applications and without access to the usual expert advice about how to prioritise the spending for best environmental effect.

In other words, despite serious and ongoing environmental decline, the government’s ‘practical environmental action’ was, in reality, a pork barrel. When challenged about their approach in the Senate, the government’s main defence was that the Opposition did this sort of thing too.

So, who do ya trust?

I could go on, but in my view these two significant examples alone suggest strongly that governments, irrespective of political persuasion, or whether Federal or State, cannot be trusted to implement good environmental policy. Without ginger groups such as Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum to keep them honest, or Professor Samuel’s ‘independent cop on the beat’, they have a strong tendency to ‘talk the talk’ but not ‘walk the walk’.

The politics are just too hard.

With the RFA’s, I’m betting politicians still have an indelible memory of the timber trucks encircling Parliament House, like ‘Indians’ riding around the circled wagons in an old Western, even though this occurred more than 25 years ago. Once bitten, not just twice shy but pathologically averse to stirring up the timber industry.

With the ERF, the Morrison Government was widely expected to lose the 2019 election and perhaps this was an initiative born of desperation. The fact that it worked will only suffice as justification to the most rusted-on Coalition supporters. For the rest of us, it’s only helped to reinforce the widely held view that governments can’t be trusted.

So, while it’s possible that we’ll get a reasonable set of National Environmental Standards out of the current national environmental law review, because talk and even laws are cheap, it’s much less likely that governments would implement them effectively, if left to their own devices.

Bring on Professor Samuel’s independent cop on the beat!

Image by Pixabay

*On appeal, the Full Federal Court said that the change was unnecessary and that, as a matter of interpretation, the original words only required the application of the agreed prescriptions and not the achievement of protection, but this is beside the point.

The bumblebee conspiracy

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Could the quest for ‘single touch’ environmental approvals spread a dangerous feral species?

By Peter Burnett

The Government is intent on pushing through its partial agenda on environmental reform — it’s so called ‘single touch’ approvals approach — even at the expense of pre-empting the current independent review of the EPBC Act. To do that it’ll need to buy a few votes from the Senate cross benches.

In anticipation of a Parliamentary debate I’ve been digging through some recent legislative history and I’ve started to hear a loud buzzing noise. There’s a bumblebee in this equation and if we’re not careful it may soon be pollinating a weed near you.

Before I reveal the bumblebee, some background.

The buzz of ‘green tape’

As most of our readers will know (because we’ve discussed it from many angles), Professor Graeme Samuel is conducting a 10-year review of the EPBC (Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation) Act and has released an Interim Report. He has recommended a new approach to environmental protection based on National Environmental Standards (which would be interim in the first instance).

One of the drivers for EPBC reform is duplication and overlap between Commonwealth and State environmental impact assessment (EIA) systems. This problem is real enough, although the Government is one-eyed about it, framing the issue pejoratively as ‘green tape’ and talking little of anything else in the environmental reform space beyond its response to this issue, ‘single touch approval’.

‘Single touch approval’ is the Government’s new name for the failed ‘one stop shop’ initiative.

The Government is so focused on this issue that it will be introducing hastily-drafted legislation, probably this week, to hand over most Commonwealth EIA decision-making authority to the States.

It says that this accreditation will be based on Professor Samuel’s Interim Standards, even though they do not exist yet.

In the meantime, Professor Samuel continues with his review. He has formed a Consultative Group to help develop an interim set of Standards. The Group consists mostly of major stakeholders such as the Business Council of Australia and Australian Conservation Foundation, but it also includes a couple of individuals (including me).

Enter the bumblebee

Apart from EIA, the EPBC Act also plays a significant part in dealing with landscape-scale threats, including weeds and pests.

One of the Threat Abatement Plans made under the Act deals with gamba grass and four other invasive grasses in Northern Australia. Ironically, many of these grasses were deliberately introduced as improved pasture plants that then escaped to become major environmental threats.

The EPBC Act also makes it an offence to possess a exotic plants or animals that are not on the Live Import List. This offence applies even to feral species that have become established here.

One such species is the large earth bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), which apparently was smuggled into Tasmania from New Zealand in the 1990s and has since become established there. (At this time, the bumblebee is not found on the mainland). The likely reason for smuggling is that the bumblebee is a very efficient crop pollinator and could be a boon to horticulture, including tomato-growing.

Several applications have been made by the horticulture industry to include the bumblebee on the Live Import List and so allow its use as a pollinator, but each application has been rejected because of the biosecurity risks, which include out-competing native bees and, through their efficiency as pollinators, exacerbating the impacts of weeds.

Could a bumblebee buy a vote?

Why am I linking weeds and feral animals with environmental review and reform? Well, as I write, the Commonwealth’s urgent Bill has yet to see the light of day. However, rumour has it that it will draw heavily on the Abbott Government’s ‘one-stop-shop’ EPBC Amendment Bill, which was introduced in 2014 and was allowed to lapse in 2016 after it became clear that it would not pass the Senate.

I went back over that 2014 Bill. Initially, I was puzzled by blandly described amendments in the proposed Bill that would allow people to apply for permission to possess live specimens of feral animals. These seemed to have no connection to the one-stop-shop reforms.

Further research revealed that this amendment was proposed by the Government to secure the support of Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie. The amendments would allow a two year ‘trial’ in Tasmania of the pollination of greenhouse-grown tomatoes by bumblebees.

Given previous assessments that this would pose unacceptable risks to biosecurity, I was shocked that Senator Lambie would seek, or worse, that the Government would agree to, such an amendment. It was only by luck that the ‘trial’ did not proceed because of opposition to the Bill on other grounds.

But some bad ideas just will not die. I was shocked again to find that even though the Bill had lapsed, the bumblebee proposal was later considered by a Senate Committee, which supported the idea unanimously! Even Senator Whish-Wilson of The Greens supported it!

The shock of the bumblebee

I also discovered that I was not the only one shocked. The Invasive Species Council, a non-profit advocacy group, published an article in the Feral Herald (best newsletter name ever!) expressing their shock that the warnings from the CSIRO and the Environment Department, together with opposition from the Honeybee Industry Council, the South Australian Government (plus bans in NSW and Victoria) and the Council itself, were not enough to deter the Committee from supporting the plan.

I’m raising all this because, once again, the Government are likely to need Senator Lambie’s support to secure passage of their hasty reforms. Given this, and the Government’s subsequent endorsement in 2019 of the Committee recommendations, I expect they will include it in their ‘single touch approval’ Bill.

As the Invasive Species Council has pointed out, legalising the use of feral bumblebees in Tasmania will create a perverse incentive for someone to smuggle them to the mainland.

A cost-benefit analysis taking this into account would find the small benefits in Tasmania to be vastly outweighed by the likely costs nationwide.

The contested arena of environmental reform is already littered with complexity, ideological conflict and vested interests. In case there was any doubt, now we can add irrationality to the list. And irresponsibility.

Image by Nel Botha from Pixabay

Effective environmental reform: What are the prospects?

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Change is in the wind. There is cause for hope but also for caution

By Peter Burnett

The Review of the nation’s premier environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) is showing signs that it could reshape the environmental policy agenda in Australia.

The Review is being led by Professor Graeme Samuel. Despite having no background in environment, Professor Samuel has shown in his interim report (released last month) that he is well-across the problems of the environment and the failings of the EPBC Act. And he has taken a clear stance on solutions through his proposal for National Environmental Standards.

On the other hand, the Government has stuck to its very narrow focus on efficiency through its ‘green tape’ narrative. It is also in an unseemly rush (as I discussed last time), proposing to push legislation through the Parliament this month to accredit states to give federal environmental approvals on the basis of interim Standards, without even waiting for Professor Samuel’s final report, due on 31 October.

With a potential clash looming between policy-driven reform and politically-driven change, what are the prospects for effective reform, by which I mean reform that has reasonable prospects of halting Australia’s well documented environmental decline?

The positives

A cynic would say we’ve been pursuing environmental protection for fifty years now, with limited impact, so why would things change now? My response is that there are some significant new factors at play and that, as an optimist, I’m hoping some of them might carry the day.

First, there are some significant shifts taking place in business in terms of climate change. A number of major companies have adopted policies of ’net zero by 2050’, as has the Business Council of Australia, which represents Australia’s largest companies.

My own explanation for this change is that climate issues are now emerging over the business horizon. Factors such as shareholder concern, directions from business regulators to address climate risk and rising insurance premiums, not to mention the risk of being sued, all mean that climate change is, for them, no longer ‘out there’.

Second, Australia’s Black Summer of 2019-2020 confronted the nation not just with the impacts of climate change on humans, but with the impacts on nature as well. Initial reports were that the fires killed over a billion vertebrate animals, but a new report concludes that the figure is around three billion if the casualty list is expanded to include injured and displaced animals.

Third, Professor Samuel himself, appointed by a government of the political Right and coming from a background in law and business, is, through his report and public statements, helping to legitimise the environment as a concern of all rather than just those on the Left.

Significantly, Professor Samuel’s framing of environment policy in terms of desired outcomes and standards, across the board, could prove instrumental in shifting debate away from individual controversies such as the Adani coal project, towards policy-relevant questions like ‘what are we trying to achieve?’ and ‘what does a sustainable environment look like?’

If general environmental decline is socially unacceptable (which I think it is), then it is hard to argue against a goal of halting the decline and setting legally-binding standards to give it effect.

It’s also harder to get traction at a high level for a general ‘jobs-and-growth’ argument, than it is to make a project level claim that ‘this mine will create thousands of jobs in this region’.

And if a leading business person like Professor Samuel is driving a process to nail down exactly what halting that decline will require, political arguments about ‘green agendas’ and the like will not apply.

Negatives

Of course, it would be one thing to persuade a Professor writing a report and something else entirely to carry the day politically.

The influence of these positive factors may not extend beyond Samuel’s report. The Government may be unmoved and has already ruled out one critical element of the Samuel model, an independent compliance regulator.

Indeed, the Government may have its first (and possibly only) tranche of reforms enacted before he submits his final report.

In that regard, even if Labor and the Greens oppose the Government’s plan, it needs the support of only three cross-benchers to get its Bill through the Senate. The prospects of securing three votes from among two One Nation senators, two Centre Alliance and Jacqui Lambie, must be reasonably good.

At this stage then, the likely scenario is that Professor Samuel’s final report in October will make strong recommendations for National Environmental Standards and supporting measures, but the Government will pre-empt that by securing passage of EPBC Act amendments that will see States accredited to make the Prime Minister’s ‘single touch’ development decisions on the basis of ‘interim’ standards by Christmas.

And on balance?

What prospects then for major reform? If the Government wins over the Senate, the reform horse will have bolted. It will be very hard to implement Professor Samuel’s strategy of progressive development and tightening of interim standards while no longer holding the carrot of State accreditation.

Despite this, I remain hopeful. The Senate Cross-bench may be persuaded to insist on considering the final Samuel Report before legislating. And that final report may make a convincing case for comprehensive reform.

It is even possible that the Prime Minister meant what he said in May in his National Press Club address on post-pandemic recovery:

As we reset for growth, [we] will be guided by principles that we as Liberals and Nationals have always believed in, to secure Australia’s future and put people first in our economy...

Secondly, is the principle of caring for country, a principle that indigenous Australians have practiced for tens of thousands of years.

It means responsible management and stewardship of what has been left to us, to sustainably manage that inheritance for current and future generations.

We must not borrow from generations in the future, from what we cannot return.

This is as true for our environmental, cultural and natural resources as it is for our economic and financial ones.

Governments therefore must live within their means, so we don’t impose impossible debt burdens on future generations that violates that important caring for country principle.

Image: Image by christels from Pixabay

The choir – lobbyists and powerbrokers

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Who is singing and who is listening in the biggest environmental game in town?

By David Salt

The biggest environmental policy game in town at the moment is the review of the EPBC Act. That’s because the outcome of this review will have a major bearing on how governments deal with the perennial tension between economic development and environmental protection. It could influence how our nation looks after our environmental values for years, maybe decades, to come. It is a big deal.

Last week the government belatedly released the draft report of the review (led by Professor Graeme Samuel). This draft pointed out the EPBC Act was failing on multiple fronts. It was failing to protect the environment and it was too slow in processing development approvals. It proposed a range of reforms (and these have been discussed at length by many).

I’m always fascinated by what lobby groups say when reviews such as this are released. Their public statements come out so fast on the heels of the release I really wonder if they have even read the document (or even its executive summary). Reading their statements it quickly becomes apparent that most of their words are simple rehashes of their lobby platforms – what they want the public to think about them, and what they want the government to do in respect of the stakeholders they represent.

Let’s look at a few of those statements

Political statements

First up, there’s the draft review itself. It’s released by the Department of Agriculture and Environment (DAWE), the Department that oversees the EPBC Act (we’re already getting a signal even in the Department’s title on the priority given to the environment). The media statement provides a fairly good summary of the draft review with a link to the review itself.

Central to Samuel’s review is the belief that a set of National Environment Standards need to be developed, duplication between state and federal levels needs to be reduced and that an enforcement regulator needs to be established. On this final point, he said: “Community trust in the EPBC Act and its administration is low. To build confidence, the Interim Report proposes that an independent cop on the beat is required to deliver rigorous, transparent compliance and enforcement.”

Following simultaneously on this release comes the statement from the Government which thanks Professor Samuel for delivering the report, agrees we must end duplication and instantly squashes any idea that an ‘independent cop’ will be brought in. The government will not “support additional layers of bureaucracy such as the establishment of an independent regulator.” (It should be noted that when Labor was in government when the EPBC Act was last reviewed in 2009 that it similarly rejected the proposal for a ‘greenhouse trigger’ because it added layers of bureaucracy to the Act.)

The opposition party then follows with a statement saying it’s all the government’s fault: “In considering the Samuel Review Interim Report, it’s important to understand that Australia’s biggest problem in environmental management has been blue tape: delays and poor decision-making caused by Liberal and National cuts and mismanagement.”

Predictably, the Greens are also blaming the government for everything that’s wrong, and bitterly disappointed in their flat rejection of a regulator: “Environmental standards will be worthless if there is no one there to enforce them. This report shows the government can’t be trusted.”

Business statements

The Business Council of Australia was complimentary in its appraisal of the review: “What has been achieved in this review is a way forward that increases accountability, increases the transparency of decision making and retains the central goal of protecting the environment.” Pity the government’s already killed the prime mechanism for enhanced accountability.

The Minerals Council of Australia sees it as a greenlight for development: “Faster approvals, greater national cooperation and clearer guidelines on environmental management will boost jobs and investment and improve biodiversity outcomes.” They’re delighted by the government’s commitment to develop a ‘single touch’ approach to assessment: “The interim report highlights the need to address unnecessary regulatory complexity and duplication – including overlapping state and federal processes which deter investment.”

The Association of Mining and Exploration Companies and the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association pretty much parrot the Minerals Council’s thoughts. Less duplication and faster approvals are essential; though they don’t have much to say about improved environmental outcomes beyond suggesting they think they are important too.

But it’s not just the miners who see gold in the report, the farmers see carrots. The National Farmers Federation said: ““For too long the regulatory stick has been preferred, despite biodiversity outcomes actually declining. The solution is in a market-based approach rather than a stronger stick. It is time for some carrots.” I think the NFF are also not a fan of the ‘independent cop’ idea.

The foresters are also keen to support the report’s call for greater clarity, in their case clarity between the EPBC Act the Regional Forestry Agreement process. The Australian Forestry Products Association said: “This is our chance to ensure the right protection for our environment while also unlocking job-creating projects to strengthen our economy and improve the livelihoods of every-day Australians.”

Environmental sector statements

So business interests everywhere are in furious concord, the review is good if it reduces transaction costs around environmental protection. What are environmental NGOs saying? They are somewhat worried.

The Australian Conservation Foundation said: “the Federal Government would be lining up Australian wildlife for extinction if it rushes to devolve environmental approval powers to states”.

The Wilderness Society is also concerned by an apparent devolution to the states. It said: “Professor Samuel’s report outlines that environment laws are rarely policed, that endangered species recovery plans are rarely implemented, that Australia’s most important environmental values are in decline and yet the central Government response is to seek to hand environmental approval powers to the states with no concrete proposals to address any of the main environmental challenges facing Australia.”

The Invasive Species Council’s response was that it welcomed what it said was a “less reactive, more comprehensive response to Australia’s growing biodiversity crisis”. It supported the call for ‘strategic national plans’ and ‘regional plans’ but was “greatly disappointed that the Environment Minister today ruled out Samuel’s proposal for an ‘independent monitoring, compliance, enforcement and assurance regulator’.”

The choir

These were just the statements I saw in response to the release of the draft review of the EPBC Act. I’m sure there were many more but they give you a good flavour of the push and shove following such an announcement.

Most people never see these statements beyond, maybe, a quote here and there used in news stories, normally to add a bit of colour to the otherwise drier reportage. However, these statements are always coming out from the different lobby groups whenever the government makes a statement on anything, the story being reported here is just one from the environment sector.

These statements telegraph to the government what different stakeholder groups are expecting from our political leaders. You’ll often see lobby groups repeating phrases used by the government (like ‘single touch’ approval processes) giving them credence and solidity. Sometimes it’s the other way around; the government will pick up on phrases coined by a lobby group.

And, of course, this is just the visible signs of the lobbying process. There’s a whole industry based on cultivating influence of the government and most of it happens behind closed doors and is unseen by the public.

Having worked for many years in science communication connected with biodiversity conservation I’ve seen this game of duelling public statements many times. It amazes me the seeming co-ordination with which it happens, with each side singing to their own constituency and maybe pulling the strings behind some of the important decisions.

In this current situation relating to the EPBC Act, the industry groups seem to be at one with the government’s message of shorter approval times, less regulation and less bureaucracy. This is only an interim report but it provides a clear idea of what the final report will contain, and we also have a good idea which bits the government will act on (and which bits it will reject).

Missed the boat

The review is currently calling for public feedback on the interim report. But you’ll have to be quick. Having been given the report by Graeme Samuels last month but only releasing it last week, the government will only accept feedback till 17 August. The final report is due in October.

Though, even if you respond through the official channels, it could be you’ve already missed the boat. It seems the Government is not waiting for the final report and have promised legislation in late August. The Prime Minister’s statement from the most recent National Cabinet yesterday said the Premiers were all on board and keen to sign up to ‘single touch’ asap (why wouldn’t they)?

It is quite clear which choir the Government is listening to.

Image by stanbalik from Pixabay