Supplementary Environmental Estimates

More questions, a few answers and an unwelcome appearance by Dorothy Dix

By Peter Burnett

Senate Estimates are potentially an important process throwing light and meaning on government expenditure and process. Unfortunately, over the years it’s become a bit of a political circus with all parties doing their best to score political points by squeezing answers from unwilling public servants, who in turn try to avoid being drawn into the politics by giving very flat ‘dull-as-dishwater’ and ‘nothing-to-see-here’ answers.

The main Estimates examination of the Department of the Environment occurred in October (and was the topic of my last blog). But there was a follow up; in early November the Estimates Committee held a supplementary hearing on environmental matters.

This doesn’t happen very often, but one circumstance in which it does occur is when an issue has ‘legs’ (ie, is of topical interest) and Senators are in hot pursuit. This was one such occasion, so it’s worth a look.

‘Nothing to see here’

The Senators were pursuing more information on several controversial and well-reported matters on which they no doubt feel they have the Government well and truly on the back foot:

  • Minister Angus Taylor’s letter to Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of Sydney, concerning the climate impacts of the Council’s allegedly excessive travel expenditure
  • allegations of inappropriate interference by Minister Angus Taylor in compliance action under national environmental law concerning endangered ecological grassland communities in the Monaro region (the ‘Jam Land’ case);
  • the associated review by Dr Wendy Craik into interactions between the EPBC Act and the agriculture sector, said by some to have been initiated to appease angry farmers;
  • a letter from retired fire chiefs to the Prime Minister seeking a meeting to discuss their concerns about the increasing frequency and severity of fires as a result of climate change; and
  • the $443m grant made by the Turnbull Government to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a private body, and, now, whether the grant was motivated by a desire to avoid the Reef being given a ‘World Heritage in Danger’ listing.

The transcript on what transpired is here if you want to take a look.

None of the responses to questions on these issues revealed anything of great note. Most were to the effect that officers had followed standard bureaucratic processes and either were not privy to, or in the case of the Reef grant, were prevented by Cabinet confidentiality from revealing, anything nefarious that may or may not have been done by the Government.

The most that can be said about the answers is that they show first, that the Government appointed Craik without asking the Environment Department for the usual list of potential appointees; and second that they replaced the Department’s standard flat answer to Clover Moore with a letter of their own. Both of these things tend only to confirm the obvious, that these were purely political decisions rather than standard government decisions on advice.

A new participant at Estimates: Dorothy Dix

One thing that did concern me was the response of officials to a question from Senator McMahon, a government member from the Northern Territory, concerning the recent endorsement by Federal and State environment ministers of Australia’s new national biodiversity strategy, known as ‘Australia’s Strategy for Nature’. This strategy replaces Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy: 2010 – 2030.

In my earlier blog on the Estimates I reported the questioning that officials received about this strategy being late. This time around at the Supplementary hearing, the question and the answers it elicited resembled a ‘Dorothy Dixer’, the friendly questions that government backbenchers ask of Ministers in Question Time, providing them with an opportunity to make an announcement or other statement favourable to the Government. They also serve the very valuable purpose of using up time that might otherwise be devoted to attacking the Government.

Use of this self-serving practice has attracted increasing criticism to the point that it is under review by a Parliamentary Committee.

We are, however, talking about Estimates, not Question Time. Sometimes government members on Estimates Committees do ask benign questions that have a Dorothy-Dix feel to them. However, it takes both a benign question and a self-congratulatory answer to make a Dixer, and this is the first time I’ve seen an answer from officials that had the feel of a Dixer in Estimates.

A new more ‘flexible’ strategy for saving Nature

In responding to Senator McMahon’s question, officials in effect criticised the previous government’s strategy and complimented the Government for developing a ‘flexible framework’ that would place Australia in a ‘strong’ position to respond to expected developments, including the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that is due to be adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) when it meets in Kunming, China, in February 2020.

This post-2020 framework will replace the ‘Aichi Targets’, which were adopted in 2010 and mature in 2020.

According to the officers, the Strategy for Nature enabled all Australian jurisdictions to be represented on an ‘innovative’ website known as Australia’s Nature Hub which demonstrates ‘how much good work is happening across this country in relation to biodiversity conservation at multiple levels’. The strategy would ‘place us well in the international space’.

And on it went. Rather than simply explaining why the Government had elected to replace the previous government’s strategy before its expiry, and perhaps outlining the content of the new strategy, as public servants would normally do, one official ventured that ‘we thought it was really important to update’ the previous strategy and that ‘we think this will be an important international contribution for how we can frame our global efforts with respect to diversity’. In doing so officials were either revealing their advice to government, something that officials normally refuse to do, or portraying themselves as players, with their own independent views, another no-no.

The use of Estimates by officials to promote government positions and to deploy the promotional language of ‘spin’ is an unwelcome development and, I hope, an unfortunate aberration rather than evidence of a trend.

What’s in the Strategy for Nature?

As for the value of this new Strategy for Nature; well, that’s a big topic and an important one in this time of major and ongoing biodiversity decline. In an up an coming blog I’ll review the Strategy, not only to see if it puts Australia in a ‘strong’ position to respond to the post-Aichi world, but also to see how it might enhance the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

Nothing to see here

Displacement is the game when you have nothing really to say (on the environment)

By David Salt

‘How good is the environment?’

Well, by any objective measure it’s in serious trouble and getting worse. But what do you say if your policies aren’t prepared to acknowledge this?

As our national government, you’re in charge of protecting the environment. You’re faced with collapsing ecosystems, declining biodiversity and a rising toll from climate extremes. In spite of this, you’ve made cut after cut to your Environment Department, told everyone Australia is going to make our carbon emission targets ‘at a canter’ (despite all the hard evidence that emissions are actually going up) and repeatedly stated when it comes to the environment everything is sweet. It’s getting harder to sustain this line but you have to say (and do) something. So, what will it be?

Based on what our Environment Minister is saying in Parliament in answer to questions from her own side, the game appears to be to focus on the little picture and displace everyone’s attention.

A tiny agenda

‘Questions without notice’ are supposed to be an opportunity for members to raise important issues relating to their electorates. Unfortunately, they have largely become political theatre in which the major parties just try to embarrass each other.

Under Question-Time rules, government members are allowed to ask questions of their own side. These are called ‘Dorothy Dixers’, after a famous syndicated column in womens’ magazines, ‘Dear Dorothy Dix’, in which ‘Dorothy’ played agony aunt to her readers and provided homespun advice on marriage and the other challenges of home life.

When the government gets a Dorothy Dixer (or ‘Dixers’ as the insiders call them) it’s an opportunity for the government to use a rehearsed question from a friendly questioner to spell out its strategy and agenda, often in the context of announcing (or re-announcing) the spending of money. So when the Minister for the Environment is asked by her own side what’s on the environmental agenda we get a good idea on what the Government is setting out to achieve, what its grand vision is, including how it intends to spend our money.

In recent weeks, that vision seems to consist of small community projects – “it’s supporting grassroots organisations working on small projects that make a big difference”; a bit of environmental restoration, a bit more on soil conservation (God bless our farmers) and a big focus on increasing recycling and reducing waste. (Note: the links in this paragraph take you to the Hansard record of Parliament for the day in question – 23, 30 & 31 July in these cases – but not to the specific answers in the Questions-Without-Notice sessions that I’m referring to. Why Hansard can’t provide specific links to specific answers I don’t know. Maybe to make it harder to pin Ministers down to their answers.)

Indeed, recycling and waste reduction seem to be this government’s big ticket item when it comes to the Environment: “We can’t opt out of modern living or the modern world,” says Sussan Ley, our new Environment Minister, “but we can get smarter about the way we live and the pressure we place on our environment, and about doing everything we can to mitigate that—reducing waste, increasing recycling.”

We don’t need to save the reef (?)

They’ve even appointed an ‘envoy for the reef’ in the form of Warren Entsch (Member for Leichhardt in far north Queensland) who has refused to acknowledge the imminent threat of climate change to the Great Barrier Reef instead citing plastics as being the big problem and increased recycling as the solution.

“We don’t need to save the reef,” Entsch said recently in The Guardian. “It’s still going – we need to manage it and manage it well and we’re the best reef managers in the world.”

So what is his (and this Government’s) solution to saving the Reef? Get rid of single-use plastics. Though, when it comes down to it, our political leaders don’t even believe Australia is the cause of this problem: “the bulk of it [plastic] on our seas comes down from our northern neighbours,” says Entsch. “If we can create world’s best practice and get them to clean up their own backyard then we will reduce the volumes that come down to us.”

What about cleaning up our own backyard, Mr Reef Envoy? Have you read any of the voluminous science coming out over recent years telling us our reef is dying (from declining water quality, increased storm activity, increased outbreaks of crown-of-thorn starfish and, multiplying every threat, climate change)?

“Australians care about our environment,” says Environment Minister Ley. “They want to be involved in protecting it now and into the future. The Morrison government will work internationally and with communities, with local organisations and with our scientific experts to address all of the issues that confront us, large and small, including Asia-Pacific rainforest recovery, blue carbon and sequestering carbon in our coastal and marine ecosystems, and we will continue to invest in protecting the Great Barrier Reef.”

Nice words, but it’s such shallow rhetoric. When it comes to our environment, the government only pays lip service to the big issues, and only engages in doing things that are too small to make much difference overall. All the while it ignores and marginalises the scientific expertise it claims to respect.

High opportunity cost

This is displacement activity of the worse type because the opportunity cost of ignoring the bigger picture – trashing the evidence and degrading our environmental capacity – is the horrible cost of environmental failure our society (and children) will bear down the line.

And, even as I write this, the Government is doing more displacement on the environmentally linked sector of energy – let’s set up an enquiry on nuclear energy to show we mean business.

Nothing to see here.

Image: Tane Sinclair-Taylor, Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies