It’s ‘business as usual’, but at least there actually is plenty of business

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Senate Budget Estimates on the environment, November 2022

By Peter Burnett

Australia’s environment department has been run down over the past decade. I’m pleased to see from this month’s Estimate hearings that it’s getting extra resources. What does that mean? Let’s consider two areas, biodiversity and Indigenous heritage.

2022 is unusual in that the new Labor government has handed down a Budget, even though the previous government had already tabled the ‘normal’ Budget in March. The main objective for this extra October Budget was to fund election commitments and to de-fund programs from the former government that Labor did not support. Larger reforms have been held off until the next (normal) Budget, due in May 2023.

Some funding was redirected from old to new programs. For example, most of the money from the old ‘single touch approvals’ program, under which the former government wanted to accredit States to take environmental approval decisions under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, was redirected into reforming the Act itself, in response to the Samuel Review of 2020.

The environment department has been run down over the last ten years. It has lost core capabilities as well as programs. The budget put $275 million over four years into strengthening corporate areas of the department.

This sounds like dull stuff, but it bodes well for building capacity to get things done. However, it’s impossible to tell how close this amount goes to enabling the department to do things it needs to be doing, like putting boots on the ground to deliver programs.

Environment is such a big agency now — covering climate and energy as well as biodiversity, water and heritage, that it’s impossible to cover everything here. So, I’ve picked just two topics of interest for a closer look, biodiversity and Indigenous heritage.

Endangered possum ‘on notice’

To illustrate just how low is the base from which the government is starting in this area, take Senator Rice’s attempts over 9 successive years to pin the government down on a credible recovery plan for the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum, the faunal emblem of Victoria.

Senator Rice pointed out that a 1997 recovery plan for the possum had expired in 2002 — 20 years ago. A draft replacement plan had not been sent to the Victorian government for comment until 2019; moreover, it remains a draft.

Officials assured Senator Rice that things had changed under the new government and that ‘we’ve really been asked to give this priority’. Unfortunately, however, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee had identified the need for further research as to exclusion zones for possums in forestry areas.

Apparently, funding had been identified and ‘we’d expect that the research would start quickly’. How long would it take? ‘We will be able to take on notice the exact timeframe’ said the official. ‘I’m not sure how long it needs to …’

Aargh! Leadbeater’s possum may be a particularly bad example, but it is by no means unique. Things are crook.

Modelling pathways to goals?

David Pocock is a new Independent Senator for the ACT. He displayed both a strong interest in environment and a good policy brain by asking about two government commitments, ‘no more species extinctions’ and its ‘30-by-30’ commitment (to have 30% of land and sea in reserve by 2030).

Had the government done its homework? Specifically, could the government deliver on these commitments with the $56 million p.a. it had allocated to threatened species, and the zero new funding it had allocated to the National Reserve System?

Senator Pocock pointed out that a recent academic study suggested that it would cost $1.7 billion p.a. just to save threatened species.

And another senator asked, had the government modelled the path to these goals?

‘Have you modelled this?’ has become something of an easy (but often valid) question in Estimates, asked mostly in relation to economic policies, but now it is being asked of environment policy.

For the record, no, the department had not modelled these outcomes.

The threatened species money was an election commitment — ie, the Labor Party came up with the amount while in Opposition, though we don’t know how, and Senators did not ask. So we remain in the dark about why $56 million p.a. is the right number.

On the 30 by 30, officials told the Committee that existing proposed reserves, including Indigenous Protected Areas, would get the government to 27%, leaving a 3% gap, unfunded but possibly met through no-cost additions, including Defence land (which, counter-intuitively, is often of high biodiversity quality) and State-owned land that they might be persuaded to place in reserve (presumably at their own cost of maintaining).

While modelling may not always be useful, we do need to move away from this kind of ‘a-wing-and-a-prayer’ approach.

Both major parties tend to announce modest yet very specific amounts for environment programs. The specificity implies that budgets have been carefully costed, while the modesty of the amounts involved often points to the opposite — that the calculations involved were probably based on a political calculus (‘this sounds credible’) rather than technical assessment of the costs of reaching the policy objective.

To be fair to the government, a target such as preventing threatened species loss can be delivered through multi-pronged approaches, including tighter regulation of development. Direct on-ground spending may be only one string to their bow.

The point remains however, that serious environmental policy needs to be taken more seriously than it is, and grounded in detailed strategy, fully and transparently costed.

Indigenous heritage

In 2020 Rio Tinto demolished, with state heritage approval, a 46,000-year-old Indigenous site at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara. The site was probably of global cultural and archaeological significance. The outrage at this destruction was global; it was made worse by the fact that national safety net mechanisms to protect Indigenous heritage failed to trigger.

As part of its response to the resulting crisis, the previous government began a process of co-designing a new national First Nations’ cultural heritage regime.

The new government has allocated $14.7 million over the next four years to continue this process. Officials described an ongoing process of detailed consultation:

“It’s very much our intent to talk not only with bodies and representative bodies but actually with communities and community members in order to get feedback about, if we are going to have a structure or approach which potentially gives First Nations people and traditional owners a much greater role in decision-making about heritage protection, understanding their concerns and approaches around all of that.”

All of this is welcome, though decades overdue and prompted by an unmitigated and avoidable disaster.

As an indication of the long-term neglect of this area, one of the national safety net laws, enacted in 1984, was intended to be interim, and included that word in its title to make this clear. The Act was amended several years later — not to insert a permanent mechanism but to remove the word ‘interim’!

Also welcome is the attention the government is giving to include sites with significant Indigenous heritage values in its World Heritage program, with nominations under development for sites in Cape York, the West Kimberley, and Murujuga (also known as the Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara, the site of over a million ancient petroglyphs of unknown origin.)

A small down payment

The Indigenous heritage processes in train are a rare example of good news in the environment portfolio.

On biodiversity, I think we could say that the new government has made a small down payment, but on a veritable mountain of environmental debt. The repayment schedule will be taxing and stretches out into the far distant future …

As to the rest, it’s a case of ‘watch this space’. Officials told Senators that the government was on track to announce its promised overhaul of national environmental law by Christmas and to legislate next year.

Here’s hoping the reforms are bold and innovative, because as Prince (now King) Charles has pointed out, we’ve been drinking in the Last Chance Saloon.

Banner image: “So, I see the Australian Government is back in the business of resourcing environmental management. I’ll believe it when I see the outcomes.” (Image by David Salt)

Taking Indigenous knowledge and values seriously: The second transformation of national environmental law

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By Peter Burnett

In an earlier blog I argued that Professor Graeme Samuel’s 2020 review of the EPBC Act amounted to a call for five transformations in national environmental law. Last time I wrote about transforming a system that is focused on process to a focus on outcomes. Today I write about the second transformation.

Something really struck me about Anthony Albanese’s election-night victory speech last May. After the usual ‘humbled by victory’ thank you, and the standard ‘bring Australians together’ call for unity, Albanese launched into what sounded like the passionate policy speech he had wanted to give all along, but couldn’t, because of Labor’s ‘small policy target’ strategy.

Warming up as he tripped across our future as a ‘renewable energy superpower’ and a more ‘just society’, Albanese reached full voice with:

And together we can embrace the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We can answer its patient, gracious call for a voice enshrined in our constitution. Because all of us ought to be proud that amongst our great multicultural society we count the oldest living continuous culture in the world.

After the frustrations of weeks of restrained ‘don’t frighten the horses’ language (central to their election campaign), it was a relief to hear this leadership.

I also felt that the ground had shifted. Just as the election of the ‘Teal’ independents expressed our national desire, finally, to address climate change properly, Albanese’s confident commitment to the 2017 Uluru Statement marks, in my opinion, our desire to take the next major step towards reconciliation with our First Nations people.

When the ground shifts, everything moves

The implications of this commitment don’t stop with a referendum on an Indigenous ‘voice’ to Parliament. Or even with the other elements of the Uluru statement, truth-telling and treaty.

With Rio Tinto’s 2020 destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves still fresh in many memories (an act done with the ‘consent’ of the Traditional Owners), Graeme Samuel’s strong criticism of Indigenous tokenism in his review of the EPBC Act, and his implicit call for a transformation in environmental policy to take Indigenous knowledge and values seriously, now feel mainstream.

Mainstream such sentiments might now be, but integrating them into our national environmental law is still complicated and challenging.

Providing for ‘respectful consideration of Indigenous views and knowledge’ will take time and investment. Indigenous knowledge doesn’t grow on trees and respectful engagement will have to move at a pace with which Indigenous people are comfortable.

It is the same with our Indigenous heritage protection laws, which don’t just need to protect Indigenous values and set national standards, but fully resourced; and that includes building capacity for extensive and respectful engagement.

This is where the 2020 Juukan Gorge disaster showed up major weaknesses in the existing system. The caves in the gorge were probably eligible for protection under a National Heritage listing, but no-one had nominated them.

There was also a safety net: an old and supposedly temporary law from the 1980s allowed the environment minister to issue an Aboriginal heritage protection order, provided the place was under threat. But when lawyers for the Traditional Owners called the minister’s office about invoking that law to save the Juukan Gorge caves, the minister’s staff failed to put them onto the right officials.

So, no application was made.

We can’t let important values fall through the cracks because we were waiting for Indigenous people to fill-out a white-culture nomination form, or because someone rang the ‘wrong’ phone number.

Finally, Samuel recommended a move to true joint management of federal national parks on Indigenous land, such as Uluru-Kata Tjuta. Again, this will require significant capacity building. As he put it, ‘the magnitude and significance of a transition to greater decision-making for Traditional Owners should not be underestimated.’

It doesn’t stop with EPBC

Taking Indigenous knowledge and values seriously in environmental policy is not limited to the transformation recommended by Professor Samuel under the EPBC Act.

Now we need to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

When UNDRIP was first adopted by the UN in 2007, Australia was one of only four countries to vote against it. Thankfully, we reversed our position only two years later.

Now, belatedly, a parliamentary committee has started looking at UNDRIP’s domestic application.

This declaration raises a lot of issues, but I’ll zero-in on the clause that links most strongly with the EPBC Act.

Article 32 states that Indigenous peoples have the right to control development or use of their lands and other resources. Specifically, for development projects such as mines or roads, it requires governments to:

consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources. [Emphasis added]

The implication is that, in addition to the respectful engagement proposed by Professor Samuel, Traditional Owners should have a right to veto developments.

The brings in the Native Title Act, which gives native title holders a ‘right to negotiate’ but not a veto.

This Act is complex but, in general, if negotiations over, say, a proposed mine, are unsuccessful, the matter will go to arbitration. In theory, an arbitrator such as the Native Title Tribunal could stop a mine from going ahead, but the more likely outcome is that development will proceed under conditions, which might include negotiated compensation.

Where is all this going?

The Indigenous affairs agenda for 2023 is looking packed.

In addition to the referendum on the Voice to Parliament, the government’s environmental package based on the Samuel Review will, hopefully, transform environmental law concerning Indigenous knowledge and values, as Samuel recommended.

We may even see a change to the Native Title Act to give native title holders the right to veto proposed developments.

These reforms are not just politically ambitious, but resource-intensive. The political passion the Prime Minister displayed on election night will need to extend to opening the national wallet!

Banner image: Kata Tjuta in the Northern Territory. Graeme Samuel recommended a move to true joint management of federal national parks on Indigenous land. (Image by sgrabus from Pixabay)

Looking for little gems: Senate Environmental Estimates, October 2021

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)