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)

Cultural vandalism in the land of Oz

Criminal intent or just failed governance?

By David Salt

Humans have a rich history of disregarding the culture of others. One tribe moves onto the turf of another tribe and trashes the cultural capital of the first tribe simply because they can; because the culture of the first tribe is an affront to their ideology or their sense of mastery. It’s a signal to everyone that the conquering tribe is the one in charge.

Last week a mining company blew up a cave in Juukan Gorge Western Australia as part of its mining operation. In so doing it destroyed Aboriginal heritage reaching back some 46,000 years.

What does this signal? That economic priorities trump everything else? That First Nation culture is to be respected but only when there is no price to pay? Or that our governance of cultural heritage is a sad joke?

Humans have a rich history of disregarding the culture of others. Around the world there have been many recent episodes of cultural vandalism but this episode in Australia is on many scores far worse.

Blowing up the Buddhas

Many have compared what happened in WA with the Taliban who blew up the massive carved Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 (see David Pope’s cartoon).

It is believed that the monumental Buddha sculptures – one 53m tall, the other 35m – were carved into the cliffs at Bamiyan some 1500 years ago. Before being blown up they were the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world. They were perhaps the most famous cultural landmarks of the region, and the area was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

In 2001, the fanatical government of Afghanistan, the Taliban, declared the statues an affront to Islam. The Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar said that “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols.”

And so it was, despite international condemnation, that the statues were blown to pieces by dynamite.

However, this act of desecration was deliberate, planned and trumpeted to the world. It wasn’t collateral damage in the pursuit of some other goal (such as the expansion of a mine). It was an end unto itself. Like it or not, agree with it or not, it was an act carried out by the government in control of the region.

From Prophet to profit: David Pope’s commentary in The Canberra Times.

Drowning the birthplace of ‘civilisation’

That was 20 years ago. Surely such explicit vandalism of the world’s greatest cultural heritage wouldn’t happen these days?

Have you heard of the ancient city of Hasankeyf? It sits on the banks of the Tigris River in south-eastern Turkey. It may be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, spanning some 10,000 years (leaving aside Australian Indigenous culture that goes back some 60,000). It shows examples of Bronze Age kingdoms, Roman influences and was part of the Mongol, Safavid and Ottoman Empires.

Well, if you haven’t seen it you’ve missed your chance. Hasankeyf has just gone under the waters of the newly completed Ilısu Dam. According to Turkey’s leaders, the dam will generate 10,000 jobs, spur agricultural production through irrigation and boost tourism (though many claim the only tourist drawcard in this region is the now drowned city of Hasankeyf).

The dam’s development has been a running sore for the country for many years but Turkey’s strong-arm leadership would not bend to any appeals – internal or external – on sparing the ancient heritage that lay in Hasankeyf. Their claim was the economic development this project would bring outweighed the heritage value of not proceeding.

Some would support such an argument saying a developing country has the right to place its economic development first and foremost. That once the economy has been developed, when it’s people on average enjoy a higher quality of life, then is the time for debates on protection of unique heritage values. It sits with a body of theory referred to as the Kuznetz Curve that suggests that social and environmental concerns are often dealt with once a nation has healthy and robust economy.

So what are we doing in the land of Oz?

None of this should give us comfort when it comes to our brand of cultural vandalism.

The site in Juukan Gorge destroyed by the mining giant Rio Tinto up in the Pilbara was well known for its outstanding heritage values. It’s the only known inland site showing human occupation through the last ice age. The shelters were in use some 46,000 years ago making them approximately twice as old as the famed Lascaux Caves in France.

Rio Tinto says it has apologised to the traditional owners of the site, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people.

“Our relationship with the PKKP matters a lot to Rio Tinto,” says Rio Tinto Iron Ore Chief Executive Chris Salisbury. But apparently, it doesn’t matter so much that the mining giant even informed the PKKP they were planning to demolish the caves. The PKKP only found out about the plans when they asked, about a week before the demolition, for access to the shelters for NAIDOC Week in July.

Rio Tinto then went on to suggest that the PKKP had failed to make clear concerns about preserving the site during years of consultation between the two parties, something representatives of the PKKP strongly denied saying Rio was told in October about the significance of the rock shelters (and again as recently as March).

While the demolition was legal under outdated WA heritage protection laws it’s hard to see how such cultural vandalism would have been allowed to proceed if there had been any public airing of what was about to occur.

According to news reports, the federal minister for Indigenous Affairs was informed about the imminent destruction of the caves in the days before it occurred but did nothing about it.

The WA Minister for Aboriginal Affairs claims he didn’t even know the demolition was happening.

And the perpetrators themselves are making few comments (though they released an apology several days after the destruction – possibly realising that in so overreaching acceptable behaviour that their social licence to operate was in question).

Things will change?

Clearly, something has gone horribly wrong here. At the very least there has been a terrible lapse in national and state governance, and an appalling lapse in corporate social responsibility. Everyone has expressed regret over what happened, but no-one has accepted responsibility.

Things will change our political leaders are belatedly telling us. WA hopes to pass its new improved Aboriginal cultural heritage bill later this year; the existing law that permitted this destruction is almost 50 years old and crafted in a different age when it comes to respecting Aboriginal culture.

Federal Indigenous Affairs minister Ken Wyatt has now called for Indigenous cultural protection to be addressed in the current review of the EPBC Act. It’s interesting that the discussion paper put out for the EPBC review seems to put a lot of emphasis on Indigenous issues. It’s ironic that this desecration by Rio Tinto should occur while this review is in train.

The caves at Juukan Gorge contained inestimable anthropological and cultural value, as did Hasankeyf and the Bamiyan Bhuddas. Unlike Hasankeyf and the Bhuddas, the caves lay in a stable, democratic and developed nation that tells the world it respects and protects Indigenous culture.

What happened last week at Juukan Gorge shines a light on the truth of this claim. It can never be allowed to happen again.

Image: Rio Tinto prepares explosives that will destroy a 46,000 year old Aboriginal shelter in Juukan Gorge. (PKKP Aboriginal Corporation.)