The new Government mantra (and more grist from the Estimates’ mill)
By Peter Burnett
The Senate held another round of its regular environmental estimates hearings and, once again, I thought I’d share with you what emerged. As I’ve said in the past, these hearings often contain valuable evidence on Government thinking and action.
The topics covered this time were mostly grist for the mill, but one item really stood out: the Government has become focused on something called ‘practical environmental restoration’? Heard of it? Neither had I.
Practical environmental restoration
The government has a bit of a thing about taking ‘practical’ action when it comes to the environment. This theme emerged as a way of contrasting the Coalition Government’s main climate initiative, the Emissions Reduction Fund, with the complexities of the previous Gillard Government’s carbon price (which Tony Abbott had labelled, confusingly but very successfully, as a tax).
And then there was the Government’s obsessive focus on the second-order environmental issue of plastic pollution while ignoring the first-order issue of climate change because this government is all about practical solutions.
In the last budget, brought down in the lead up to the 2019 election, the Government developed this ‘practical action’ theme further, introducing two new programs, an Environmental Restoration Fund ($100 million over four years) and a Communities Environment Program ($22.6 million in one year only).
Smells like a pork barrel
On the face of it, the Environmental Restoration Fund seems respectable. However, look a little closer one and it takes on the appearance of a pork barrel. With the fund established and an election called, the Government proceeded to make election commitments covering nearly 80% of the fund. According to a non-government Senator, some of the groups nominated as recipients knew nothing about the grants coming their way until contacted by someone from a Coalition Party.
With the government re-elected, these election commitments prevented the Environment Department from giving the standard advice about holding competitive grant rounds. It had no choice but to advise the Government to hold what officials described as a ‘closed, non-competitive’, funding round. This meant that the grant guidelines actually specified the recipients as the groups nominated in the Governments election commitments.
None of this is illegal, because various policy guidelines allow for standard procedures like competitive grant rounds to be overridden by election commitments. The theory is that the Government has a mandate to implement his commitments.
So it’s not a second ‘Sports-Rorts’ affair, with attendant allegations of illegality.
It is, however, a blatant case of pork barrelling, likely to lead to poor policy outcomes because the politicians have specified the grant amount, purpose and recipient without any public service or other expert advice.
With the environment in continual decline and a desperate need for restoration, this is another example of very poor governance.
School yard stuff
And the response of Minister Birmingham, the minister representing the Government at Estimates, to Opposition criticisms of the program? ‘I don’t have to sit here and accept hypocrisy from you. You made similar promises at the election.’
In other words, you are just as bad as us, so we can get away with this. At a time when trust in government is very low and the environment in significant decline, this is school yard stuff and a very sad state of affairs.
The Communities Environment Program is not much better. The fact that the program is limited to one year, immediately following at election, is unusual and strongly suggestive of the program being another pork barrel. The fact that the money is allocated to all MPs ($150,000 per electorate) allowing non-government MPs to access to the pork, is hardly a saving grace.
Again, this is bad policy. Small numbers of piecemeal local grants in a one-off program make no contribution to the big environmental issues that face the national government.
So what does ‘practical environmental restoration’ mean? Pork barrelling, obviously.
Grist for the mill
To finish, some quick ‘grist for the mill’ themes from Estimates:
- There was the usual manoeuvering in which the Greens asked the Bureau of Meteorology questions designed to elicit strong statements about the severity of climate change, while One Nation asked questions directed to showing that the Bureau was cooking the books.
- The Opposition was in pursuit of Warren Entsch, the Government’s backbench Reef Envoy: why was he so focused on single use plastics in the marine environment when it is such a small component of marine waste?
- There were the expected questions concerning the impact of bushfires on threatened species. In short, the Government has convened an expert panel and the Threatened Species Committee is reviewing conservational advice and recovery plans, but it really is too early to have much data from bushfire-affected areas.
- Opposition and Green senators are still pursuing Minister Angus Taylor’s alleged intervention in a compliance investigation concerning his brother’s farm in southern New South Wales. Officials advised, yet again, that this long-running investigation remains incomplete.
- Senator Matt Canavan, formerly Resources Minister and now on the back bench, asked about climate change as an issue in environmental assessments under the EPBC Act. He is clearly concerned that an environmental assessment for a large oil and gas project off the coast of WA, requires the proponent to assess the impact (if any) of greenhouse gases (including scope 3 emissions) on features such as the Great Barrier Reef, which lie on the other side of the country.
- While on the topic of environmental assessments, officials revealed that the Environment Department had received some funding for extra environmental assessment staff under the government ‘congestion-busting’ initiative. This reverses the trend over the last few years of regular staffing reductions in this area. It’s ironic that governments cause the problem through general cuts (the so-called ‘efficiency dividend’, then ‘fix’ the resulting ‘congestion’!
- Senators pressed the government on it’s electric vehicle strategy, due out in mid 2020, particularly given pre-election comments by the Prime Minister and other ministers about electric vehicles putting an end to the weekend. Perhaps rehearsing the lines that will be used to explain these pre-election comments away when the Government starts to promote electric vehicles in its forthcoming ‘Technology Roadmap’. Minister Birmingham made it clear that the electric vehicle market was ‘obviously one that is adapting in terms of the technical specifications’ and that ‘the electric vehicle strategy will no doubt take into account how those technical specifications are evolving.’