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)

Last Chance Quiz – the Australian Government’s (non) response to queries on the environment

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By Peter Burnett

With an election called, you might want to inform your vote with the latest on the Australian environment and what the Government is doing about it. Unfortunately, the Government says: ‘Tough!’

As we all know, a federal election has been called for 21 May 2022. The Australian Government is now in ‘caretaker mode’, meaning it must refrain from major decisions during the campaign.

Before going into caretaker mode, it’s not uncommon for governments to make lots of major decisions immediately beforehand. This year, the vehicle for many of those big decisions was the Budget, handed down in late March.

For reasons likely connected with an internal Liberal Party brawl over candidates, the election was not called immediately after the Budget was handed down, but two weeks later. This meant that the business of Parliament continued, including ‘Budget Estimates’, in which Senators quiz officials about Budget initiatives and other things.

This turned Budget Estimates into a ‘last chance quiz’ about sensitive issues, including the environment.

Here are a few ‘highlights’ or, more correctly, lowlights from this ‘quiz’. I think they demonstrate well what priority the Government places on environmental issues (as well as good governance).

More budget honesty please

One of the political tricks of recent times has been to inflate budget numbers by announcing programs for longer and longer periods.

Once upon a time, spending was only for the coming year. Then it was three, then four. Four years is now the official period of the ‘forward estimates’ or ‘forwards’ as you sometimes hear politicians say.

But now politicians are making announcements for eight or nine years down the line. These commitments are un-legislated and go way beyond the life of the government, and are thus very rubbery.

For example, I wrote recently about the Budget announcement of $1 billion for the Great Barrier Reef amounting to little more than ‘steady as she goes’, once averaged over its announced nine year timeframe.

Now we have, supposedly, $22 billion for clean energy technology. Not only does this figure stretch to 2030, twice the four-year estimates period, but officials told Senators in Estimates that much of it covered a continuation of ‘business-as-usual’ activity for bodies such as the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and CSIRO.

Breathtakingly, one ‘key investment’, listed under the $22 billion clean energy spend, is the same $1 billion I mentioned above for the Great Barrier Reef!

The explanation was that this $1 billion was in fact a climate investment, not ‘clean energy’. Either way, as Manuel from Fawlty Towers would have said, ‘Que?

So, how much in the Budget actually represented ‘new money’ for increased policy ambition as part of a pre-election commitment?

Officials couldn’t say — they took it on notice. As a result, I can’t tell you! (And don’t hold your breath that any answers will be provided before the election.)

Clearly the Howard Government’s statutory ‘Charter of Budget Honesty’ needs an overhaul!

State of the Environment Report

We learned that his five-yearly report has around 1200 pages, cost $6m and was sent to the Minister last December. Unfortunately, we also learned that the law gives her until a date after the May election to table the report, and there are no indications that she will table it early.

So, if you want to inform your vote with the latest environmental trends, don’t look for the State of the Environment report!

Environment Restoration Fund

In my last blog I raised concerns that the $100m newly allocated to this fund would be used for pork barrelling, because that’s what happened to the previous round of $100m in 2019.

The new revelations in Estimates were that the Minister was yet to adopt any grant guidelines for this new round, but that priorities would include threatened and migratory species; coastal waterways; pest animals and weeds; and greening cities, with an emphasis on east coast flood recovery.

My concerns remain. In the absence of guidelines, this money could, once again, be allocated through election commitments, without scientific advice and without competitive applications. They got away with it last time, so why not do it again?

Threatened species at warp speed

The Auditor-General found recently that only 2% of recovery plans were completed on time; 207 remain overdue and there is no integrated process for monitoring implementation.

It turned out that in responding to the Auditor-General, the department had committed to ‘track and publish the implementation of priority actions in conservation advice and recovery plans for all 100 priority species under the Threatened Species Strategy 2021-30 by 2026’.

That’s right. In another four years, we’ll be able to see what’s going on for 100 out of nearly 2000 threatened species (ie, 5%). Now that’s what I call warp speed!!

More disingenuous bundling

The Budget headline for threatened species was $170m over four years.

But $100m of that is the second-round Restoration Fund discussed above, which could be given away as pork, while $53 million, previously announced, is for koalas, of which only $20m reserved for large scale restoration and animal health — I think there is a real chance that much of the money will be dissipated as small grants.

Another element of the claimed spend on threatened species is a new $20 million Queen’s Jubilee Program, providing grants for locals to plant trees, such as ‘large shade trees in a school or civic centre’ under the I can see Carnaby’s cockatoos and orange-bellied parrots lining up now!

The real gain for threatened species, on a proper science-based prioritisation? As usual, it’s hard to know, but it could be a few million a year. I’d say ‘chicken feed’, but chickens are not a threatened species.

What prospects for change?

You can see from my cynicism that I think this government tinkers with the environment while inflating and conflating its efforts so as to deliberately mislead the people. The ‘last chance quiz’ poked a few holes in this carefully contrived environment Budget narrative, but this doesn’t mean we are any wiser about what’s going on.

But I just can’t leave things on such a depressing note.

Would a Labor government be any better? Possibly, though they have yet to announce their policies and their general ‘small target’ approach holds little prospect of the the sort of bold (and expensive) action we need to halt the decline of Nature.

Perhaps the best prospects for the environment lie in a hung Parliament – the ‘teal Independents’ have been very strong on climate change and it’s hard not to think their attitude would spill into environmental policy more generally.

Hope springs eternal!

Banner image: Image by Mietzekatze at Pixabay.

Senate Estimates – slippery answers like bare-handed barrel-fishing

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The latest Senate Environment Committee ‘Estimates’ hearings

By Peter Burnett

Regular readers will know that I have written several times about what emerges from Senate Estimates. Estimates is a somewhat esoteric proceeding in the Australian Parliament (and some others) in which politicians ask questions of (mostly) bureaucrats about proposed allocations of money to spending programs.

Well, that’s the theory anyway. In practice, questions get asked about any official activity, right down to the micro level of when the official sent a document to a minister.

In return, officials, who are often the meat in the sandwich here, respond with lots of detail but work hard not to reveal anything of substance in their answers. It’s a bit of a game but sometimes the stakes can be quite high.

Despite having long left the bureaucracy, I have retained my interest in this ritual form of combat, partly for what it reveals about the art of public administration but, more relevantly here, for the little gems of information that spill forth about environmental programs.

As a participant, I was focused on surviving the stressful experience of a public grilling from the politicians. As an observer, I now have much broader aspirations to seeing the accountability mechanisms (for that is what the Senate Estimates is supposed to be) of Parliament work.

Unfortunately, they usually do not.

The most recent Environment Estimates were held in February. I’ve chosen several issues of interest below, one to illustrate the failings of Estimates as an accountability mechanism and another as a vehicle for arguing the need for improved accountability.

Dragging it out (that’s the Australian Way)

I sympathise with frustrated politicians trying to get straight answers to legitimate questions. To them, Estimates must feel like bare-handed barrel-fishing: it’s easy enough to get close, but landing a catch is something different entirely.

My example from the February Estimates concerns the modelling commissioned by the government to support its Long-Term Emissions Reduction Plan — that’s the plan to implement the government’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, sanctimoniously subtitled in the ‘popular’ version of the plan as ‘The Australian Way’.

(Recall that the decision to commit to net zero by 2050 caused great division between the Liberal and National parties in the Coalition, and that the Nationals were said to have secured significant concessions from the PM in return for signing on, which the PM reluctantly felt he had to do, because Jo Biden and others were doing it.)

The story revealed over several Estimates hearings was that work on ‘the plan’ had started in February 2021.

The finalised plan was released on 26 October 2021, in the lead-up to CoP 26 in Glasgow, but the supporting modelling, which would have helped critics to ask penetrating questions, was not released until 12 November, after CoP 26 had finished.

Why the delay? asked the Senator. She complained that back in the Budget Estimates, in May, officials wouldn’t even confirm that they were doing the modelling. Then, at Supplementary Estimates, held just before the Plan was adopted, the government made a claim of ‘public interest immunity’ in relation to the modelling, meaning that it would not be released on the ground that it was the subject of current Cabinet deliberation.

Now, in February this year, officials were saying that they hadn’t released the modelling promptly, after the government announced the Plan, because they didn’t have the capacity to produce both the plan and the modelling for publication. In particular, officials said they needed more time to make the public version of the modelling ‘accessible’.

The questioning Senator was naturally suspicious. Had the Minister himself taken the decision about when to release the modelling? ‘I’d have to take it on notice to specifically check if the minister himself gave any particular direction’ replied the official, thus avoiding dropping the minister in the proverbial and further drawing out the accountability process.

You can see why this sequence of events would frustrate the Senate’s attempts to scrutinise a major decision.

The underlying answer to legitimate questions was that it is never the right time to ask for politically-sensitive information, until the moment chosen by the government to release it — that’s the Australian Way!

Peas and thimbles

On 28 January the government announced an ‘additional’ $1 billion over nine years in funding for the Great Barrier Reef. A number of Estimates questions were directed to ascertaining how this money would be allocated.

In this case the government had to be much more forthcoming because the questions related directly to the purpose of Estimates, which is to scrutinise proposed new expenditure.

So, officials provided detail, for example, that the funding would be allocated to the environment department and to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, but that no further money would be channelled through the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a private body through which the government had channelled, in 2017, Australia’s largest and most controversial-ever grant of $443m.

Questioners also probed the governments’ decision to announce nine years’ funding, as this was far beyond the standard four year forward forward-estimates period.

Senators also elicited from officials that ‘the new money effectively dovetails with the decline in the existing funding commitments’ — ie, that much of this ‘new’ or ‘additional’ money was simply an extension of existing spending, which was declining, not because the job was done, but because governments often allocate funding for arbitrary periods.

Looking at these answers, it seems to me that the government started with the idea that they needed to be seen to be spending big to stave off the threat of an ‘In Danger’ listing for the Reef, and simply took the current spending that was about to lapse, decided to continue it, and just kept adding more forward years until they got to the politically credible figure of $1 billion.

That’s why nine (years) was the magic number, though of course officials didn’t say so! Interestingly, if they had used the standard four-year period, on a pro-rata basis the funding would have been $444m — almost identical to the controversial Reef Foundation grant!

A coincidence like that would never have done!

Unfortunately, however, the questions stopped short of asking whether any of the money was truly ‘additional’, ie, representing increased effort overall.

Once allowance is made for the fact that most of the money just extends existing budgets or programs, and for inflation, would there be anything left to represent a real increase? It appears not, although we can’t be sure.

And even if there were a real increase for the Reef, would that increase come at the cost of a reduction in environmental expenditure elsewhere?

In other words, does any of this ‘additional’ money reflect any additional effort for the environment? Or is it just a transfer from one environmental program to another

In theory, it would be possible to ask a series of questions that would force an answer this question.

In practice, obfuscation in official documents, limited time in Estimates and limited resources available to Senators to formulate a set of questions sufficiently comprehensive to force the answer, make such an exercise impractical.

A better way?

As an exercise in bare-handed barrel-fishing, Estimates is hardly satisfactory. While Parliament has other accountability mechanisms, most of these have their own problems.

And when a mechanism does work well, as we’ve seen recently with successful reviews of grant programs by that pesky Auditor General, the government counters by cutting his budget!

One solution to strengthen accountability would be — wait for it — to publish proper accounts! I’m talking about detailed accounts at the program level, which logically should form part of a comprehensive set of environmental accounts.

To date, the commitment of Australian governments to improved accountability, and to environmental accounts themselves, has been very limited, but … we live in hope!

Banner image: Senate Estimates is like barrel fishing with your hands. Lots of targets but most are slippery and impossible to hold on to. (Image by David Salt)

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)

Game of Species: Budget Estimates October 2020

“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

‘Practical Environmental Restoration’

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.’

Image: Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay