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A 21st-century government must care for our nature and our future

It’s high time we gave Australian wildlife a helping hand. AAP Image/Sam Mooy

A 21st-century government must care for our nature and our future

Australia’s new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has announced what he calls a “21st century government”. This article is part of The Conversation’s series focusing on what such a government should look like.

What if we decided that a modern government should pledge to put our nature first and explicitly commit to preventing any more extinctions? Or, at least, give conservation an equal billing with our current totem, the economy?

In fact, Australia has made something approaching this pledge before. In 1992 the Keating government signed the Convention on Biological Diversity. In doing so, it made a promise (later enshrined in national legislation), that:

… the present generation should ensure the health, diversity and productivity of the environment is maintained or enhanced for the benefit of future generations.

It is a promise that was not kept by earlier generations of Australians who, through lack of understanding or appreciation, sacrificed elements of our natural environment for short-term economic gain. As the graveyard of extinct plants and animals attests, European colonisation has come at a severe cost to Australian wildlife and environments.

The thylacine has become an emblem of Australia’s poor conservation record since European settlement. AAP Image/supplied

The damage is likely to get worse, as natural environments are increasingly pushed beyond limits, as our population and per capita resource use increase and as climate change bites.

It need not be so. We can and should manage our country in a manner that gives primacy to the conservation of our nature and that commits explicitly to seeking to avoid any further extinction.

Why? Because we should not soil the legacy we gift our descendants. And because it is in our interest – environmental resilience and diversity make for a more stable and productive foundation for our lives and for our world generally.

Shifting policy

The foundations for a new relationship with nature are already being laid and there is evidence that the much-needed policy rethink has begun. Back in 2000, when the United Nations set out its Millennium Development Goals, the language on biodiversity made it sound like some level of species loss was acceptable, calling merely for a “significant reduction in the rate of loss” by 2010.

In contrast, the more recent Aichi Biodiversity Targets make a far more determined commitment, demanding that:

By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status … has been improved and sustained.

A similarly committed target was set last week by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, which pledge to:

Take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats, halt the loss of biodiversity and, by 2020, protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species.

This shift is also reflected in Australian policy. Whereas our headline environmental policy, Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010-2030, includes no aspiration to prevent extinction, the current government’s Threatened Species Strategy, released this year, explicitly seeks to prevent such loss.

Species like red-tailed cockatoos will depart for good unless we can balance their needs against our own land use. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

How do we turn words into action?

Framing the commitment to ending species loss is a welcome first step, but it is empty rhetoric without a mechanism for delivery. The Threatened Species Strategy aside, government policy as a whole treats biodiversity conservation as a boutique issue, largely peripheral to the ways we inhabit, manage and govern this country.

Evidence of this marginality can be seen in this year’s Intergenerational Report, which considered the environment only in terms of it being a potential beneficiary of “sustainable economic growth” (if indeed such a thing is possible).

So, if our nation is to place biodiversity protection at the heart of government policy, what would be needed? The solution must have many parts. Here are some:

  • A central preoccupation of governments relates to living within our economic means. We also need to live within our environmental means – currently, we don’t. In fact, we don’t even measure the extent of our profligacy. A government concerned about environmental sustainability would establish headline indices for biodiversity gains and losses, and environmental health, and treat these as reverentially as it does economic indicators.

  • Environmental law would need to be strengthened, not trivialised or attacked as excessive “green tape”. Such law would treat extinction as a serious failure of policy and practice, which would demand coronial review and proper penalty. Furthermore, a commitment to sustainability would percolate across all laws relating to the use and management of Australia’s natural resources and to policy about population growth and land-use planning.

  • Environmental law would be a national concern, reversing the current trend to devolve responsibility to the states. State borders arbitrarily divide Australian environments; they are colonial legacies that fragment and weaken our ability to care for this country.

  • Climate change would be a national priority, both to reduce its magnitude and to ameliorate current and future pressures on those parts of the environment that will be most susceptible.

  • Spending on conservation would be commensurate with the uniqueness and value of Australia’s biodiversity. It would move from lower than the global OECD average to much higher. At current levels, we will never escape biodiversity’s emergency ward. The amount that needs to be spent to maintain biodiversity in Australia is about A$200 million per year. Such funding can be achieved with ongoing draw-down from an initial investment fund of A$5 billion (less than Australians spend each year on their pets, and about 20% of the annual defence budget).

  • Environmental management will become recognised as a large-scale and long-term concern, protected from short-term policy shifts fashioned by parliamentary cycles. The next Intergenerational Report will have conservation planning as a founding concern.

  • Indigenous knowledge of the management of this country will be core to its distinctive environmental philosophy. Much of the current environmental dysfunction in Australia is due to a lack of understanding in our society broadly of the way this country works and of what is needed to care for it.

  • Our society will value and care more for our country and will pay fairly for our exploitation of it.

These changes can be made. They require a shift from self-interest to an interest in the welfare of others (including other species); from the primacy of the immediate and discounting the future to long-term equity; and from preoccupation with narrowly focused financial dealings to consideration of other components of life’s values.

Such altruism will come with little cost in the greater reckoning. We can afford to gift a better future.