Beyond setting an example: what is Australian environmental policy for?

Australia could have led the world in assessing projects for their economic, social and environmental impacts, but we lost our nerve. AAP

WHAT IS AUSTRALIA FOR? Australia is no longer small, remote or isolated. It’s time to ask What Is Australia For?, and to acknowledge the wealth of resources we have beyond mining. Over the next two weeks The Conversation, in conjunction with Griffith REVIEW, is publishing a series of provocations. Our authors are asking the big questions to encourage a robust national discussion about a new Australian identity that reflects our national, regional and global roles.

Throughout the debate about establishing a carbon price, one of the most-cited reasons for Australia taking action was that we could encourage others to act by doing so. We could model to the rest of the world behaviour consistent with a sustainable future. There is no doubt that we could, in principle, fill that role if we had the collective political will. The problem is that we have steadily and systematically retreated from that position.

It could all have been so different. A crucial turning point was the report of the Resources Assessment Commission into the proposed mine for gold and palladium at Coronation Hill in the Northern Territory. The RAC was established by the Hawke government specifically to advise on developments like this which raise complex economic, social and environmental questions. The RAC provided clear advice in each of those areas, but it declined to make an overall recommendation for or against the mine. Its reasoning was that weighing up the costs and benefits was a social value judgement which should be made by elected politicians.

This could have been seen as a model for informed and responsible decisions: an expert body quantifies the information in each of the three main areas, economic, social and environmental, allowing elected politicians to make the judgement call in the light of the overall costs and benefits. The Cabinet fell into line with Bob Hawke’s view that the economic benefits did not justify the environmental risks and the social costs to Indigenous people, but the politicians were clearly uncomfortable with the process, which forced them to show their values. The outcome was also the last straw for the forces within the government wanting a more simplistic economic policy agenda.

Within weeks Hawke had been overthrown and replaced by Keating, who disbanded the RAC. So we no longer have any process for weighing up the overall cost and benefits of major proposals. What politicians get is detailed financial assessments, superficial environmental assessments commissioned by proponents to show that the impacts are acceptable, and no attempt to assess social impacts apart from some simplified and usually optimistic calculation of the number of jobs that might be created. Not surprisingly, the elected politicians usually approve the proposal, effectively having only heard the case for the prosecution rather than a balanced assessment.

The reports of the working groups set up by the Hawke government to consider Ecologically Sustainable Development [ESD] led to COAG’s 1992 adoption of the National Strategy for ESD, with a consolidated set of recommendations that commanded widespread support at the time. Most are still gathering dust in Canberra pigeon-holes, despite the evidence that they would have brought economic and social benefits as well as environmental improvements.

Earlier in 1992 Australia had supported Agenda 21 and the Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Rio Earth Summit, but the tide was already turning. The 1993 election was a contest between Keating’s relatively conservative approach and John Hewson’s “Fightback!” agenda, which proposed explicitly taking Australia to an extreme market-oriented approach. Hewson lost what the Coalition had regarded as an unlosable election. When John Howard eventually became the leader, he was clearly determined not to repeat Hewson’s mistake of telling the electorate in advance how far back he would take environmental protection. His approach of retrospectively disowning what he christened “non-core promises” allowed a systematic dismantling of environmental protection, despite pre-election assurances. (I have written at length about this issue in Robert Manne’s book, The Howard Years.)

Suffice to say that we now have very few instances of projects which have commercial backing being blocked to prevent environmental harm. The only front-page example in recent years was environment Minister Peter Garrett’s decision to block the proposed Traveston Crossing dam, a project that was proving an electoral liability to the Queensland government. Very few commercial developments have ever been prevented on environmental grounds, but there are still calls from business interests – and some extremely short-sighted State governments - to wind back what they have called “green tape”.

The first national report on the state of the environment in 1996 said that Australia had serious problems that needed to be addressed to achieve the stated goal of ecologically sustainable development. Three consecutive reports have each said that all the most serious problems are worsening. The basic issue remains the same. As the 2012 report of the UN high level panel on sustainability observed, the fundamental obstacle is that decision-makers still see sustainability as a fringe consideration of lower importance than the core business of economic management.

The most obvious indicator of this mindset is the approach to population. Successive governments have supported rapid population growth in the belief that this is good for the economy, despite signs of increasing social tensions caused directly by high levels of immigration and despite the clear evidence that all significant environmental problems are made more difficult to manage by increasing population. Serious economic analysis shows that there may be a slight benefit in per capita wealth to set against declining lifestyle opportunities, but it is at best only a small benefit. Our rate of population growth is unusually high by OECD standards, but this is cheered by most politicians rather than being seen as a problem. My recent book, Bigger or Better? Australia’s Population Debate, shows how superficial much of the discussion is and the extent to which short-term economics trumps social tension, environmental harm and long-term economic impacts in the decision-making calculus.

So what do we have to offer the world in environmental terms? Not our approach to integrating sustainability into decision-making, which was abandoned 20 years ago. Not our ensuring that environmental harm is prevented by independent assessment and decision-making, since our approach is fundamentally weighted in favour of commercial interests. Not our response to climate change, having demanded an outrageously generous target in the Kyoto negotiations and having done almost nothing since to curb the growth in energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. Despite weird claims by some commercial interests that the package introduced by the Gillard government imposes draconian charges on productive enterprise, Australia lags well behind most advanced nations in responding to climate change. Not our approach to product stewardship, since successive state and Commonwealth governments have supported the use by coal producers of the drug-dealer’s defence: there is a demand there, if we don’t supply the product somebody else will, we are not in any way responsible for what people do with the product or any harm it may cause. Not our approach to responsible consumption, since the failure to restrain irresponsible developers has led to our having the largest new houses in the world, despite continuing shrinkage in average occupation levels. Not our protection of productive land, since State governments have allowed minerals extraction and residential development to sterilise some of the most important food producing areas.

If we have anything to show the world, it is that many aspects of the Australian environment remain in relatively good condition. This is not a result of wise stewardship or a mature political culture, but simply a reflection of the fact that we still have a relatively small population for a very large continent. Quite big areas, especially in the northern half of the country, remain relatively unspoiled. These areas are threatened by a manic rush for economic development in general and resource extraction in particular, but in many places the damage is not yet irreparable.

There remains the possibility that a more mature approach to development could yet make us a model for other countries. I have argued for many years that we could be a shining example; if it is not possible for 22 million people to live sustainably on our resources, what prospect is there for other nations? Of course, the obverse is true; if our immaturity and short-sightedness makes us incapable of living sustainably, the prospects for global civilisation are very bleak indeed.

Read more provocations at The Conversation and at Griffith REVIEW.