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Election 2013 Issues: Looking after Australia

Welcome to the The Conversation Election 2013 State of the Nation essays. These articles by leading experts in their field provide an in-depth look at the key policy challenges affecting Australia as the…

The health of our rural landscapes depends on supportive policies and hard work by caring Australians, such as here on David Marsh’s property near Boorowa, NSW. Andrew Campbell

Welcome to the The Conversation Election 2013 State of the Nation essays. These articles by leading experts in their field provide an in-depth look at the key policy challenges affecting Australia as the nation heads to the polls. Today, we examine conservation, sustainability and biodiversity in modern Australia.

In election season, policy wishlists abound. Rent-seeking interest groups, industries and communities compete for media and politicians’ attention. The richer ones buy both.

Environmental concerns, if mentioned at all, appear lower down in the ubiquitous polls. Are we relaxed and comfortable about our environment and how well it is being managed?

Taking the environmental pulse

According to the last two State of the Environment reports, it is difficult to be definitive about environmental condition because we’ve failed to invest in proper monitoring. But overall trends in water quality, wildlife habitat and fauna populations are mostly negative.

There are positive signs. Energy and water consumption have declined in a strongly growing economy. Urban air quality has improved, we’ve seen gains in water use efficiency in irrigated agriculture, there’s better waste management in cities and extraordinary growth in household adoption of solar PV. South Australia already derives almost 30% of its energy from wind and solar.

Notable landscape restoration efforts from 20 years of landcare and catchment planning and a high level of involvement by farmers have improved tree cover, habitat quality and river health in some districts.

Informed by comprehensive policy analysis and reviews, the Clean Energy Future (carbon pricing) package was ground-breaking and the Murray Darling Basin Plan is an historic attempt to correct decades of over allocation of water resources.

The work on the ground

The Commonwealth has become a major investor in national environment, natural resources and agriculture programs over the last 20 years, but this very welcome funding has probably been more than offset by concurrent cost-shifting, backsliding (such as on environmental regulation and compliance, now derided as “green tape”) and disinvestment among state and territory governments.

Government environment programs tend to be short-term (usually one electoral cycle) and lack continuity with previous programs (especially after a change of government). Floating the carbon price early and axing the Biodiversity Fund without consultation are merely the latest examples. Such ad hoc decisions perpetuate uncertainty and job insecurity for professionals in the field, and confusion for the community and hapless citizens. The bipartisanship so evident in the 1990s Decade of Landcare is long gone.

Conservation in Australia relies heavily on volunteers. Andrew Campbell

There will never be sufficient public funds for environmental management. Our multi-layered environmental management system runs from landholders to landcare and other community groups, to regional or catchment natural resource management bodies, to the states and the Commonwealth. The growth of environmental NGOs, private nature conservation, community landcare and other community efforts are important environmental assets.

A strong thread of voluntarism gives this model resilience and flexibility.

Governments have a habit of initially showing trust and devolving responsibility to appropriate levels, then re-centralising funding and control. Increasingly, it seems that governments are unaware of this devolved network and its replacement value. Our natural resource management system is unique, but in danger of decaying through ignorance and neglect.

Can we insure our environment against destructive change?

The processes we are trying to influence operate over decades if not centuries, often at continental scale. Short-term, sporadic, disconnected interventions tend to be ineffective, especially as we confront increasingly difficult climates.

Climate change amplifies environmental risks, and makes the implementation of best-practice environmental management even more important.

Even World Heritage listed conservation icons such as the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu National Park are struggling to secure the resources and protection they deserve. The private, community and philanthropic sectors are taking up some slack in looking after special areas, but overwhelmingly, public good investment is left to governments.

Protected areas (marine and terrestrial) remain an important tool in the conservation toolkit, but there is a healthy debate about their role in a rapidly changing world.

Risks to particular assets such as the Reef and Kakadu, or the impact of a particular development such as an open cut mine are visible and quantifiable. But of greater concern are the impacts caused by insidious, cryptic and chronic processes operating all the time over whole landscapes: such as invasive species, altered fire regimes, over-pumping from or contamination of aquifers, land clearing, sea level rise and coastal erosion.

The Australian community, industries and governments at all levels have yet to fully grasp the implications of climate change: the likely frequency and intensity of major events, the need for new planning approaches, the need to rethink infrastructure, the need for much more nimble and responsive approaches that can bounce back after more frequent and more damaging disasters, and the futility of just “putting things back as they were”.

Threats to assets like Kakadu are insidious and chronic. Ian Oswald-Jacobs/Parks Australia

What to look for in election commitments

Over the last 40 years, Australia has been most effective in achieving societal change when we have applied a mix of policy instruments strategically over decades. Road safety, AIDS, drink driving and anti-smoking campaigns are obvious examples.

The closest environmental equivalent is the carbon pricing package. But it has suffered from volatile policy settings, virulent public debate, and insufficient time to prove its return on investment, notwithstanding early promising signs. While our aggregate emissions are flat, Australian per capita emissions are still the highest in the world. We have a huge emissions reduction challenge.

So what should we be looking for in the policy platforms of all parties, and in the environmental understanding of local candidates?

We need policy commitments that show we want to manage this old continent as if we intend to stay for good. For example:

  • Commitment to governance reforms to sort out the respective roles of the Commonwealth, states and territories; e.g. for mega resource development projects. These are depletable resources, owned by the people, that we can only dig up and sell once. We must maximise total benefits over the long-term, taking off-site (including global emissions) and inter-generational impacts into account.

  • Regional leadership in renewable energy. We must maintain a meaningful carbon price and ambitious targets for emissions reduction and renewable energy production, and substantially remove fossil fuel subsidies.

  • Close, active engagement with the countries in our region as strategic investors and partners in emissions reduction and clean technologies, not just as markets for our exports or aid recipients.

  • Rethinking the role of and reinvesting in active management of protected areas - terrestrial, coastal and marine.

  • Intelligent research investors, supporting long-term research programs, ecosystem monitoring and research infrastructure to measure progress at scales from site to continent.

  • “Little platoons” of willing land owners, community groups and catchment bodies can do more to improve the environment and food system than central governments, but only if governments acknowledge and support grassroots efforts (through funding, research, training and access to data and information).

Most Australians still care deeply about the environment. Enlightened environmental leadership pays political dividends, and the community wants to see bipartisanship and commitment to long-term programs needed to look after Australia.

Australia can and should be playing an environmental leadership role in the region and beyond. This would position us well, economically and geopolitically, in the Asian century.

If you have a conscience, kids or grandchildren, you have a stake in this and it should influence your vote.