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The Green Army needs a big strategy to win the environmental war

Can the Green Army be more than toy soldiers? FraserElliot/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The Green Army needs a big strategy to win the environmental war

The government’s central environmental policy, the Green Army, will take to the field from July 2014. Work has started to identify projects for the recruits. The army can potentially do some great work, but it needs the support of big environmental policies that at the moment face an uncertain future.

By the end of the four years, this A$300m program will have deployed some 15,000 17-24 year-olds in 1,500 environmental projects across Australia. An army team (perhaps “squad” would be more appropriate) of nine participants, and one supervisor, will work for 20-26 weeks on projects that will be proposed by the community.

The projects will involve heritage-protection (e.g. protecting old buildings), community amenity (e.g. walkways), and biodiversity (e.g. clearing weeds from streams). Recruits will also receive some formal training.

Most debate about the Green Army has focused on the pay and conditions of the young workers. But will this program achieve the government’s goals of supporting “the delivery of enduring environment and heritage conservation outcomes at the local, regional and national level”?

Hand-to-hand combat

The Green Army is in no way a new idea. Governments have had public environmental work programs since the “sustenance” programs of the Depression years. The army is in fact a close copy of the Howard government Green Corps, which was in turn similar to the Labor LEAP program of the 1980s.

It is no surprise that these types of programs are popular with the public as well as politicians: they help young people; they make the world a more beautiful place; they appear to get the power out of the hands of the bureaucrats; and they do work at the local level.

The Green Army is meant to do hand-to-hand combat, mopping up environmental damage in a few months of skirmishing. By contrast, the environmental programs of past governments could be seen as lumbering, and bureaucratic, weighed down by restrictions, and fighting set-piece battles.

An example is the focus of the former government’s Caring for Country program on major environmental assets of national significance, such as large parks and major threatened species programs. These, long-term, sometimes dull, endeavours tended to divert work away from local projects into larger programs.

As Greg Hunt put it, the policies of the previous government were about:

more centralised bureaucracy, focused on form filling and setting grand national objectives, remote from the urgent and valuable local environmental challenges.

But there are problems with putting all of our environmental eggs into the Green Army’s basket. Many of the on-ground actions that the Green Army will do are about amenity. Building seats and lookouts connects people with the environment, and weeding local parks makes those places more attractive and useful.

These are good things, and they are entirely appropriate for a public works program, but they are not the same thing as a well rounded environment program that does deal with grand national objectives.

These big objectives relate to questions of biodiversity, sustainability, and ecosystem services, and these battles will not be fought by the Green Army. These will be fought by continuing voluntary actions by members of grass-roots organisations, such as Landcare; by enforcing state-government standards and regulation, by strong land-use planning, and by compromises between conservation and industry groups (such as we saw in the Tasmanian forest agreements).

The Green Army can be a useful part of the environmental campaign, but it cannot masquerade as the core of a national environmental program. To see the direction for the bigger battles, we know that the government has already started the process to reduce green-tape, but there has been no word on the government’s plans to merge the Landcare and Caring-for-our-Country programs.

It is worth remembering that the Green Army program is A$75m per year, whereas the former government’s Caring for our Country program was over A$400m per year. The coalition committed to maintaining this level of environmental funding before the last election.

Part of a bigger picture

This is not to say that the Green Army cannot do great work.

Projects will be proposed by communities, but no information has been released about how the projects will be selected. The least effective model would be to spread the projects evenly around the country, dissipating effort on random projects that will have little possibility of achieving the goals of the program.

Past programs like the Green Army have been criticised for spreading their projects too thinly, and of having no way to ensure that the work is maintained after the troops have left.

The better approach is to ensure that projects for the army should only be considered if they can demonstrate how they align with existing regional strategies. For biodiversity and water quality projects, these priorities are best defined by the strategies of Australia’s 56 regional natural resource management (NRM) bodies.

Heritage and amenity goals should align with the strategies of park agencies, or local governments. None of these strategies are perfect, but they have been honed with the community over many years of sweat, science and debate, and ratified by governments.

When the Green Army joins the battles that are already being fought by NRM and other agencies, the army really can fulfil a useful complementary role.

For example, a stream restoration project in south east Australia might involve heavy machinery removing willows, fencing contractors, construction of fishways, and provision of environmental water. Nine fresh recruits with shovels could contribute a lot to these larger projects, in particular maintaining fences and vegetation, and controlling weeds,in the large number of projects that have already been completed over recent decades. In fact, maintaining existing projects should be a priority for the Green Army.

The government would never put the whole weight of a war on the shoulders of squads of ill-equipped, green recruits. Is that the government’s plan in the environmental war?