Victorians short-changed on environmental policy

One of the hottest topics for the upcoming election is a new forest national park to protect the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum, Victoria’s faunal emblem. Greens MPs/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Less than a week out from Victoria’s state election, both major parties have been largely silent on environmental policy.

Neither the Coalition nor Labor has released comprehensive documents. It also seems very unlikely that either will support one of the hottest topics on the environment agenda — a new national park to protect mountain ash forests in central Victoria.

We were in a similar place with the Coalition before the previous election. So how do the major parties compare?

Last week I spent 10 days at the World Parks Congress in Sydney, a once-in-a-decade gathering of 3,500 people discussing national parks and other protected areas.

The two major trends identified at the congress were the emerging critical importance of privately managed protected areas and the urgent need to substantially increase the number of marine national parks.

In Victoria — where incidentally this congress was to be held before the Coalition gave it up to Sydney — we have only 5% of our coastal waters in high-protection reserves. We have nowhere near the policy or dollar commitments to privately protected areas that countries like the United States and Canada have.

What was promised

Coming into the 2010 state election the two major parties took quite different approaches to environmental policy. The Labor government, consistent with their past practice, prepared a detailed statement covering the full range of environmental matters from national parks and nature conservation, through climate change and coastal management to environmental protection and waste management.

The Coalition — unlike the Liberals who had produced a detailed environmental policy document leading into the 2006 election — took a different tack, which effectively re-wrote the environmental policy handbook.

Their “policy statement” was a loose series of media releases spread over the previous 12-18 months on a motley range of topics — an address to the Mountain Cattleman’s Association promising the return of cattle grazing for a privileged few to the Alpine National Park, a promise not to amalgamate catchment management authorities, a promise to review marine national parks and another to open parks to gold fossickers. It also promised to ban wind farms within two kilometres of towns.

What happened

The Coalition won and followed through on its election promises. These included:

  • allowing cattle back into the Alpine National Park despite all scientific evidence to the contrary

  • without any proposal before the election, changing the National Parks Act to allow 99-year leases over national park land for private development, with Point Nepean being the first to succumb

  • reviews of marine parks and fossicking in national parks

  • bans on wind farms within two kilometres of towns, and within five kilometres of selected centres.

And days before the government entered caretaker period for the current election, commercial management of the state’s western forests was transferred from the Department of Environment and Primary Industries to state-owned timber company VicForests.

This time around

This time around, neither the Coalition government nor the Labor opposition has published a comprehensive environmental policy.

To be fair to Labor, its election platform does include five pages on environmental matters — albeit the final five of an 88-page document.

These focus on undoing the most destructive of the Coalition’s environmental actions of the past four years, such as removing 99-year leases from national parks, removing cattle from the Alpine National Park, and reviewing native vegetation clearance changes, among others.

No new parks

We have also seen a new tactic in this election — “wedging” your own party.

One of the hottest topics coming into Saturday’s election is the community-driven push for a Great Forest National Park in the central highlands close to Melbourne. In part this is driven by the latest attempts to save old-growth forest trees as habitat for the Victorian faunal emblem, the Leadbeater’s Possum.

But it is also about the fact that mountain ash forests are one of the world’s greatest carbon sinks and that the ecosystem services yielded by these forests — including some of the best natural water catchments in the world — are priceless.

Yet before Environment Minister Ryan Smith could make any statement on the Liberals’ environment policy, the senior minister in the Primary Industry and Environment portfolio, Peter Walsh of the Nationals, a former president of the Victorian Farmers Federation, announced at a timber industry function that no new national parks would be declared by a Coalition government in the next term of office.

This was, in a way, reinforcement of the fact that this government is the first since the National Parks Act was declared in 1975 to declare no new national parks in a term of office. It appeared that this statement was made to gazump the junior minister so that he would be unable to make any positive park announcements.

One would have thought this left it wide open for the Labor opposition to promote a coordinated environmental policy, pointing out the ALP commitment to not only new national parks but also to their acceptance of climate change and encouragement of renewable energy targets.

The Labor election platform does include the latter two areas, but not the first. Labor reportedly backed away from the plan after the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, apparently learning quickly from Peter Walsh’s tactic, said there would be no national park in the central highlands — presumably to head off any possible promise by Labor to trump the Coalition on this issue.

Small differences

Were these isolated examples, they might be taken as the rough and tumble of internal party politics, but we Victorians have also witnessed a declaration from both parties that there will be no new marine national parks in the upcoming term. On both sides of politics this was announced by the agriculture, rather than the environment, spokesperson.

It appears that the Coalition has essentially left environmental policy to the National Party. Labor has based its approach on just countering these proposals. It is a low bar in terms of new initiatives, but why promise more when the Coalition offers so little?

There are differences beyond this between the parties — the East West tunnel, if built, will devastate Melbourne’s Royal Park, the “lungs of the city”. Labor has stated it will not support the project if elected.

And the parties also differ on where the next major port expansion should be: the Coalition wants it in Westernport; Labor wants it in Port Phillip Bay. Both locations have serious environmental, social and economic limitations, which deserve an independent, considered and transparent assessment — but neither side of politics has committed to this.

Throughout the campaign, the Greens have focused more strongly on the “brown end” of environmental policies, including strong policies on coal power stations, climate change, public transport and long-term opposition to the East West Link. On nature conservation (the “green end” of environmental policy), the Greens are solid but not as vocal as on the above issues.

In conclusion, Victorians have been short-changed by both sides of politics on environmental policy. There is no visionary, hopeful, long-term view of the future, nothing bold for the younger generations to enjoy and be excited by and nothing around the new frontiers — private land conservation and marine national parks.

For now, visionary proposals have been left to the community campaign for the Great Forest National Park. Maybe next time around the major parties will be able to match this vision.