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Spinning ‘green tape’ as the climate changes

‘Green tape’ is an emotive term that tries to make condemning environmental protection look like common sense. Bill Rogers

With only inverted commas signalling the spin, the news media have happily re-cycled the term “green tape”, the latest rhetorical gambit by those decrying environmental protections as unnecessarily delaying development. It’s a term that undercuts the rationale for hard won legislation, with a cynical “sleight of tongue”.

Michael Kiernan, former Consolidated Minerals Chief introduced the term “green tape” back in August 2006, at the Diggers and Dealers conference in Kalgoorlie - ruing the way “the endangered night parrots” had slowed iron ore development in the Chichester ranges and how “possible nesting effects on the flatback turtle threaten the $11 billion Gorgon gas development on Barrow Island”. Even the Herald Sun saw its potential for the “greatest redneck comment” at the conference.

Now, however, given Federal Minister Martin Ferguson’s recent proclamation that La Trobe valley’s brown coal deposits could make the region “the Pilbara of Victoria” - alongside the Baillieu Government’s latest cuts to Victoria’s environmental protection systems, and Campbell-Newman’s manoeuvring for control over environmental approvals - “green tape” provides a prescient and powerful trope to thwart moves to cut greenhouse gases.

Just as the term “political correctness” helped those who chose to resist legislative and language changes to drive gender and racial equity, the glib appeal of “green tape” positions environmental protections (particularly the fact that they exist at both state and federal level) as over-the-top and comical. Diminishing the importance of the ecosystems and species that environmental legislation protects, “green tape” emphasises the dollar value of “threatened” development.

Back in 2006 Michael Kiernan referred to “out-of-control bureaucrats running around like demigods” noting that “Australia’s mining competitors were not being impeded by such green tape”, as if this was the benchmark to which we should aspire. (Herald Sun ‘Miner sees red over greenies’, 8 August 2006). Certainly it is something the mining industry has profited from.

In that same year, 2006, an environmental disaster occurred on Rapu-Rapu island in the Philippines, when toxic metals from an Australian mining company, Lafayette, leaked into the island’s rivers. Shanta Martin noted that a Philippines Government enquiry found the company had “started to extract copper and zinc without completing the construction of environmental protection measures necessary to safeguard the island’s ecosystem”. A mining ombudsman for Oxfam Australia, Martin makes the point that “mining companies operate under a social licence” on the understanding “that they do so in ways that deliver a net benefit to society”.

In a recent letter to The Age, Paul Norton lamented the Gillard Government’s appeasement of calls by big business to cut “green tape” (which saw many federal protections assigned to the states). He noted Labor’s rejection of the independent review it commissioned in 2008.

“Following extensive public consultation,” Professor Allan Hawke’s 2009 report recommended a new Australian Environment Act to “strengthen environmental protection and prioritise ecological sustainability”. Rather than “green tape” tying big business down, Norton’s assertion of “a retreat from scientifically informed and evidence-based reviews on environmental policy” seems more on the money.

Launching his campaign against “green tape”, Tony Abbott recently scored a trifecta in spin. He managed to make promises to cut “green tape” as part of a “green plan” giving “virtually unilateral control of environmental approvals” to the state governments. He simultaneously claimed, “I have always regarded myself as a conservationist”.

However, even in the face of the leader of the opposition’s reinvention as an environmentalist the media has retained its fascination with the climate change “debate”.

If the mainstream media is to host a truly public conversation on the topic it needs to shift beyond the narrow frames of “debate” and “threatened industries” entangled in “green tape”. It must engage more fully with the idea of public interest journalism - by undertaking broader investigation of both the cost of delaying action on climate change and of the alternative courses for action open to us.

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