Drug dealer’s defence

Bob Brown puts it like this: “The question for the minister is, ‘Is she going to protect the environment or the Labor Party?’ ”

The former leader of the Greens is talking after Tanya Plibersek delivered her State of the Environment speech at the National Press Club on Tuesday. He sounds weary as he notes the contradictions already present in her portfolio.

“Her first act as minister,” he says, “has been to sign off on a freeway that will cut through precious woodlands in Western Australia.”

On June 29, a delegate for Plibersek approved the southern section of the Bunbury Outer Ring Road. It will clear more than 71 hectares of habitat for endangered possums and black cockatoos. Banksia woodlands and tuart trees will be razed.

At best estimates, it will make the trip from Perth to Margaret River 15 minutes faster. Drivers will skip 13 sets of traffic lights. There is almost nothing Australians will not do to bring their weekends closer.

Brown’s point is a larger one, however. The portfolio Plibersek has is sprawling and the interests it serves are at times contradictory. It requires special focus.

For the past few years, the Coalition has been trying to hand back some of the portfolio’s responsibilities to the states. They thought it would make mining and forestry approvals easier.

Plibersek’s speech at the press club was promising. She acknowledged the enormous work ahead and the reforms that will be needed. There will be new laws and a new agency to enforce them. More of the country will become national park. Protected marine areas will be expanded. Better data will be published on what is happening.

“Australia’s environment is bad and getting worse, as this report shows, and much of the destruction outlined in the ‘State of the Environment’ report will take years to turn around,” Plibersek said. “Nevertheless, I am optimistic about the steps that we can take over the next three years.”

This last point is what’s at issue. Election cycles have determined how governments approach the environment. The world has been broken up into three-year increments. Decisions with ramifications that will last centuries are made on the basis of interests that struggle to look past next week.

That explains what Anthony Albanese means when he says Australian coal is good for the climate. Sometimes this is called the drug dealer’s defence. The term is probably too generous. The argument is an old one: Australian coal is cleaner, and if we don’t sell it, others will sell their own.

“That doesn’t achieve a reduction in emissions – that just produces less economic activity in Australia.”

When Albanese says this, he is not talking about reality. He knows the crisis the world faces is about more than who makes the last few dollars on the way down. Yet nine weeks after winning power, he is still thinking in three-year snatches. Until this shifts, the country won’t much change. The question for him is the same as the question for Plibersek.

Indeed, it is a question for the whole party: What are they here to protect?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2022 as "Drug dealer’s defence".

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