As the Coalition fractures over climate policy, the follies and waste of the demobilised Green Army have become clear. By Mike Seccombe.

The Green Army’s scant environmental credentials

A representation of the Green Army’s Innisfail cassowary project.
A representation of the Green Army’s Innisfail cassowary project.
Credit: Map data ©2016 Google

The map from the federal Environment Department is a Google Earth satellite image of Innisfail in far north Queensland, with several little red dots superimposed on it.

Each dot marks the site of a project approved in the 2015-16 funding round for the so-called Green Army, the signature environment initiative of the Abbott government. Another document summarises the purpose of the projects, in these three cases to “enhance and restore endangered lowland riparian vegetation” which is “habitat to the … threatened Southern Cassowary”.

It’s a laudable objective. The large, colourful, flightless birds, found only in the dense tropical rainforests of north-east Queensland, are in great peril. As the department’s website says: “Continuing clearing and fragmentation of rainforest, and increased mortality from cars and dogs have reduced cassowary numbers to perhaps as few as around 2000, threatening the species with extinction.”

The problem is this: the satellite image clearly shows nothing even vaguely like cassowary habitat. One site is bounded a TAFE college, cane fields, and the North Johnstone River. The “riparian vegetation” referred to on the official document is presumably a narrow straggle, a few metres wide, of mangroves along the river’s edge. The two other sites are surrounded by houses and lawns. It’s not viable habitat; it’s suburbia.

All three locations are within a few hundred metres of the Innisfail town centre, very convenient to shops and fast food outlets, but many kilometres and many road crossings and potential encounters with dogs from the nearest patch of rainforest and the native fruits cassowaries eat. Any bird that turned up at the sites marked by those red dots would be very lost indeed, and all the more endangered for being there.

As for the works performed in those projects, they mostly amounted to pulling weeds. According to a local familiar with and cynical about the projects, they “will no doubt now grow back”.

Both the map and the project summaries were sent to The Saturday Paper by James Trezise, policy analyst for the Australian Conservation Foundation, to underline a point he’s been making about one of the many inadequacies of the Green Army, established with great fanfare in the 2014 budget.

“These sites are well outside any known cassowary corridors,” Trezise says. “There is no way in the world these projects would have benefited cassowaries, and no way in the world that’s the best use of money for cassowary conservation.”

1 . Government claims revised down

Nor is the Innisfail example a rare instance of money being allocated under what amounts to false pretences. A recent detailed analysis by the ACF of hundreds of projects approved under the first three rounds of funding by the Green Army scheme turned up many others.

Take another example, a project purporting to protect threatened species in Melbourne. It actually involved “stone conservation” at the Old Melbourne Gaol and conservation of the timber deck of the historic barque Polly Woodside, as well as “site invigilation as part of birthday events for the Polly Woodside (130yrs) and Old Melbourne Gaol (170yrs)”.

Whatever “site invigilation” is, it clearly has nothing to do with threatened species, or any reasonable understanding of what is meant by environmental management or land care.

Trezise says his analysis shows “the vast bulk of projects” undertaken by the Green Army to help protect threatened species “have no specific, tangible benefit”.

“The department told us there were 323 Green Army projects benefiting threatened species,” he told The Saturday Paper.

“Our review, using very generous criteria, found only about 135 were of genuine benefit. Doing generic weeding around some trees and saying ‘that benefits koalas’ doesn’t count.”

And it seems even the government itself, following the ACF analysis and some incisive questioning by senate estimates committees, has lately given up on the pretence.

The claim used to be that some $210 million had been spent to protect threatened species, largely through the Green Army initiatives.

“That narrative has just shifted,” says Trezise. “The most recent report from the threatened species commissioner no longer talks about $210 million for threatened species, but $80 million.”

2 . Abbott’s lament

Maybe they figure there’s no point fibbing anymore, now the Green Army is to be disbanded. There has been no official confirmation of that yet, but there have been well-sourced reports and the response to them by Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg made Tony Abbott’s beloved conservation corps sound very terminal.

“The Green Army has been a successful program,” Frydenberg said. “It’s led to the planting of more than two million trees, the clearing of more than 90,000 hectares of weeds, but at the same time we’re facing significant budget pressures and obviously savings do need to be found.”

Tony Abbott took to Facebook on Monday to say he was “dismayed” at the prospect that the program, for which $360 million was allocated over the coming four years in the May budget, was to be axed in the midyear budget review.

Abbott suggested the Green Army was being abolished because the Turnbull government preferred the policies of the Greens party to those of “smart … centre-right government”.

3 . Landcare’s past record

Before the Green Army, Australia had Landcare, a national network of organisations that began in 1989 when the ACF and National Farmers’ Federation persuaded the Hawke government to support their plan to “engage communities across Australia in activities to reverse the degradation of farmland, public land and waterways”.

By 2014, when Landcare celebrated its 25th anniversary, there were more than 6000 Landcare and Coastcare groups around the country. Over all that time, despite some changes, Landcare enjoyed broad support from all sides of politics.

In that year’s federal budget, however, the new Abbott government set up the Green Army, allocating it $525 million over four years. Most of that money came from a cut of $484million to Landcare.

As Phillip Coorey put it recently in The Australian Financial Review, the Green Army was set up to do “pretty much the same jobs” as Landcare groups had done, the major difference being that under Landcare the work had been “by those with environmental expertise”.

The government’s new plan was intended to kill two birds with one stone: the Green Army would not just be an environment and land management program but also a welfare/labour market program. It promised that up to 15,000 unemployed young people, aged 17 to 24, would be taken off benefits and paid a “training allowance” of about half the minimum wage.

Labor, the Greens and a lot of environment groups opposed it from the start.

Apart from their concerns that it would bring inferior environmental outcomes there were questions about how much useful training the young workers would get. There were also questions about how many young workers were actually turning out and completing projects, about the contractual arrangements with the labour hire firms that provided the workers, and about the government’s use of Green Army projects for pork-barrelling purposes.

Although Trezise concludes that the most recent round of projects appears to have been better administered, those concerns have not been entirely allayed. The ACF’s examination of Green Army projects announced during the last election, for example, showed that about three-quarters of them were in marginal electorates. Requests have been made for the independent National Audit Office to review the program.

4 . Integrated approach abandoned

Rachel Siewert probably has a longer perspective on land-care programs than any other politician. Before she was a Greens senator she earned a bachelor of science in agriculture. She’s had experience with programs as a state bureaucrat in the Western Australian agriculture department, as a grassroots conservationist and as a politician.

“I’ve been involved in land care a long time,” she says. “Apart from waiting tables, my first job was working on a national land-care program.

“I’ve seen them all, all the iterations, and this one was flawed from the beginning. The philosophy’s flawed from an environment perspective, an employment perspective and a land-care perspective.

“The previous program had been evolving towards a more integrated planning approach, and moving to bigger programs. We’d evolved in our understanding of what works, and the overarching lesson for natural resource management is the need to get away from small separate projects and taking an integrated approach to landscape management.”

But the Green Army, using small, 10-person teams on 10-week or six-month projects, abandoned the integrated approach.

“The government wanted little grants so they could pepper money around and make it seem like everyone got a prize,” Siewert says.

There was also the problem of continuing maintenance after the teams moved on. As the bloke in Innisfail noted: weeds grow back.

“Another problem,” Siewert says, “was that they were working with young people with various barriers to employment. You can’t just take a whole bunch of young people out and put a spade in their hands and tell them to dig holes or mend fences.”

None of this is to say the Green Army did not achieve some good environmental outcomes and send some participants away with valuable skills.

“But to my mind, and to the minds of a lot of others,” Siewert says, “it took us backwards.”

This time last year, the government pruned more than $300 million from its funding. And now it looks odds-on to be cut altogether.

“We always thought the money for the Green Army could be better spent,” says Labor environment spokesman Tony Burke.

“The reason we opposed the cuts to Landcare in the first place was that we saw the money going from a still imperfect but more effective environmental program to a less effective one.

“You can run a whole list of problems with the Green Army, all of which are accurate, because it was never well designed.

“But was it better than nothing? It’s a low benchmark, but it was. It’s hard to see its abolition as anything but a big step backwards, given there is nothing being put in its place.”

That’s not entirely right. The Green Army might be axed, but at least some money has been restored – unwillingly – to land-care projects, due to a bit of horsetrading by the Greens last week.

5 . Greens deal for Landcare

On the final day of parliamentary sittings for this year, the government was mired in a self-created mess over the rate at which backpackers should be taxed. After a protracted Dutch auction in which various rates were proposed by various parties, the government had made its “final” final offer of 15 per cent. Labor and the crossbenches had united on 13 per cent. Stalemate.

At the last minute, though, the Greens came to the government’s rescue. Party leader Richard Di Natale and treasury spokesman Peter Whish-Wilson negotiated a deal with the finance minister, Mathias Cormann. They would vote for 15 per cent provided the government tweaked the arrangements for backpackers’ superannuation, and also kicked $100 million more into Landcare.

The net result was that the government saved some face, but no money.

It was this deal that Abbott was alluding to in his Facebook post on Monday.

“It’s a bad principle to axe your own policy for the Greens policy because it means that their priorities are more important than ours. That would hardly be a smart move for a centre-right government,” he wrote.

It was an outrageous misrepresentation of the facts. For one, centre-right governments have a long history of supporting Landcare.

The more egregious misrepresentation, though, was the implication that Turnbull had somehow buckled to the Greens in axing the Green Army.

In fact, the Greens party had nothing to do with it. The people who had the Green Army in their sights were members of the government’s expenditure review committee, determined to address the revenue problem by slashing spending.

Di Natale swears they had no inkling the government was looking at decommissioning the Green Army until the media reports appeared.

6 . Coalition failure on climate change

Inaccurate and malicious as Abbott’s post was, though, it did underline one important truth: he still thinks Malcolm Turnbull is vulnerable to accusations that he is too green for the modern Liberal Party.

Other events this week underline it further.

One was the prospect that the giant Adani coalmine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin might be provided $1 billion from the government’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility to help build a rail line to move its coal to port.

This facility is notionally an independent body, but all such bodies take cognisance of the position of government. Turnbull and Frydenberg have remained scrupulously neutral, but Resources Minister Matt Canavan, of the National Party, has not.

He and others in his party have made it quite clear they favour assistance to the mega-mine. The National Party tail is widely seen to be wagging the government dog on the issue.

The biggest of all environmental issues, of course, is climate change, and the past week also has shown clearly how beholden Turnbull is to the Nationals and the right wing of his own party.

On Monday, Frydenberg gave hope in a radio interview that the government might take some meaningful action to limit Australia’s emissions of greenhouse gases.

He was talking about an upcoming review of government climate change policy. This is what he said:

“We know that there’s been a large number of bodies that have recommended an emissions intensity scheme, which is effectively a baseline and credit scheme. We’ll look at that.”

An emissions intensity scheme would set a baseline figure for how much carbon dioxide a power station could emit for every unit of power generated. More efficient generators would receive credits that could then be sold to less efficient ones. Over time the baseline would be lowered, making less efficient generators increasingly uncompetitive and eventually forcing them to close.

The general view among those concerned by climate change is that such a scheme would be inferior to the policy of the former Labor government. For one thing, it would address emissions from only the electricity-generation sector.

But like the Green Army, which was inferior to the policy it replaced, it was much better than nothing, and a significant advance on Direct Action, which has pertained since the Abbott government was elected in 2013.

Under the previous Labor government’s policy, greenhouse emissions were falling. Since its abolition, they have been rising again. In the absence of significant policy change, multiple studies show, Australia will not meet its greenhouse gas reduction obligations agreed at last year’s Paris climate change conference and recently ratified. The government insists otherwise.

As Frydenberg rightly said, the idea of an energy intensity scheme is widely endorsed by experts, including by big players in the energy-generation sector.

But within a day of making his relatively anodyne admission that the government would “look at” such a policy, the right wing of the Coalition pushed him, and Turnbull, into inglorious retreat.

The opposition was predictably led by the climate change-denying South Australian senator Cory Bernardi, who called the idea “one of the dumbest things” he had ever heard.

Other post-truth members of the government joined the chorus, insisting any such proposal would make power more expensive. Notwithstanding the testimony of experts that such a shift would ultimately make power cheaper – for renewable energy is essentially free, after the capital costs of installing it – Turnbull duly joined in the song. The change would cost too much, he said.

7 . Turnbull’s dramatic U-turn

And so it appears that the prospect of meaningful action to reduce global warming is as dead as the Green Army. Political reality has trumped scientific reality. The unfortunate fact is that conservative politicians and those who vote for them simply do not accept the need for action, because they don’t believe climate change is a problem.

An Essential poll released just this week showed it clearly. A majority of Australians, including 70 per cent of Labor voters and 82 per cent of Greens voters, accepted that climate change was a problem caused by human activity. But among Coalition voters, only 39 per cent believed that.

Seven years ago, almost to the day, the freshly dumped leader of the Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull, launched a tirade against such ignorance and the “farce that the Coalition’s policy, or lack of policy, on climate change has descended into”.

He went on to endorse an emissions trading policy – such as the one he disowned this week – as the best and cheapest option for cutting emissions.

“The fact is that Tony and the people who put him in his job do not want to do anything about climate change. They do not believe in human caused global warming,” Turnbull wrote.

“The Liberal Party is currently led by people whose conviction on climate change is that it is ‘crap’ and you don’t need to do anything about it. Any policy that is announced will simply be a con, an environmental fig leaf to cover a determination to do nothing.”

If his words were true then, surely they remain true now, for nothing has changed in any substantive policy sense.

And the government’s efforts to persuade us that they are acting to address the greatest environmental threat of our time, climate change, via the multibillion-dollar boondoggle of Direct Action are a lot like its efforts to persuade us the Green Army was protecting cassowaries in suburban Innisfail: an expensive exercise in futility.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 10, 2016 as "The Green Army’s final battleground".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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