The environment is the one area in which the government has stuck to its guns. By Nick Feik.

Nick Feik
Abbott government’s attack on the environment

The first months of the Abbott government were widely recognised to be difficult. Everything turned to muck, from GrainCorp to Holden, Indonesia to China, travel rorts to Gonski. Its political “messaging” was confused – the new leadership appeared to be economic protectionists one minute, rationalists the next, ideologues some days but pragmatists on others. Which is to say, the government resembled many of its predecessors in their early days.

On one front, however, it was a model of clarity and focus from the start. Australians were aware before the election that the Coalition might not be great defenders of the natural environment. Their policy pledges were probably gilding the lily a little. Most campaign promises do. Abbott’s attack on the carbon tax could be seen to indicate his attitude towards the environment more generally. Environmental protection was likely to be subordinate to commercial interests – certainly to a greater degree than under the previous government. 

But the brute efficiency of its program to damage environmental interests has been breathtaking.

In fact, the Coalition ditched a key promise before the election was even held. Abbott was quite open in saying his government would spend no more on Direct Action than the $3.2 billion it allocated, regardless of whether a 5 per cent emissions reduction was achieved.

As it prepared its first legislative bill, to repeal the carbon tax, the Coalition began rolling out its plan to defenestrate environmental organisations. It informed the Climate Commission that Australia no longer required its information or advice on climate change. Funding to the Environmental Defenders Offices, the Caring for Our Country, Low Carbon Communities and Energy Efficiency Opportunities programs, and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency was cut. Environment Minister Greg Hunt explained that he would instead be relying on the advice of the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO, which announced a hiring freeze soon after, due to lack of funds. 

The Council of Australian Governments environment ministers’ forum was axed after 41 years. The Biodiversity Fund faces shutdown as part of the carbon tax repeal bill, as does the Climate Change Authority. The Coalition also attempted to scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, even though it was generating profits, but was prevented by the senate. 

Its new “streamlined” environmental approvals process quickly cleared the way for a projected fivefold increase in coalmining in the Galilee Basin, to dig quantities that when burned will produce more greenhouse gas emissions than Australia’s total current output. The coal will be exported via Abbot Point, set to become the world’s biggest coal port – as soon as dredging is finished and up to 3 million cubic metres of spoil is dumped in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. 

In December, the government tore up the management plans for the world’s largest network of marine parks, created just the previous year by the Gillard government. This would reverse Labor’s “plan to lock out recreational fishers”, explained Hunt.

In January, Hunt sought to wind back the World Heritage listing of Tasmania’s forests, requesting a “minor boundary adjustment” affecting 74,000 hectares, thereby threatening to reignite the forestry wars that had only just ceased. Abbott explained it differently last week: “We have quite enough national parks. We have quite enough locked-up forests already.” 

Hunt also approved the West Australian government’s controversial plan to catch and kill sharks to protect swimmers, exempting it from national environment laws. He reasoned that “a loss of confidence in water-based activities impacts on tourism and other leisure-based businesses impacting on the Australian economy”. Conservationists were understandably furious (as were guardians of the English language).

Meanwhile, the customs vessel Oceanic Protector, which Hunt had promised would be used for monitoring Japanese whaling, was instead sailing our northern reaches on the lookout for asylum seekers.

Even Foreign Minister Julie Bishop joined the government-wide poleaxing, cancelling Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade funding to help save the Sumatran rhinoceros from extinction. Although it was only costing $3 million over three years, their age of entitlement is over, too – all 100 of them. 

The Australian government sent no elected representative to the United Nations climate summit in Warsaw. But it did find the time to announce yet another inquiry into the health impact of wind farms. Australia’s authority on medical health research, the National Health and Medical Research Council, recently completed another review of wind energy and health, again finding them clean and safe. It sits on the desks of Hunt and Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane, unacknowledged. So why commission another inquiry?

Probably for the same reason that climate change sceptic Dick Warburton was appointed to review the Renewable Energy Target. (Abbott’s top business adviser, Maurice Newman, also a sceptic, would prefer it to be scrapped altogether, but that would be too obvious.)

All that activity in just a few months, from a new government that at times appeared otherwise unable even to tie its own shoelaces. The legacy being created is formidable and will in many cases be irreversible: not only physically but also because there is legislation currently before parliament that will ensure environmental approvals made by the minister before 2014 will remain valid even if he ignored conservation advice. His decisions will be immune to legal challenge. 

Most damaging of all has been the Abbott effect on the discussion of climate change. Australia will likely become the first country to scrap a price on carbon – and this is seen as a fait accompli. In the popular media, the carbon tax is almost never discussed in environmental terms, but only in relation to corporate profitability. Renewable energy is framed solely in terms of higher power bills, as if Australia will never actually need to develop the capacity to generate low-emission power. Abbott and Hunt blithely tell Australians there is no link between climate change and drought or bushfires, when the science says quite explicitly that it will bring natural disasters with more frequency and intensity. 

With a coherence lacking elsewhere, the Coalition has been an unflinching, ferocious scourge on environmentalism and the environment. This may in fact be the Abbott government’s defining characteristic.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 22, 2014 as "Mean green government".

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Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

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