Opinion

Bob Debus
Abbott government’s offensive against nature conservation

Despite some spectacular exceptions, conservation in Australia has been conducted in the past with a substantial level of bipartisan agreement. But in recent times, conservative governments have approached environment policy in a spirit of such defiant irrationality that this bipartisanship is becoming easy to forget. 

Successful state Labor governments of the past 30 years and more have pursued significant environmental agendas: pollution control, national park extension and management improvement, legislation to end broadscale private land clearing. Yet in NSW, for example, it was the Liberals who legislated to establish the Soil Conservation Service (1938), the National Parks and Wildlife Service (1967) and the Environment Protection Authority (1991). 

Conservative people have a powerful tradition of caring for the land. It was not exceptional that great national conservation programs from the Hawke and Keating years were continued in some form right through the Howard years. Landcare and its successors were funded to repair agricultural lands. The National Reserve System was expanded. Scientific research and industry negotiation were undertaken to establish regional forest agreements for the conservation of old-growth forests, to establish a system of marine national parks that would protect ocean biodiversity, and to reduce over-allocations of water in the Murray-Darling basin.

In my experience, negotiations to make new national parks and restructure declining natural resource-based industries in order to make them more sustainable were often fraught. When political settlement was reached it was to be expected that some on each side of the negotiation were disappointed or resentful. However, it was also normal for settlement to be followed by public acceptance.

The important environmental betterments that have been achieved during the past 30 years were built on three foundations: scientific research, environmental regulation and political consensus eventually achieved. 

A toxic cocktail of new influences now works to undermine them all. Neoliberal free market political ideas mixed with climate change denial are hostile both to government intervention and to science. Space is created for the self-interested power of the resource sector and its political supporters to be flaunted. Traditional conservatives within the Coalition, who care about the environment, are stranded and silenced.

The opportunity is taken to undermine consensus, to stir the emotions and to steal the votes of recreational fishermen or blue-collar workers in Tasmania, regardless of the environmental consequences. The prime minister would never have suggested that the timber industries were “the ultimate conservationists” or that “we have quite enough national parks” unless those phrases had been tested for their emotional appeal to a particular part of the electorate. No matter that they make no practical sense whatsoever.

Australia has been a prominent supporter of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention for 40 years. At any time until now the delisting of a natural World Heritage site has been unthinkable. It has only happened once before anywhere on the globe. If Australia succeeds in its proposal to delist its Tasmanian forests, the entire system of World Heritage will be dealt a serious blow. Which other ugly regime around the world will be encouraged? 

Nevertheless, the Tasmanian and federal governments seem to believe they can avoid the egregious damage that delisting and logging of intact tall eucalypt forests would predictably cause to the tourist industry, to the forestry industry in its international markets and to the reputation of our nation in the civilised world. On the one hand they brazenly claim that the carefully conducted scientific assessments of the value of the forests are mistaken, and on the other they propose to introduce draconian new criminal laws to control forest protest.

Examples of damaging environmental policy decisions taken on behalf of sectional interests and in defiance of commonsense multiply. 

The federal government undermines the solar and wind power industries as they strengthen in the rest of the world. It seeks to abolish the Emissions Trading Scheme even though Milton Friedman, the apostle of neoliberalism, supports emissions trading. It seeks to abolish the successful Clean Energy Finance Corporation, even though it is a model of private-sector direct action of the sort the government elsewhere promotes. 

The management plans established to regulate Australia’s extensive system of multi-use marine national parks, established in 2013 with strong public support and praised around the world, have been abandoned. Recreational fishermen have been let back into the sanctuary zones that had been created to restore the health of ocean life.

State governments – Queensland the most savage – weaken traditional rules protecting the integrity of national parks, cut park management budgets and undermine decade-old legislation limiting clearing of native vegetation on private land. We are beginning to resume land-clearing practices that have been a historic cause of global warming, species extinction and the degradation of productive agricultural land.

The Victorian and Commonwealth governments permit an experiment to discover whether cattle grazing can reduce fire in alpine national parks, ignoring a large body of CSIRO research showing that grazing has been historically disastrous. On the other hand, no government permits an effective response to the plague of feral horses currently destroying the unique creeks and bogs across the same High Country, essential sources of irrigation water for the Murray River. 

The attorney-general has also been making a contribution consistent only in its support for the resources industry against the public interest. He has, for instance, offended the principle of equality before the law by removing the longstanding funding provided to the advocates in the Environment Defenders Office. He has given a reference to the Australian Law Reform Commission that appears to suggest a perverse philosophical concern that restrictions on activity damaging to the environment may represent a threat to the human right of freedom of speech and free association. On the other hand, he has said nothing in response to recent proposals floated by his Tasmanian senate colleagues for the banning of consumer boycotts directed against companies during environmental campaigns. This would be a seismic invasion on the principles of free speech and the capacity of the community to protect the environment.

As the federal government proceeds with all haste to hand the states most of its legislative power to regulate large resources projects established during the past 15 years, it has also peremptorily abolished the Commonwealth-State Ministerial Councils arrangements through which national environmental policy has been established for the past 40 years. The structures of nature conservation in Australia, built over more than a generation, are suffering an onslaught that has barely been reported.

Before the Abbott government began its offensive against nature conservation, Australia had been making some significant progress but we had not yet stopped the decline of species. We had not met the target for protected areas we agreed to when, with 168 other countries, we signed the international Convention on Biodiversity. The private landholders who wish to join the “whole-of-landscape” approach to environmental restoration were receiving less assistance than they needed.

It is not now possible to see how any improvement can be sustained. Shockingly, our prosperous nation will allow its environment to be degraded. How long the condition lasts will depend on the capacity of the Labor Party to re-establish the conservation agenda of Carr or Bracks or Gallop or Hawke, and of true conservatives in the Liberal Party to re-establish some of the policy bipartisanship that existed under Howard. They will need to be ignited by community support of the sort provided by an activist environment movement 30 years ago. Perhaps Abbott will yet provide the spark.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 12, 2014 as "Bulldozing the conservation debate". Subscribe here.

Bob Debus
was NSW attorney-general and the country’s longest-serving environment minister. He was minister for home affairs in the Rudd government.