25 January 2007

The changing environment

In the lead-up to the 1996 election the Coalition brilliantly reframed the environmental debate. A concern for the environment, said then-spokesman Ian McLachlan, doesn't just focus on beautiful forests in Tasmania/Queensland/southeastern NSW/southwestern WA, or whales, or other cute stuff like that. It includes a focus on dry-land salinity, of water flows in the Murray-Darling, and other unscenic but no less real problems affecting this country. Farmers who clear-fell aren't rapacious vandals, they have more of an interest than anyone in longterm sustainable land-use practices and they ought to be part of the solution. The latter principle grew out of a lot of work by the late Ric Farley at the National Farmers' Federation.

In eleven years there has been a fair bit of largesse for farmers in typical National Party style but no evidence of that initial vision in environmental policy. Clear-felling is still rampant and the environment is still framed in terms of one-off spot-fires like the orange-bellied parrot or the Patagonian toothfish. Global warming has inched its way from the fringes to the mainstream, but it's still a long bow to draw in linking a bushfire in the Gippsland and a water shortage in Perth to the smokestacks of Tianjin/ Düsseldorf/ Pittsburgh.

In other words: the Coalition had a great message on the environment and then stuffed it.

Robert Hill was the Environment Minister who went to Kyoto and secured a number of concessions for Australia, only to have the government decide they wouldn't ratify the subsequent treaty because the Yanks leant on Howard. He should have resigned. Sure, if he had he wouldn't be swanning around New York now (well, he might have, but he'd take a different route), but he'd have some honour that he now lacks.

David Kemp was smart enough to re-establish the original policy, but instead he saw environmentalism as the new left and sought to frustrate their knavish tricks, confound their politics etc. Ian Campbell took a Perth lawyer's brief: to go hard in the narrow areas where he could (e.g. parrot, fish) and to faff the wider issues where the mining lobbies had got in first (because in Perth, nobody messes with the mining lobby). Campbell is now effectively an IT project manager for the country's biggest data management project, and stays in Cabinet only as a sop to the chip-on-the-shoulder voters in the West. When that's over, so is his career in politics. His career doesn't give him much to show for in terms of landing the big jobs with the tall dollars, particularly in Perth; but we shall see and good luck to him anyway.

Malcolm Turnbull's role in spiking the recycled water initiative in Toowoomba was appalling and should taint him in the wider environmental portfolio. He could do worse than reframe environmental policy to the McLachlan principles: Garrett wouldn't be able to match him straight away and it would expose Labor's broader weakness in relating to Ruralanregionalaustralia (in this Labor have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing, since they lost in '96). Turnbull certainly doesn't have an alternative overarching narrative on Coalition environment policy, and he needs one: Peter Garrett pretty much is Labor's environmental policy. He could knock up something plausible and drag the entire press gallery on board in less time than you could sing Best of both worlds.

In this new political environment, it's unlikely that Labor will accept its weaknesses or just paper over them with press releases. It's more likely that a comprehensive policy on the environment will come from Labor, with a sweeping vision Turnbull doesn't have and can't fake. Bill Heffernan will toss shit at him. He'll take on the Nats because they're weak and getting weaker, and he'll lose because of the perception that mollifying the Nationals is crucial to retaining government.

(The Nationals will go backwards at this election and are the weakest link, electorally and in terms of government administration; mollifying them will do no good at all and you'd hope that maybe, just once, they might get the sort of kicking that makes them wake up to themselves. But I'll bet that such a kicking comes only from voters).

Turnbull will be vindicated in almost any fight he would pick with the Nationals, however by then it might be too late. 2007 is shaping up to be a real contest. Some journalists claim that all legal avenues have not been exhausted in examining Turnbull's walk-on role in the downfall of HIH; even if he's not found guilty, a drawn-out commercial legal case would distract one from affairs of state.

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