15 January 2010


The Liberals' environment policy as foreshadowed in 2010 by Tony Abbott is pretty much the same as the Liberal environment policy of 1995. The dependance on landcare and work-for-the-dole on small-scale projects in the hope that they might add up to something greater is the essence of the Liberal approach to the Australian environment, then as now.

In 1995, "brown issues" were seen as the best way to reframe the debate about Australian environment. Never mind emotive but ultimately trivial issues like a proposed road through a rainforest, the real environmental issues were salinity and riparian property rights. It clothed the naked self-interest of the Nationals in a kind of patriotism, invoking the fierce toughness of Dorothea Mackellar's My Country (though not Nancy Cato's Mallee Farmer, which cast the supposed custodians of the land in a harsh light). It made Labor and the Greens look shallow by focusing on minor issues that looked good on telly, issues affecting broader tracts of land and bigger chunks of the economy, issues that no hippies would be seen anywhere near.

That year, Gerard Henderson released a book called A Howard Government?, in which he appraised the then Opposition and considered what sort of government it might make. The year before that, Liberals released The Heart of Liberalism in which Liberal MPs dared imagine what a Liberal government might do. Judi Moylan's article in the latter work, "Balanced Environmentalism", reads like a rough draft of Abbott's speech sixteen years later - except with a focus on WA Landcare rather than the Murray-Darling basin, and of course Moylan can be forgiven for not bagging the Rudd Government. What Moylan's article also referred to Menzies a lot, gingerly, like someone having to balance liberal and conservative forces in a way that is simply no longer necessary.

One of the key failings of the Nationals is that they didn't follow through on the brown issues. It's also a key failure of rural Libs, of whom Bill Heffernan was the leading advocate - all that culture-war stuff against Michael Kirby detracted from what little focus there was on these issues. It isn't good enough for Abbott to say:

The essential problem in the Murray-Darling basin is that there’s rarely enough water to meet human needs, environmental flows and irrigation allocations. Water has been over-allocated because no state government has an equal responsibility to everyone with a stake in the system.

That was the case in 1996, and it was still the case ten years later.

After years of frustration at the slow pace of reform, the Howard Government’s 2007 $10 billion plan involved improving irrigation infrastructure to make existing water rights more productive, buying out unviable irrigators and, most importantly, changing governance arrangements so that each state couldn’t sacrifice the interests of the others.

Years of frustration, my arse.

The minister who made that possible is the leader Abbott, and other Liberals, replaced. Turnbull's achievements as Environment Minister are not only greater than any ofhis Liberal predecessors, but Abbott is right when he implies that those achievements are greater than those of the incumbents. Those "governance arrangements" etc could have been put in place by 1999 at the latest, if they'd been serious.

Intensive labour is required if weeds and feral animals are to be removed and if national park infrastructure is to be maintained. Notwithstanding the scientific breakthroughs of researchers with the CSIRO and our universities, the dedication of Australia’s 4000 land care groups and the professionalism of our farmers and foresters, Australia is losing the battle against environmental degradation.

I blame poor leadership, myself. Any federal government agency thatidentified environmental problems was sneered at by ninnies like Abbott and Minchin, and threatened with funding cuts.

Properly restoring only the most obviously degraded land would require a labour force that just isn’t there.

And they won't be there on $50k a year, with no training and no career path - especially not on the Warringah peninsula.

Over 11 years, the ... main problem with the Green Corps was that it was too small – there were never enough Green Corps teams to deal with all the environmental restoration projects submitted by councils, landcare groups, and national parks. Too many of them involved studying a problem rather than fixing it. As well, the original Green Corps format, individual teams of ten young environmental trainees with a supervisor/trainer, did not lend itself to tackling larger restoration projects.

See what I mean about sloppy leadership? This area of the budget will always be cut and cut again. Rural communities, beset by environmental degredation and depopulation, will not be sustained by jobs like this. Imagine if an Aboriginal community had the temerity to suggest that a given project was a waste of time, or required more than clearing a bit of lantana? His first task in government was a resounding failure, hardly the basis to ask for another go.

Would you take this "land army" away from infrastructure projects, or trades training? If people in immigration detention centres volunteered for such work, would it help their applications? It's bullshit from the word go. He's not serious, the words are meaningless and impress no-one.

A concern to protect the environment should mean ... preferring those trying to do good rather than merely to look good on this issue.

This is a man whose whole life has involved sneering at do-gooders. It's industrial-strength cant, like invoking the Fraser Government, which he regarded as Liberal in name only.

Here's a piece that could have come from the Fraser government, and shows how inadequate Abbott's approach is to government:

Reducing emissions matters because many scientists think that they are having a serious impact on climate.

This is dog-whistling for the deniers. Reducing emissions matters because it is an exercise in risk mitigation. Pulling weeds around Narrabeen Lagoon won't do a thing to mitigate the risk to the country, the economy and the world in general from anthropogenic global warming. They didn't have the Stern Report in 1995 but the Coalition doesn't have that excuse.

Over the next few months, along with the Shadow Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, I will be talking to organizations such as Conservation Volunteers Australia and Greening Australia (the bodies that formulated and subsequently ran the original Green Corps) about the potential for a much larger and more capable national conservation corps.

More fool Greg Hunt for lending his name and credibility to such a self-defeating and futile exercise in greenwashing. There is no linkage between stuff like this and any practical action: wasn't in 1995, isn't now. Shame on the Coalition for fooling us once: shame on us if we let them fool us again.

Update 16 Jan.: This article seeks to portray Abbott as victim: only animals and rugby players engage in "mauling". Look further though and see which namby-pamby politically-correct latte-sippers are showing Abbott up:

the National Farmers Federation, the National Irrigation Council, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NSW Irrigation Council.

"It's just ridiculous," said Arlene Buchan, rivers spokeswoman for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Indeed it is.

"The issues are so complex, and for Mr Abbott to come out and say that he can fix the river system by the commonwealth taking full control . . . well, I think it's a bit simplistic."

The National Irrigators Council said it did not support a full federal takeover because there was no evidence shifting management from one group of politicians and bureaucrats to another would improve the operation of the system. "The states have already referred some powers to the commonwealth, and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is engaged in the development of a basin plan that will set new sustainable diversion limits that all basin states will have to comply with," chief executive Danny O'Brien said.

Never mind Abbott or his pony Greg Hunt, I want to vote for Danny O'Brien.


  1. There's always been a current of conservative commentary that accuses environmentalists of not focusing on real environmentalists issues. After 2004 some in Labor said Latham should have focused on global warming rather than forests, oddly the same who said this are now those (if we believe The Oz) bagging the ETS. Other Abbott problem is that admitting overallocation of water in unpopular with the keepers of the agrarian developmentalist faith who are well represented among Liberal and especially Nat loyalists.

  2. Abbott seems to be walking both sides of the street quite a bit, my prediction is that once the Budget is out there Labor will be onto the fact that the so-called "conviction politician" is in fact pretty wishy-washy.