Recently released Cabinet Papers throw valuable light on what the government was thinking back in 2003 when it was attempting to tackle the problem of inland water shortages and an ailing River Murray. The papers reveal that they were prepared to accept the scientific advice as long as it didn’t rock the boat and didn’t cost too much. Exercising ‘precaution’ they were not.
Back in 2003, PM John Howard’s colleagues were telling him that his entrenched views were standing in the way of sensible policy and that now was a good time to introduce an emissions trading scheme with minimal risk and minimum loss of face. In reply, Howard told his colleagues that his political instincts were right and that the most important players, key Liberal Party backers, agreed with him. The irony was that, while Prime Ministerial power might trump policy power, people power trumps the lot. Two elections later, in 2007, Howard was thrown out, partly because of their lack of action on climate change.
Next year, the Australian Parliament will consider one of the most significant environmental reforms in our history with the Government promising legislation to implement its Nature Positive Plan, replacing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999. The path to this point has been long and winding. First the National Party backflipped on its support for the bill, then the Greens did a backflip on their opposition to it, all in pursuit of politics over policy. Then we come to other cross-bench Senators, whose position is variable at best and unpredictable at worst. We need this to work.
Fully implemented, the ‘Nature Positive’ model on which the reforms are built could completely reframe decisions to approve (or not) development projects following environmental impact assessment (EIA). However, it all comes down to ‘who pays’?
Clean energy developers are caught in a perfect storm, at loggerheads with environmentalists and landholders alike over environmental conditions, proper consultation and compensation, while grappling with long regulatory delays and supply chain blockages for their materials. They see a system that provides environmental approval on paper but seemingly unworkable conditions and intolerable delays in practice. Does the bureaucracy’s left hand, they wonder, know what its right hand is doing? Net zero, nature protection and “rollout rage” feel like a toxic mix. Yet we have to find a quick way to deliver the clean energy projects we urgently need. As tough as this problem appears, elements of a potential solution, at least in outline, are on the table. These elements are: good environmental information, regional environmental planning and meaningful public participation. The government’s Nature Positive Plan for stronger environmental laws promises all three.
Will ‘Nature Positive’ deliver real change or just a new opportunity for box ticking and political window dressing? As a concept, Nature Positive has plenty of potential for good biodiversity outcomes and its endorsement in the Henry Review is a good thing for biodiversity nationally. However, like ESD before it, Nature Positive can be hollowed out or reduced to a slogan if that is where the politics takes it.
The Henry Review found, essentially, that the NSW Biodiversity Act is not working and that biodiversity continues to decline in the state of New South Wales. Although the law is complex, the policy bottom line is simple: biodiversity is protected to a degree, but this will never stand in the way of development prioritised by government. The review proposes to switch off the discretionary ‘balancing’ that occurs under the auspices of the Ecologically Sustainable Development principles (under which the ‘balance’ almost always favours development). And to switch on a ‘nature positive’ framework.
The first version of Australia’s national wellbeing framework “Measuring What Matters” has been released. The basic idea of the report is to shift from our narrow focus on key economic indicators, such as GDP and inflation, to embrace a wider suite of indicators that measure our overall quality of life. In the environment theme, six areas are covered: (urban) air quality; biodiversity; climate resilience; emissions reduction; protected areas; and resource use and waste generation. The headline result has to be that the threatened species index, which tracks the abundance of a selection of threatened species, shows a decline of 55% from a 1985 baseline to 2019, a period of just 34 years. This is a shocking number.
Has time been called on the native forest logging deals of the 1990s? Here’s what the Albanese government can do
It seems time is being called on the forest settlement of the 1990s. These developments are already destabilising the federal government’s environmental law reform agenda, and could even derail it. The government could use the time between now and next year’s Senate debate on its reform package to work up a new approach. It could be built around forest restoration, conservation and Indigenous empowerment, as experts are proposing. If it doesn’t, we are headed for quite a stoush.
The Senate has just wrapped up its Budget Estimates hearings. The good news is that most of the ‘substance’ relates to increased activity. The recent years of inactivity on the environment are clearly over. The bad news is that it will take a long time to generate fresh momentum.
$78 Billion from a Nature repair market? Seriously? Tanya Plibersek’s Nature Repair Market Bill 2023
Price Waterhouse Coopers has produced a report, A Nature-Positive Australia, which says that there could be $78 billion of private investments in Nature repair in Australia by 2050. Seriously? There are multiple reasons why this seems highly unlikely.
Australia’s environment minister faces some tough calls in developing national environmental standards. If strong and clear, they will protect nature and make it harder to get developments approved. But if the standards lack a clear statement of purpose and carry over rubbery phrases and weak offset requirements, then it will be business as usual, freshly wrapped.
If the environment minister is serious about the domestic delivery of the Kunming-Montreal 2030 biodiversity targets, she’ll need to burn a lot of political capital, not just with various stakeholders, but with her own Cabinet colleagues.
Can markets put a value on improvements in biodiversity, enabling landholders to be paid for their services to nature and allowing businesses, among others, to invest in the biodiversity credits that landholders would produce. The new Nature Repair Market bill certainly aligns with this framing, but investors are unlikely to sign up, at least not without inducements.
The Albanese Government’s ‘Nature Positive Plan’ announced last week is a much-anticipated response to Professor Graeme Samuel’s 2020 Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. The plan is packed with policy announcements, most of which stick close to Samuel’s recommendations. But the path of this big agenda stretches far over the political horizon and is littered with hurdles. Here are ten hurdles the minister will have to jump, just for starters.
One of the main findings of the Samuel Review of the EPBC Act was that it was not trusted, either by business nor by the wider community. Restoring trust requires a fundamental shift from process-based decision-making to outcome-based decisions. This requires standards supported by regional plans and stronger institutions, including information systems and compliance regimes. At the end of the day, people will only trust environmental laws that truly protect and conserve the environment.
- business as usual
- climate change
- David Salt
- environmental accounts
- Peter Burnett
- Policy lessons