By David Salt
‘The Environment’ is a tricky portfolio for any incoming minister.
The truth is, both major political parties are shy when it comes to campaigning on big environmental reform. Big reforms are very expensive, easily attacked (there are always lots of potential losers), difficult to implement in single terms of government and the implementing party doesn’t get rewarded at subsequent elections as there is rarely a large dividend for individual voters.
Consequently, the majors usually play a small target game when it comes to campaigning on the environment – say enough to suggest you’re concerned about the environment but don’t commit to too much. The aim is to differentiate yourself from the other team without raising the debate to such a level that people might start looking closely at what you’re actually proposing.
Consider how the outgoing conservative government campaigned on the environment when it was seeking to take government 9 years ago, and then how it performed. Back in 2013 the conservative party (the Liberal National Party, then in opposition) placed its focus on saving threatened species because the Labor Government was turning its conservation efforts towards a more holistic landscape focus.
Putting those plans into action
Back then Greg Hunt, the shadow minister for the environment, loudly trumpeted that his party would never turn its back on a threatened species, that his party would take positive action when it came to saving endangered animals. I remember him saying while Labor was happy to leave recovery plans up on the shelf, the conservatives would get those plans down and put them into action.
In many ways this suited the action orientated, anti-bureaucracy, managerial approach of the Abbott conservatives, in which they placed a tight focus on parts of the environmental challenge while ignoring the bigger picture.
As a campaign tactic it played well. It gave the conservatives a respectable fig leaf of environmental credibility; they hadn’t committed to too much; and it was different to Labor’s approach. When coupled with their intention to ‘axe the [carbon] tax’, deploy a green army and plant 20 million trees, the conservatives had an environmental strategy to bat away all probing questions. They went on to win that year’s election.
They didn’t win because of the brilliance of their environmental plan. That wasn’t the point; their plan was to neutralize the environmental debate at no net cost, enabling them to take up the fight to the Labor government on a number of other fronts.
Once in office they threw a few pennies towards threatened species research and management while gutting the environment department as a whole. They did their best to not talk about biodiversity conservation at all (the term literally slipped from view) while attempting to reduce the legal checks and balances surrounding development approvals that harmed biodiversity.
Nine years into their term of office and the pennies spent on threatened species research came to an end. The Threatened Species Recovery Hub was closed down despite the problem of threatened species only growing (in some cases accelerating).
While I’m talking about the last government, which has now left office, this is not ancient history. A couple of months ago, just before the election, the environment minister Sussan Ley scrapped the requirement for recovery plans for 176 threatened species and habitats. The move was quietly published by the environment department after the election was called in April. (Ms Ley made the decisions despite a government call for feedback receiving 6,701 responses, all disagreeing with the proposal.)
Book ends to a sad saga
While possibly a minor note in the symphony of neglect and vandalism that characterized the conservative government’s approach to the environment, the saga of recovery plans for threatened species is significant for two reasons.
First, it provides symbolic bookends to their nine years in office. They began in 2013 by trumpeting their superior management would see recovery plans put into action so real conservation outcomes would be realized. They finished in 2022, having gutted the environment department’s capacity to even produce recovery plans (recovery plans for many species were years overdue), by simply scrapping the requirement for those plans. It’s hard to get more cynical than this.
It’s also an important story because it shows how difficult it can be to campaign on the environment. People care about threatened species and habitats, but they vote on cost of living and perceptions on who is the strongest leader. The conservative’s campaign on threatened species was as cynical as it was hollow. It was cobbled together to provide the impression they were doing something on the environment, but they knew that when their approach was shown to be false the electorate would have moved on to focus on other issues.
In a sense they were right. The electorate still worries about threatened species but its attention has been grabbed by unprecedented wildfires, mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and floods. Accelerating environmental decline has become the new normal and the electorate has lost faith in the government’s ability to deal with it. The fact that Sussan Ley refused to release the latest State of the Environment Report (which was available months before the election) only heightened our concern.
Of course, the conservatives were defeated last month for a raft of reasons, with climate denialism, contempt for women, and a lack of integrity high on the list.
The Labor opposition played a small target campaign on many issues and especially on the environment. As things have turned out, it looks like this was a clever course to take. Having won office, however, what now?
Demoted to the environment
As the ashes begin to settle following their victory, the familiar game of ‘new government’ begins to play out. The broken defeated conservative party turns on itself; the new Labor government discovers the old government have left many nasty undisclosed secrets lurking in the books; and positions of power are divvied out.
One ‘surprising’ ministerial appointment was making Tania Plibersek the Minister for The Environment. Regarded by many as one of the new government’s star performers, Ms Plibersek had been the Shadow Minister for Education and was expected to keep this responsibility moving into government; indeed, it was her stated preference. Many media commentators suggested the switch to environment was a ‘demotion’.
As a ministerial posting, why would education be seen to be more important than the environment? To put it crudely, because the department of education commands more money as a policy area, and education probably influences more direct votes than the environment; and money and votes equals more power.
Personally, I’m delighted someone as talented and capable as Ms Plibersek has been given the responsibility for the environment, but the very framing of the position as ‘a demotion’ says a lot about how ‘the environment’ plays in politics. To coin an economic idea, the environment is too often seen as an externality to political life, it’s not part of the core business.
In from the cold
As an externality, the major parties will always be keen to downplay big environmental reform ideas because rocking the boat is simply unacceptable in a political campaign. (Witness the blowback from a price on carbon for the Gillard government.)
The solution is to bring the environment in from the cold, to connect it to the numbers that politicians see as central to what voters think is important.
One way of doing this is by developing environmental accounts that are incorporated into the economic national accounts that sit at the heart of so much political debate; to capture the environmental externality and bring it inside the tent.
Another way this might happen would be to have a trusted, transparent and independent office overseeing all development applications where there is an environmental impact.
How will we know that the environment has been brought in from the cold? We’ll know when the next ‘surprise ministerial posting’ to the environment is described as a promotion.