The Abbott government’s plan to trust environmental protection to the states will put our country’s natural landmarks in danger.
I am a big believer in states’ rights, but you’ve got to know where to stop.
If there’s one thing the Abbott government’s Commission of Audit got right it’s that our system of eight separate states and territories is a strength rather than a weakness. It ensures that our decision-makers ride the same trams, use the same schools and get treated in the same hospitals as the rest of us.
And they compete with each other. Victorians are always looking north, south and west to pick out the best of what’s happening elsewhere. Western Australia tried out industrial relations reform before we did, South Australia gave women the right to vote and stand for office, Tasmania was a lone beacon for many years on daylight saving and Victoria led the way in making seatbelts and motorcycle helmets compulsory.
By competing, each state strengthens the whole. If an innovation in one state doesn’t work, it stays there and doesn’t damage the rest. If it does work, it spreads and makes the rest stronger. A paper commissioned by former premier Steve Bracks for the Council for the Australian Federation described Australia as a ship with eight separate watertight compartments: “When a leak is sprung in one compartment, the cargo stowed there may be damaged, but the other compartments remain dry and keep the ship afloat”, it said.
In contrast the single national school curriculum proposed by Julia Gillard could have put us on the wrong track for years. One of its selling points was that individual states didn’t deviate. Yet it built on the deviations they had made to date, such as NSW striking out on its own and making Australian history compulsory in high school. Without experimentation the curriculum would have become weaker.
But you’ve got to know where to stop.
Malcolm Fraser put a stop to states’ rights over the environment almost 40 years ago. A big believer in states’ rights himself, as Coalition prime minister he overrode Queensland to end sand-mining on Fraser Island. Seven years later Labor’s Bob Hawke went all the way to the High Court to override Tasmania on its plan to dam the Franklin River. They did this because national assets such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Tasmanian wilderness belong to all of us. They matter to all of us, and not just to the citizens of states keen to attract industry and earn mining royalties.
Twenty years on John Howard introduced the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. It declared once and for all that the Commonwealth as well as the states had a legitimate interest in the environment within their borders, and between their borders. Migratory birds, groundwater and the Murray Darling River system don’t respect lines on maps.
The Howard government banned broad-scale tree clearing in Queensland, expanded to 33 per cent the proportion of the Great Barrier Reef protected from fishing, and took control of the Murray Darling Basin.
Its Labor successor tried to stop cattle grazing in Victoria’s Alpine National Park, something Abbott’s environment minister Greg Hunt has since approved.
But until now no Australian government has seriously countenanced the proposition that the environment was a matter solely for the states. Even the Gillard government, which experimented with devolution in an effort to counter “green tape”, gave up after it realised state governments wouldn’t impose the same high standards as the Commonwealth.
Now the Abbott government is legislating for what it calls a “one-stop shop”. Billed as a “major step forward in the government’s commitment to reduce red tape” the law would devolve responsibility for environmental approvals to “the most appropriate level of government”.
Abbott and Hunt believe the appropriate level is state government, and if it chooses to delegate, local government, raising the spectre of at least eight “one-stop shops”, each with different approval processes and none of them necessarily inclined to protect the national environment.
Peter Cosier of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists put it this way in evidence to the Senate last week: “I have actually worked in local government, I am a fan of local government. They have a very important role to play. I cannot imagine many local councils, though, would accept that they have a mandate to make a judgement as to whether or not something affects a matter of national environmental significance.”
The Commonwealth has already signed draft agreements with NSW, Queensland and Western Australia to devolve its powers. It says it will retain “call-in powers” which it can use to override states about to approve something that will cause serious or irreversible environmental damage. But the rules say they’ll have to be used before the state makes the decision. And the Commonwealth will have little ability to monitor the decisions the states are about to make.
The Wentworth Group said it was aware of no other countries that delegated environmental approvals in a similar way.
Perhaps we can trust the Queensland government to protect the Great Barrier Reef, even though its premier Campbell Newman says Queensland “is in the coal business”. Perhaps we can trust South Australia not to destroy the Great Artesian Basin, even though it is desperately short of money and anxious for mines. But state governments are elected to pursue state rather than national interests. That’s why we have them.
The environment is a national interest. The tragedy of Abbott’s legislation is that if he is in office long enough it will come back to bite him. Australians will hold the national government to account for what happens to the Australian environment whether or not it tries to claim it has passed the responsibility to somebody else.
Peter Martin is economics editor of The Age.