Federal budget cake leaves crumbs for the environment

The economy’s going to grow at 3 per cent this year and the Budget surplus is to grow over time. It’s all grow, grow, grow, even in these straitened times.

There’s a pie chart in the Federal Budget overview that shows “where taxpayer money is spent”. A big slice of this luscious pie goes to health and there are big slices for education, defence, social security and other priorities.

But “environment” doesn’t get a slice of the pie, it gets a few crumbs not big enough to show on the chart. It didn’t get a slice of last year’s pie, and probably never has. After all, we budget for people. We don’t budget to buy gum leaves for koalas, nectar for birds or berries for emus.

Emus aren’t always in favour anyway. In the Wheatbelt they trample crops and bust fences where we’ve colonised places they used to roam free. So the WA Government is thinking about putting up a big emu fence to protect the State’s bottom line.

We fence and poison dingoes too to protect our stock, much to the glee of feral cats and foxes.

Tasmanian tigers got in the way of the wool industry, so we got rid of them and converted most of their habitat to farms and towns. Nice towns. No tigers.

Birds like threatened black-throated finches, orange-bellied parrots and sooty owls get in the way of coal mines, wind farms, chemical storage dumps and logging camps. So we denigrate them, discount them or deny their very existence.

This was fair enough if you were a soldier settler after World War I, and is understandable where farmers are squeezed bloodless by the forces of global market efficiency.

But in this day and age do we really so desperately need another coal mine, or another surge of urban growth?

Enter the pesky greens, so that now it’s not just the wildlife getting in our way, but the environmental regulations that stop us taking more habitat and growing our bottom line.

The COAG business forum, the Premiers, the Government and the Opposition are right now ganging up to protect the bottom line by “streamlining” regulation and reducing the Federal Government’s role in environment protection.

It’s a global economy, and after a couple of hundred years of this we’ve grown and used a quarter of the Earth’s natural energy, half of its freshwater run-off and two-thirds of its habitable land surface to feed our unrelenting growth.

So we’re displacing other species. Australia’s landscapes, bush and wildlife are paying for our growth.

I grew up with myths and images of Australia’s wildlife. With the muddle-headed wombat, the gumnut babies and the tale of The Magic Pudding full of cranky kookaburras, peevish parrots, thieving possums and proud penguin heroes.

The Magic Pudding was published in 1918 and kids have more options now. There’s stuff like flat screen TVs, computer games and iPhones to stare into. Bigger houses with smaller backyards are another measure of our growing wealth, and if you live in the cities (as most do now) it is harder and harder to fight your way out for a family trip to the bush or the beach. So city kids are becoming short-sighted, less fit and less apt to play outside.

Even on holidays it’s harder and harder to find a camp site or a bit of beach that’s unspoilt and tranquil where you can remember Australia, the country, in the sense that Aboriginal people (and most country people) use the term, as opposed to Australia the nation, the economy, the jingo and the daily grind.

We’re losing the natural places and things that make Australia Australia. And we’re losing our ability to get out there, to notice and to care about that.

To borrow from The Magic Pudding, our motto in this gluttony of growth seems to have been “Eat away, chew away, munch and bolt and guzzle, never leave the table till you’re full up to the muzzle”.

But since we’re so into growth, perhaps we could start to grow the number of birds, animals and wildflowers that are not on the endangered species lists.

We could make a big dent in that just by properly funding weed and pest animal management programs.

Maybe one year we could grow the amount of healthy bush in Australia instead of shrinking it as we have every year since 1788.

We could do that cost-effectively just by fencing stock off from some unimproved pastures and allowing bush to regrow from seeds and roots still there in the ground.

And maybe with better funded community education and engagement programs we could grow our connection to country, to special places and to Australia’s native plants, birds and animals.

They have paid enough for our growth. Next year let’s give the environment its first proper slice of the Budget pie.

One that’s big enough to change the negative trends in every national State of the Environment report so far.

One that’s big enough to see on the chart.

*Charlie Sherwin is conservation manager with BirdLife Australia.

Originally Published at The West Australian

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