Liberals’ environment policy has gone AWOL

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost been 10 years to the day since the Victorian Liberals had a comprehensive environment policy.

While that might sound ridiculous in the context of global warming and other environmental woes, the sad reality is that an entire decade has passed since the state Liberals offered voters a detailed vision to tackle the challenges we currently face.

Despite months of talks, a consensus still hasn’t been reached for a new national park in the Central Highlands to save Victoria’s fauna emblem, the Leadbeater’s possum. Photo: Ken Irwin

Spring Street diehards might recall that the last major election policy was dished out in 2006 (ahead of the poll Ted Baillieu ended up losing to Steve Bracks) and it even came with a neat little title: A Liberal Government Plan for a Sustainable Future. To the party’s credit, it was pretty good, too.

Following in the footsteps of the environmental leadership showed under the Hamer government, Baillieu’s Liberals promised big: to protect state forests and create new national parks; to conduct annual audits for public land maintenance; to design a statewide plan for recycled water and 10-star energy efficiency for Victorian households.

They even promised to lower green house gases, partly by creating a special reduction fund and using brown coal royalties for clean energy projects.

Fast forward to present day, and this decade-old document has become an instructive lesson on how much the party went backwards in subsequent years.

As history shows, the Coalition didn’t release a comprehensive environmental strategy before the state election in 2010, or during the last campaign in 2014. It did however, spend its one term under the Baillieu/Napthine administration systematically dismantling many protections around the state: allowing cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park, thwarting wind farms, opening red gum parks for firewood, winding back the state’s Climate Change Act, and so on.

Why is this relevant today, you might ask? Because opposition leader Matthew Guy now has a lot of catching up to do. With two years until the next election, the dismal record of the former government has left Team Guy with a credibility problem: the kind of problem where many voters simply don’t believe the Coalition is serious enough when it comes to tackling their environmental concerns.

Yes, it supports renewable energy, but it would rather lobby the Commonwealth for national consistency than support Labor’s approach for a state-based target.

And yes, the former Coalition government had a moratorium on fracking, but when you ask about future prospects for onshore gas, Liberal and National MPs are often caught with conflicting positions.

As for other environmental commitments? The answer, so far, is “wait and see”. That’s fair enough at this stage of the cycle, but as Environment Victoria chief executive Mark Wakeham puts it: “We’re not going to fall for that again. They really need to start getting out there with some positive positions, and in the absence of that, they’re going to be judged on how they vote on upcoming pieces of legislation.”

To that end, Wakeham has a point. Polls consistently show the environment is an important issue for many voters, but if Guy is serious about leading a “modern party that reflects a contemporary Victoria”, he’ll need to convince the electorate that he genuinely gets it.

Otherwise, the political risks are obvious. On the one hand, the opposition faces a growing threat by the tree-loving Greens, whose primary vote continues to rise in Liberal electorates such as Hawthorn (where they received 22 per cent of first preferences at the last state election), Kew (16.3 per cent) and Malvern (16 per cent).

On the other, it faces an uphill battle against the Andrews government, which has not only reversed some of the Coalition’s most contentious decisions but has exceeded expectations with its own suite of reforms within the past two years.

A permanent ban on fracking in Victoria? Tick. A renewable energy target of 25 per cent by 2020? Tick. The end of long-term leases for development in national parks; a review of the Environment Protection Authority; a statewide water plan to secure supply? Tick, tick, and tick again.

That’s not to say that Labor should rest on its laurels mind you, because to some extent, Andrews’ biggest environmental tests, like that of Guy’s, are still to come.

For instance, the government is yet to explain how it will deal with the imminent closure of the Hazelwood power plant, which might be Australia’s biggest polluter but also happens to be the source of about 1000 jobs in the Latrobe Valley.

It must also introduce climate change legislation early next year that will outline how Victoria will meet its highly ambitious targets – including net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

And despite months of talks, a consensus still hasn’t been reached for a new national park in the Central Highlands to save Victoria’s faunal emblem, the Leadbeater’s Possum. (On this matter, the government’s taskforce – comprising conservation groups, the CFMEU and forestry representatives – has hit a stalemate, while VicForest’s latest Timber Release Plan suggests a “business as usual” approach to logging in native forests).

When it comes to the environment, both major parties have more work to do. The trouble for Guy is that one party, in particular, also has much more to prove.

Farrah Tomazin is The Sunday Age’s state political editor.

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