Nature’s guardians turn back to plunder

There is a parallel-universe feeling to the federal government’s hostile attitude towards the natural environment. In one universe, conservation and climate change are elements to be respected or brought under control for the very real benefit of everyone. In the other, nature is to be exploited with little restraint, and short-term political motivation is far preferable to pragmatic, long-term consideration.

This week has brought two more examples of the Abbott government’s disturbing approach to the environment. The first came on Wednesday, when the Prime Minister went into the woods, so to speak, and praised timber workers as ”the ultimate conservationists”. In a speech to a forestry industry gathering, Mr Abbott saluted the ”people who love the natural world ‚Ķ who love what Mother Nature gives us and who want to husband it for the long-term interests of humanity”.

Then the prime ministerial chainsaw cut deeper: because too many of Australia’s forests are ”locked up”, Mr Abbott intends to honour his commitment to remove a World Heritage listing for 74,000 hectares of Tasmanian forest. While one jubilant forestry executive said ”it’s happy days as far as I’m concerned”, The Age laments the government’s destructive approach.

Then, on Thursday, federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced his approval for a cattle-grazing trial in the Wonnagatta Valley in Victoria’s Alpine National Park – a row that has been simmering between various state and federal Labor and Coalition governments for almost a decade. In the autumn, 60 cattle will be allowed into 262 hectares of the valley, then up to 300 will be permitted in the summer and the year after. While environmentalists fume at the potential damage to native fauna and flora, graziers argue, unpersuasively in our view, that the practice will help reduce bushfire risk.

These two policy approaches – unlocking forests and sending in the cows – cannot be seen in isolation. Nor are they particularly surprising, given the heavy-handedness that is becoming the hallmark of the Abbott government.

What is more sinister is the way the Coalition is systematically fashioning environmental policy to suit its own political agenda, rather than reflect the popular concerns and causes that reach beyond party lines. When the Prime Minister declares ”I don’t buy the Green ideology, which has done so much damage to our country over the last couple of decades”, he is mistakenly conflating a political opponent with the efforts and passion of Australians right across the political spectrum. The Howard government would not have been so foolish as to go as far as the neo-environmentalist policies of the Abbott administration.

Sadly, the federal government is not alone. This week the O’Farrell government in NSW announced it would open the way for its state forests to be used to generate electricity. Trees that are otherwise destined for pulp and paper production may be burnt in power stations. Whether or not this provides an incentive for more logging, The Age would have thought the simple calculation around carbon emissions from burning wood as opposed to coal, said to be at least six times higher, would have killed off that proposal.

Over the decades, an ever-conscious community has come to expect governments to be good and proper custodians of one of the most delicately balanced ecologies on this planet. That confidence is now being attacked.

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