In the closing days of this year, Australia’s unique and fragile environment is under attack like never before. After just 100 days in government, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has waged a war on environmental programs.
In this week’s budget update the government cut $6.7 million from the Caring for our Country program, removed federal funding for Environmental Defenders Offices around the country, abolished the Biodiversity Fund and the Low Carbon Communities program, confirmed a $40 million cut to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and has forgone $7.4 billion in revenue by ditching the carbon price and $439 million over the next three years by scrapping the profitable Clean Energy Finance Corporation.
“Our national government has a responsibility to be a steward of our national assets and to protect them for future generations”
Perhaps the most cynical of these cuts is the decision to cut all federal funding for the Environmental Defenders Office. The EDOs play a critical role protecting our unique and fragile environment by providing legal advice to communities that wish to question and challenge decisions, such as proposals for coal seam gas or dredging that could degrade the Great Barrier Reef. The decision to disenfranchise communities in this way wasn’t unexpected. The Minerals Council successfully lobbied NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell to scrap funding to that state’s EDO because of its support for communities opposing coal mines.
And despite all the heavy talk of a ”budget emergency”, there is very little economic merit in this crusade. We know that the $55 billion deficit forecast by Treasury in August has now ballooned to $123 billion. Many of the Abbott government’s decisions, such as scrapping the carbon price and the successful, profitable Clean Energy Finance Corporation, have made Australia’s deficit bigger, not smaller. They are also likely to strangle our emerging renewable energy industries.
The crusade is not over yet. Australians have already been warned by Treasurer Joe Hockey to brace themselves for ”harsh but necessary cuts”. The new National Commission of Audit – an approach employed to devastating effect by Jeff Kennett, John Howard and Campbell Newman – will release its first report in January. Kennett used the approach to provide the basis for privatisation and service cuts. Howard’s audit provided the basis for abandoning what became known as ”non-core” promises and for Newman to do both.
Australia is on notice.
Hockey has warned us that ”spending reform will inevitably require difficult choices about the policies that Australians need now and in the years to come”. Under the cloak of a ”crisis”, will our government dump the Renewable Energy Target? Will it abandon its commitment to act on climate change? Will it allow open season on the Great Barrier Reef? Will coal seam mining be allowed to let rip? Will it do the bidding of the Waubra lobbyists and place such onerous restrictions on wind and solar farms that they are unable to operate? Will Mr Abbott cut funding to university and CSIRO research that does not fit with the prevailing ideology?
History tells us Australian governments can act as protectors of the environment, but that takes leadership, vision and the political weight of public opinion. Before the 1960s it was generally thought that allowing industry to pollute our air, land and water was merely a price we had to pay in the quest for progress and development. That view changed; gradually Australians started to understand we could no longer continue to take from the environment without severe consequence. The Franklin River was saved, uranium mining was stopped at Jabiluka in Kakadu.
Australian governments realised laws were required to balance development and sustainability – and that the voting public expected our nations’ leaders to protect Australia’s famous places.
A first tranche of legislative and regulatory protections was introduced, followed by a more comprehensive tranche in the 1990s in the form of the Howard government’s Environment Protection and Bio-diversity Conservation Act 1999.
Fast forward to this year and Hockey’s line has indeed been carefully drawn. On one side the Great Barrier Reef, our most important river system, the Murray-Darling, and carbon-storing landscapes such as Tasmania’s forests and the savannahs of northern Australia. On the other side coal seam gas, oil and mining corporations.
There will be casualties. Cutting funding to programs and weakening environmental protection means our natural life-support systems – clean water, air, soil, forests and oceans – already weakened by decades of overuse and unsustainable development, will bear the brunt.
They provide us with food, jobs, wealth and the places and wildlife we love. Our national government has a responsibility to be a steward of our national assets and to protect them for future generations. The war footing of the Coalition government on the environment cannot be allowed to continue.
Dugald Murray is the Australian Conservation Foundation’s senior economist.