The famous Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg once climbed a mountain somewhere in the Pacific North West of the USA. He gazed out over endless mountains and valleys, and asked “You mean there’s a Senator for all this”?
Who among our own elected officials looks after wild nature? If you look at the state of the continent, with continued land clearing, our inland rivers slowly dying, fire tearing through the Gondwanic remnants in Tasmania, and the Great Barrier Reef pulling through after another summer of extensive bleaching, it is hard to believe that anyone is looking after the ‘big outside’.
With a federal election campaign in full swing, every political activist in the country is seeking to get their issue in the limelight. Elections are a great chance to get issues on the table and hopefully to get candidates and parties locked into promises. But, as a result, there are a lot of voices creating a lot of background noise for any message to cut through.
As far as issues go, environment tends to sit outside the top five federal concerns like jobs, health, infrastructure and border security. Yet there is no doubt that many in the community want to see political parties act to protect the environment (and a majority do not think the current government is doing much on this front). In the early 21st Century, action on the environment, by definition, has to include action on climate change.
So. What would deliver the best outcome at this election for outdoor users and the natural environment that we rely on?
Environment groups including well-known, non-profit organisations like the Australian Conservation Foundation, 350.org and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition have united in the lead up to this election under the banner, Climate Action Network Australia. They have together identified three priority areas that they are focusing on:
- Cleaning up our energy system (i.e.: starting the transition away from coal)
- Transitioning to renewable energy (moving to Australia using 100 percent renewable energy), and
- Rebuilding federal environmental laws.
Let’s suppose, for a minute, that common sense prevails, and the main parties decide to act decisively to protect the climate and environment, and agree to the green groups’ demands. The first two priorities will deliver for the environment through protecting the climate. Certainly a bit less coal on the global scale will not stop the planet from nudging towards the possible 4 to 6oC increase in temperature that we’re heading towards. But we must remember that climate change is a global problem, and requires a co-ordinated global plan to respond to it. That’s why environmentalists and climate activists spend so much time and effort in the UN climate change negotiations. Australia, as a rich nation and a very high per-capita greenhouse footprint, must lead the way in acting to radically reduce our greenhouse emissions.
Action now will reduce the amount of damage that happens later to natural systems like the Great Barrier Reef, so reducing our reliance on coal and transforming our system to rely on renewables is an urgent but sensible investment in the future.
The scale of the threat to nature continues to become clearer. Just this week, scientists warned of eventual global warming of up to 10oC (and 20oC in the arctic regions) if we burn all available fossil fuel reserves.
Then there is the third ‘ask’ of the green groups. At present we have a set of federal environmental laws (collectively called the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act or EPBC) which were created when John Howard was prime minister. This is meant to give federal oversight of decision making on proposals which may impact negatively on the environment. In theory this would mean that state governments couldn’t approve obviously destructive projects such as massive coal mines in Queensland. In reality, at best the EPBC might slow down or marginally improve these projects. It rarely actually stops anything. We need new laws, which will provide serious powers that will enshrine a strong watchdog role for the federal environment minister in assessing new development proposals to ensure no new projects are approved which will cause lasting damage to the climate or natural environment.
So, who supports these measures? The Greens of course. The ALP has signed up for a strong climate change agenda. The fact that the ALP has made climate a policy issue in the election is good because it creates a policy tension that otherwise wouldn’t exist. It forces the Coalition to defend and, hopefully, improve its policies. At this point the Coalition are way behind in terms of the scale of what’s on offer (there is an assessment of their environment policies here as funded in the May budget).
As we know, election politics is largely about cheques, photo opportunities, the media circus and stump speeches. Behind the scenes it is also about horse trading, as each party and candidate seeks to negotiate the best preference deal to improve their chances of being elected. The last federal election saw the creation of a large ‘cross bench’ of independent and micro party MPs, and we have to assume we will have the same outcome in 2016.
Preference deals and the voting system allow candidates with a small number of primary votes to actually be elected. This can throw up surprising candidates, like Ricky Muir in Victoria who got a tiny vote as the rep for the Car Enthusiasts Party and ‘interesting’ candidates like Jaqui Lambie who started out as part of the Palmer United Party and quickly went on to be a right wing populist independent.
There is a very real chance that we could end up with another hung parliament, where neither main party has a clear majority of votes in both houses of parliament. We all saw what happened to the Coalition under Tony Abbott, where the government was unable to get many aspects of its budget passed in the senate.
A similar scenario in the 2016 election could play out well for the environment. The vagaries of our political system tends to favour candidates on the right. Yet sometimes these people turn out well as members of parliament. It could be argued that Glenn Lazarus, the former rugby player who was elected as a member of the Palmer United Party, has gone on to become the greatest champion of regional communities who are fighting against new coal and gas proposals. In the seat of New England, former independent Tony Windsor has a good chance of un-seating the deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce.
A hung parliament could give the Greens more negotiating power and the potential for an agreement with the ALP in order to ensure Labor’s key agenda is able to pass through both houses intact.
These are, as the saying goes, interesting times. Apart for the usual players in election campaigns, we have witnessed the rise of new voices in recent years. One obvious one is the rural and regional communities mobilising against coal and gas proposals that threaten surface and ground water and farmland. Another are the growing number of businesses that rely on tourism on the Great Barrier Reef. Then there is the renewable energy sector, which generally avoided outright conflict with the Coalition when Tony Abbott wanted to gut the national Renewable Energy Target (RET), but now understand they need to lobby and campaign in public. A growing number of banks, superannuation companies and investment companies are shifting out of their traditional investment in fossil fuels. There is a growing momentum in the community and business that understands that without serious action to protect the climate and natural environment, our economies, communities and lifestyles will all suffer.
This, in turn, begs the question of where is the outdoor community in all of this? Many of us are already involved in the environment movement. It is estimated that Australian environmental groups have around 1.5 million members and supporters, and a large percentage of the countries walkers, paddlers, climbers and cross country skiers would be members of these groups. Sadly, the industry groups that represent the outdoors are largely nowhere to be seen. Recent research done for Outdoors Victoria says that nature-based outdoor activity is responsible for 71,000 full-time jobs in Victoria alone and put $7.4 billion into the state economy annually. Yet the outdoor industries are almost completely absent from the public debate about environmental protection and action on climate change. One example would be the alpine ski resorts who have, almost without exception, abandoned any attempts to even talk about the threat of climate change to skiing and riding, let alone doing anything about it.
The next five weeks will be an important time for the natural environment. Anyone concerned about the ongoing threats to our wild places needs to be active and vocalise their demand that all parties commit to protect our continent and establish a safe climate. A good starting point would be to join one of the green groups if you haven’t already. A good next move would be to talk with any groups that you’re a member of and encourage them to raise their voice. A bushwalking or ski group, a land care group, a business reliant on good snow or water in our rivers or a healthy reef all have power if they raise their voice.
We know that the fossil fuel industry is active in lobbying and donating to sway government and unless the community also gets active there will be no change in the status quo. In the long term this will not turn out well for the wild and natural places that give us so much in the way of mental and physical health benefits.
Cam Walker is a representative of Friends of the Earth Australia. He provides updates on the Tasmanian bushfire crisis via his blog, as well as other information regarding environmental protection and policy.