Too many
editors and journalists seem more interested in little spats in the House of
Representatives than actual policy work. Robert
Hill certainly kept out of trouble, but he was a quiet achiever too. There are
three things Robert Hill did which were highly significant and revolutionary in
terms of his conservative government and the time.

he persuaded Howard into the initial Natural Heritage Trust fund idea for the
sale of the first part of Telstra during the election campaign that got the
conservatives government. This achieved the splitting of the conservation
movement at the time which neutralised them politically. More importantly, it
started a fund that became the biggest environment fund in the country and a
way to put ordinary Australians in touch with their environment.

Today there
are thousands of little groups all over the country planting trees, restoring filthy
river banks, clearing out weeds or cleaning up the coastline who are fiercely
proud of the work they have done and continue to do. Despite a few accusations of rorting under
the fund here and there, there’s no doubt on the whole it has made a huge
difference to the psychology of many ordinary Australians who have become
physically and emotionally connected to the health of their land as a result.

he looked at the woeful 20 pages of the existing environment legislation with
no penalties, no compliance mechanism, no control by the environment minister
or department, no real protection for endangered species, important waterways
and a multitude of other sins of omission, measured that up against the number
of international treaties we have signed, the state of the country and decided
something ought to be done about it.

He dragged environmental legislation
forward 25 years, modernised, integrated a number of ad hoc bits and made them
all coherent in a framework industry, so the community and the states could understand
and work in a professional manner. The Environment Protection and
Biodiversity Conservation Act had a profound effect on development proposals
which are not made now until the environment has been properly assessed and
mechanisms are in place to protect it.
He made the act totally transparent and each stage of all decisions is publicly
and freely available on the department’s website.

when Hill took over the environment department it was a brow beaten,
underfunded, cowed and downtrodden rump of the civil service. It had no power
and had been much abused under the ALP. Hill made it more powerful by winning
more dollars and injecting considerable clout and unprecedented policy reform. Suddenly
it could stand up to some of the big boys and environment officials could hold
their heads high with reform giving them authority.

The GST deal with the Democrats
injected new money and/or diverted hundreds of millions of funding away from
environmentally damaging projects towards more greenhouse friendly ones. This
was a climate change experiment on a grand scale despite the fact that at the
same time the Government refused to sign Kyoto. The Measures for a Better
Environment program could certainly have made more difference if some
conservationists had got behind it and provided some tension to keep the fossil
fuel ideologues at bay who never gave up chipping into it, but nevertheless it
brought Australia’s fuel standards and pollution standards forward a decade at
a pace so frenetic it caused the closure of the odd oil refinery.

photovoltaic cell program was sold out before time, there are gas buses instead
of diesel belchers in a number of cities and plenty else improved from Hill’s
making the best of a Treasury deal on tax reform.

can quibble over the level of success in the implementation of all these areas
or how well (or poorly as the case may be) we are doing environmentally as a nation, but there is no doubt Hill levered an
extraordinary set of policy opportunities which were built in an attempt to address
three of our greatest problems, including pollution and greenhouse gases. His legacy entails environmental
laws including biodiversity protection and compliance and he’s helped make Australians
proud of, responsible for and part of fixing the problems of abuse of our land
and waterways.

At the
same time Hill’s successor, David Kemp, has not had the praise he deserves. He
added new projects but also kept all of Hill’s projects alive and ticking – and
funded – when Treasury wanted to get their fingers in.

several of these advances would not have happened without the Democrats’ Meg
Lees, who was brave enough to do deals with a conservative government. She frequently
extracted environmental concessions, getting significant wins. This is in stark
contrast to other politicians who prefer bleating rather than actual delivery
of anything meaningful in the policy, program, legal or funding area.