Andrew
Macintosh, Research Fellow at The Australia Institute, writes:





Senator Robert
Hill, the intellectual, small ‘l’ liberal and conservationist, joined forces
with the pragmatic and gritty Meg Lees from the Democrats to save the
Australian environment and succeeded against the odds – that is the story that
the unnamed “environmental analyst” wants the public to buy (Crikey 24 January 2006).
So as to avoid a rewriting of history, let us add a touch of reality to
proceedings.

There is no
doubt that Senator Hill and his staff had more ideas and commitment to
conservation than his successors in the environment and heritage portfolio. But
that was never going to be a difficult task. David Kemp could barely hide his
contempt for all things environmental and the current environment minister,
Senator Ian Campbell, has rewritten the book on how to turn a portfolio into a
rolling media event with no substance.
As for Senator
Hill’s record of environmental achievement, the figures paint an abysmal picture. Under Senator Hill’s
stewardship, the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) became a slush fund for a myriad
of half-baked, backyard projects that had more to do with pork-barrelling than
genuine environmental outcomes. And don’t take my word on this, the mid-term
review of the program that is still on the NHT website sets it out in as
forceful terms as you are likely to see in any report written by a government
contractor.

That is why the
anonymous “environmental analyst” doesn’t refer to on-ground
conservation outcomes,
preferring to stick to the wobbly notion of “ordinary Australians”
becoming “physically and emotionally connected to the health of their
land.” For all
those that care to read the available evidence, it is clear that the
actual
public benefits from the NHT have been few and far between and that
most of the
money has been syphoned towards projects that fit the classic
definition of an
agricultural subsidy.

And then there
is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act; bold in title,
pitiful in practice. Research published by The Australia Institute earlier this
year showed that in the five years since the Act commenced, only two actions
have been prevented from occurring due to the operation of the approval regime
and, despite evidence of wide-spread non-compliance, only two approval-related
enforcement actions had been undertaken.

This
staggering level of underachievement was purchased at the bargain price of
somewhere between $55 million and $150 million. Call it what you want, but only
someone with their interests to protect (or role to justify) would suggest that
the EPBC Act has had a “profound effect on development proposals.”

As for the
Measures for a Better Environment (MBE) program, “fiasco” is perhaps the most
appropriate word for it. The deal made by Meg Lees was for $900 million to be
spent over four years on greenhouse and other air pollution projects that were
supposed to offset the adverse environmental effects of the GST.

When the four
year period had passed, a little over $200 million of the promised $900 million
had been spent. To put it in the simplest terms, 70 per cent of the money was
not spent as promised. Even if we believe the Government’s latest projections,
nine years after the program began, the underspend on MBE initiatives will
still exceed $364 million in unadjusted dollars.

Read more on the website.

Andrew
previously worked as environment advisor to Senator Andrew Bartlett, former
leader of the Australian Democrats.

Peter Fray

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