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Morrison torches Environment Department

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons.

For a time, Arts and Environment were in the same federal department. Both functions have taken a hit, in Scott Morrison’s Christmas departmental reshuffle.

Australia’s first federal Environment Department debuted 1971. The function has carried forward to this day, under varying departmental banners. Since 1993, “Environment” (or “Sustainability, Environment”) has always been the leading item in a departmental title.  

Not any more. “Busting” congestion, blindsiding the public service, Morrison has reversed recent history. The Environment function of the previous Environment and Energy Department goes into the Agriculture Department. It’s never been parked there before. The Industry Department mops up most of Energy and Climate.

Apparent wins there, for fossil fuels and land conversion. And never mind the fire and smoke. Brand-new Environment chief David Fredericks has been recycled as Industry chief.

As the cortege winds down the scarp from Canberra, to fling the Departmental ashes onto the NSW firegrounds, herewith that trite statement of “thoughts and prayers”.

The first ascent of the Department paralleled the first big rise of environmental issues in the national consciousness. Lake Pedder was flooded in 1972. Malcolm Fraser stopped Fraser Island sand mining and declared national parks at Uluru and Kakadu. Bob Hawke derailed the damming of the Franklin River.

With endless growth running the show, the Department has won battles and lost wars. Our first State of the Environment report surfaced in 1986. When you decode the polite language of the scientific committees, successive reports reveal a steady decline up to 2016.   

It’s simplistic to say that the Department has prospered more under Labor.

Hawke-Keating Environment Ministers did good things. Queensland’s wet tropics went World Heritage. We banned CFCs. A Decade of Landcare began. Meanwhile, Mabo and the Native Title Act arrived.

Yet it was John Howard in 1996 who elevated Environment into the Cabinet. Influential Environment Minister Robert Hill had much more wattage than his jejune present-day counterpart, Sussan Ley.  Hill was backed by an able Secretary, Roger Beale.

Along came Indigenous Protected Areas, Oceans Policy and a Greenhouse Office. Plus the mixed blessings of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Control Act. Hill secured an emissions “reduction” target that was actually an 8 per cent increase.    

Beyond the Department’s purview lay two broad trends. Business and the oligarchy were neutralising growth concerns of the environmental movement. Concerns about the environmental impact of growth were being shifted towards an overwhelming focus on climate change. Late in his term, even Howard saw the writing on the wall. He had everywhere-man Peter Shergold reporting to him on emissions trading

Famously, Kevin Rudd declared climate change the “great moral challenge”. Sadly, his Environment Department was kneecapped, by the 2009-10 Home Insulation scandal.

Granted, the Department did none too well. Four young installers died. It is also true that ministers and central agencies had thrown the Department a hospital pass. They ditched the Department’s targeted five-year scheme, in favour of a two-year roll-out, open to all comers.

Mud sticks. Departmental influence and funding were shrinking. Cruelly, the same central agencies could diss the Department, as a weak program administrator. Once in power, Tony Abbott continued to make merry, with “Labor’s Home Insulation”.

For me, the nadir was June 2018. The Department under Finn Pratt speedily endorsed a conflicted “foundation” as the“obvious” recipient for a massive $443 million reef-rescue grant.

It seemed as if, the only way was up. That didn’t reckon on Morrison. The new Prime Minister quickly developed his own style of blustering and bullying homilies for the public service.

He’d respect them, if only they behaved, exactly as he expected. He wanted, you guessed it, more congestion-busting. Bizarrely, they ought to service Quiet Australians, never to be found in the “Chairman’s Lounge”. Which, presumably, was already full of his own ministers.

In his inflated opinion, said ministers can always be relied on to “set the policy direction” correctly. As they surround themselves with increasingly docile public service chiefs.

On top of all this, he cashiers the Environment Department. And puts Energy and Climate under Industry. His religion and ideology seem to be clobbering reason and science.

Labor’s bulldog adherence to Big Coal and Big Australia undermines their credibility to oppose environmental overreach. Still, Morrison’s arrogance might come back to bite him.

Over its first 30 or 40 years, the Federal Environment Department attracted a keen cadre of officials, whose commitment and knowledge could be turned to disparate environmental issues at short political notice. They had notable successes and signal failures. But their relationships with ministers held more nuance than the feudal deference that Morrison now demands.

You can’t throw the switch, to recharge independent and vigorous environment policy advice at a moment’s notice. Rationally speaking, we need those skills, more than ever.

Weather, rain and fire are visibly different, within our own short lifetimes. Environment and growth problems have never been more obvious. The environment has returned to the public consciousness bigtime. 

The “bubble” isn’t around Canberra. It’s around Morrison himself. Sure, the weakened Environment and Climate bureaus will have to answer, to him and his ministers. The physical environment may not be so obliging.   

Stephen Saunders is a former public servant, consultant and Canberra Times reviewer. 

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