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One million trees — a bold vision for Canberra

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Canberra Liberals Assistant Speaker and Shadow Minister for the Environment Elizabeth Lee is eager to see a greener Canberra (Image by Chris Mordd Richards)

A new environmental policy launched in the A.C.T. has come from a party not associated with being green friendly, writes Chris Mordd Richards.

WHEN YOU HEAR a policy announced like “one million new trees for Canberra”, you would be forgiven for presuming the announcement was coming from the A.C.T. Greens.

Instead, it is the Canberra Liberals' bold plan to address the severe lack of tree coverage in Canberra, especially in the northern region.

Despite being a very leafy city, Canberra does suffer from severe tree canopy issues. The existing trees are declining faster than they are being replaced, leading to a significant net loss of trees across Canberra over time.

In addition, while most well-established suburbs have plentiful covering in most parts, many suburbs built in the past two decades have not had enough plantings in them and are much hotter in summer on average as a result.

Scant details have been released so far on the policy, so IA sat down with Canberra Liberals Assistant Speaker and Shadow Minister for the Environment, Elizabeth Lee, to understand how the policy will work.

The first thing to understand is the context of the headline. It is one million trees over ten years — 100,000 new trees annually, a more manageable number in practice. This would work out to one out of every 4.5 Canberrans getting a tree per year for ten years on the current population.

A criticism shared by several voters IA informally spoke to about this policy was expressed by local Canberran and avid gardener Bill Gemmell, who said:

“We don’t look after our existing trees well enough, we need to fix that before we add more.”

Lee acknowledges the target is ambitious and intentionally so, pointing out the tree canopy loss under Labor.

She said we need to not just catch up, but:

“...to go far and beyond to make sure that our future generations are also able to enjoy the bush capital that we value and love.”

In terms of what types of trees will be involved, the answer is everything from acorns and other types of seeds that can be germinated through to normal saplings or mature tree plantings in some cases — a wide variety overall.

When the policy was announced, Canberra Liberals leader Alistair Coe said the average cost per tree in the program would be around $10 to $20, while (Labor) City Services Minister Chris Steel accused the Liberals' plan of being uncosted and that the actual figure per tree would be around $380.

As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but closer to the Liberals' estimate than not on balance. Seeds in the program will likely cost in the range of only a few dollars or less, saplings are likely to range around the $10-20 mark – as per Coe’s statement – and more mature plantings may cost in the lower hundreds of dollars range at most.

Steel quoted at or well over the maximum upper-end dollar range to attack the Liberals, whilst Coe had quoted the figure for the most common type of plant they intend to give away — saplings. As for “uncosted”, there is an official period before an election where all parties can submit policies to be costed by Treasury, but that period has not commenced yet.

As such, the policy is currently uncosted, but a Canberra Liberals spokesperson has pointed out that the policy will indeed be costed when the appropriate time commences that allows them to do so. As usual, the devil is in the details when it comes to political statements before an election.

It has now emerged that the Canberra Liberals have submitted only a small portion of this policy for official costing by A.C.T. Treasury, leaving the majority of the policy uncosted. This conflicts with their statements at the time of the original interview in regards to having the policy properly costed.

So where will all these trees go? How will the Liberals make sure they don’t just die? The answer to both questions is more mundane than some commentators might be hoping for.

The Canberra Liberals will listen to the experts, to make sure “that we’re planting the right species in the right location”. When the trees are handed over, there will be a process in place so that people know what their responsibilities are and “they have the appropriate resources to be able to not only plant the tree but also look after it”.

The trees will go first to every student starting kindergarten over the life of the program. That will be done depending on their circumstances and their ability to care for the trees. P and Cs at schools are also eager for a donation of trees as well, Lee tells IA.

The Canberra Liberals will also embark on a tree planting program in all A.C.T. government schools, not only to involve the students and invest in the schools:

“But also it is a great opportunity for students to learn about the importance of trees and the value of trees for our environment and for our planet.”

When asked about other people who might be interested, Lee says:

“We’ll be working with community groups, we’ll be working with environment groups and we’ll be working with the broader public as well about where they want to see their trees.”

Lee says that could include other organisations or individuals such as community housing groups or A.C.T. Housing tenants wanting to invest in the garden at their property.

When pressed if this was a move to bolster their environmental credentials in a city that has for a long-time swung Greens/Labor, Lee was quite confident in her reply:

I think that when you look at the record of the Canberra Liberals when it comes to the environment, it speaks for itself. We have supported the 100 per cent renewable energy target for a number of years and it was, in fact, the Canberra Liberals who tabled a bill only last year, which cemented the increase in renewable energy so we can continue to stay on track with that target.

Lee says that it suits Labor and the Greens to purposefully “besmirch us when it comes to the environment,” which is not inaccurate, although it also suits the Liberals at times to besmirch their opposition on other issues as well.

One thing is clear, the Canberra Liberals policy is a bold vision and tree canopy coverage is something many Canberrans care about and on which Canberra needs action.

Though the question remains, is it enough to sway the voters at the ballot box into handing government back to the Liberals for the first time in 19 years?

With less than a month left to go before the official six-week campaign period starts, Labor and/or the Greens have plenty of time to counter with a policy of their own, but not too much time. Watch this space.

You can follow Chris Mordd Richards on Twitter @Mordd_IndyMedia.

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