The major parties really don't care that much about the environment

Parliament House

By Henry Boer

Despite unequivocal evidence of ecosystems collapsing around the world, the major political parties in Australia (and other countries) seem largely not to care. They remain fixated on the economy above all else, with their public legitimacy resting on winning the debate around deficits, jobs and border security. But to effectively govern they also need to fix the problems affecting society. So why do they habitually fail to address the biggest threats imaginable?

The major parties in Australia are products of the 20th century, wedded to unlimited industrial development, and unwilling or unable to consider any alternatives. The parties largely agree on permanent economic growth, and compete over narrow issues, such as who should benefit most from expanding production and consumption. Electoral and parliamentary politics is often contested over where to distribute revenue and services - between the wealthy and the remainder of the population. The environment is unfortunately just a minor issue, an unwelcome distraction from the main event.

Labor claims to represent the working classes. Their core constituency remains the (shrinking) unionised workforce, but also disadvantaged socio-economic groups often located in outer metropolitan areas. They campaign on securing and protecting rights for workers, through higher wages and improved workplace conditions. Labor's election victory under Rudd in 2007 is often attributed to the union campaign against the Coalition Government's infamous Work Choices laws. Labor also claims the moral ground as the redistributors of wealth generated through taxation, often to public welfare, health and education services. But Since the 1980s Labor governments have eagerly embraced neo-liberalism and deregulated the market economy. Those leading the party actively court the industrial masters, hoping for short-term electoral rewards.

For Labor, the traditional base of blue-collar workers is not enough to win government. They need to attract a plurality of voters, often targeting more progressive and educated sectors, as well as ethnic or social groups. The environment is one area that Labor uses to attract these votes, and to differentiate their candidates. Each election the party announces a few notable environmental policies, such as stronger conservation laws or mechanisms to reduce carbon emissions. But these election commitments are often pragmatic, rather than a deep commitment to the environment. As a strategy it's purely about the ballot and securing a strong flow of preferences from minor parties like the Greens. This tactic is often critical to winning marginal seats and forming government.

For the Liberal and National parties, the highest priority is to secure benefits for the private sector. Their main focus is freeing up markets to improve capital accumulation and new enterprise investment. Suppressing wage growth, stripping employee conditions, lowering taxes, and removing government regulation is what they breathe. Government spending should support businesses and corporations, via infrastructure and even as direct subsidies.

The core constituents of the Liberal and National parties are businesses, large and small. These parties also attract a large percentage of the conservative vote from rural areas, and moral or religious voters. They are not particularly interested in attracting environmental voters, and these do not currently constitute a large vote share. Conservative parties do concede some basic environment policies are required, in order to be relevant in contemporary politics. Come election time they will announce some policy measures, such as voluntary carbon offsets for industry or the National Heritage Trust, funded by the privatisation of the public utility Telstra.

For conservative parties the environment is often viewed as a political problem they would rather ignore. At best they view environmental regulation as a cost burden and a constraint on economic growth, and an anathema to free enterprise and the rights of individuals and corporations. Many coalition parliamentarians work assiduously to remove basic environmental regulations, whilst advocating for increased government subsidies for known polluting industries such as coal. In Queensland, for example, the short-lived Newman LNP administration sent environmental policy back decades. In three years the LNP stripped land-clearing laws, and completely removed legislation protecting wild rivers and a mandatory levy on waste. Queensland now has some of highest land-clearing rates in the world, and has become a dumping ground for other states rubbish.

When in government, neither of the major parties accords a high priority for environmental issues, unless it's politically expedient to do so. Environment ministries are at the bottom of the hierarchy, a junior ministry assigned to a novice or underperforming MP. Most parliamentarians view the environment portfolio as a step on a career path to something more illustrious such as education, health or defence. This is despite the fact that the voting public continues to rate environment issues in the top 5 or so each election cycle.

Environment agencies remain one of the most poorly funded across government, with budgets often inadequate to cover basic regulatory needs. Biodiversity programs are always underfunded, and the first to be cut when the treasury is short of revenue. Protecting biodiversity and reducing environmental impacts is always secondary to spending on infrastructure and defence.

If the major parties truly considered that the biosphere is on the brink of collapse – which mounting evidence suggests it is – then the environment should be accorded the highest priority, over and above managing economic output. Mitigating the rapidly unfolding climate and biodiversity crises would top all other election issues, and become the epicenter of government effort. Environment ministries would attract the largest budget allocations, direct policy across all other ministries, and instill the welfare of the natural environment as the basis of all major decision making. As a start they would permanently suspend all proposed coalmines and gas fields today.

But the major parties are absent, largely focused on securing government and then keeping various constituents satisfied. These parties are beholden to industrial, corporate and union interests that directly influence the policy cycle at all levels. These interests expend considerable resources on sophisticated lobbying and marketing efforts to block, weaken and remove environmental legislation they deem affects their profits. Many who work in industry organisations, corporations or unions occupy parliamentary positions, as advisors to ministers, or gain pre-selection in favoured seats. Likewise, many ministers and party leaders on leaving parliament are recruited as lobbyists for large business organisations. Otherwise known as the revolving door, it undermines our democracy and disempowers the community. Further, the preferential electoral system used nationally and in most states and territories maintains the duopoly of the major parties, to the benefit of these core constituents and allied donors.

We are not just losing a few iconic species; entire habitats and life support systems are being decimated by the onslaught of industrial society. Conservation and community groups expend significant resources and energy trying to secure 'commitments' from these major parties, particularly Labor. But clearly these parties are incapable of providing the leadership needed for the current age. Will the major parties that are currently allowed to govern Australia ever really prioritise the environment above all else? Probably never - their interests lie elsewhere.

Dr Henry Boer is a member of FoE Far North Queensland.

Published in Chain Reaction #135, April 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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