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It's the environment, stupid

By Peter McMahon - posted Saturday, 15 December 2001


John Howard and the Coalition are back, not least because of Howard’s attention to, arguably obsession with, the arrival of numbers of illegal immigrants in small boats. But if he thinks this was a problem worthy of serious attention, what would he think of the likely arrival of tens of thousands of people from the South Pacific and South Asia as vast areas of land disappear under water due to global warming. Of course, Howard won’t be Prime Minister when this happens, but to help out whoever is he should start to pay genuine attention to the various manifest threats to the environment. Thus, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, his post-election slogan should be: "It's the environment, stupid!"

There are a myriad of environmental problems facing Australia, from global warming through to our own specific problems with salinity. For instance, Australia is especially affected by the annual hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic. We are increasingly impacted upon by disease generated overseas which affect our human, animal and plant populations.

The generation of new diseases or the return of old ones now resurgent with the accelerating failure of antibiotics, which can spread with the speed of jet travel, is exacerbated by new climactic conditions brought about by global warming. In particular, Australia faces a huge threat to our otherwise relatively protected flora and fauna through diseases promoted by globalisation. Trade liberalisation makes it ever harder to protect against such influences, as fish farmers and fruit growers are finding out.

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Australia’s record on global warming is nothing short of abysmal. Despite assertions from substantial numbers of qualified commentators, including economists, the Australian government has blithely accepted the most uncompromising view of the Kyoto Protocol.

There is little question that the events of September 11 have changed the condition of global development, but when all is said and done terrorism is a minor matter compared to the potential impact of environmental change. It is hard to avoid the contention that at least in part this form of terrorism arises out of the general processes of globalisation, and especially the great disparity of wealth and power it has brought. The developed world may or may not respond to this with some form of economic reconstruction, but one thing is clear: if global warming is not controlled, the impact on basic socio-economic conditions, such as food production and health, could make these disparities enormously greater.

Within Australia we face out own particular environmental problems. Salinity and the overuse or pollution of water resources is so serious that the very basis of the economy could be threatened.

Interestingly, a whole raft of issues that were given low priority by the Coalition at election time, ranging from Aboriginal reconciliation to the need to reinvest in basic education and health infrastructure, are connected to these environmental issues. Australia needs a highly educated population more than ever if it is to think its way out the environmental cul de sac. We need better health services to deal with potential new disease threats. We need more and better research to develop new technologies to deal with environmental threats. And we might even come to realise that actually indigenous Australians have a lot to tell us about sustainable living in this incredibly dry and fragile continent.

In fact, taking the environment seriously would enable the Coalition to carry out a number of measures that they need to do anyway. The national educational/scientific and physical transport and communications infrastructure both need overhauling. The second issue was highlighted by the ongoing fiasco in relation to Ansett and that of One Tel. The other matter is reflected in the undercurrent of crisis in the national education system and the continuing decline of national innovation. Responding to the environmental challenge would allow the Coalition to overcome ideological distaste for government intervention through a sort of green Keynesianism.

There is no question that the coalition should respond to the environmental challenge, and to some extent at least, they will have to. The Kyoto bandwagon, for instance, looks about ready to roll. But even so they can still put off most of the hard decisions, and let some other government worry about it. This recalcitrance reflects a growing problem at the heart of western governance – the electoral cycle is just too small to encompass long term decision making. The harsh truth is that governments think most about the next election, not the next few decades.

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Still, maybe John Howard will start thinking about his historical legacy, and reflecting on his less than successful efforts in reconciliation, social transformation, industrial relations, etc, he’ll decide to take the long view.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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Department of the Environment and Heritage
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