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John Howard, environmentalist

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Monday, 24 December 2007


The story of John Howard the environmentalist is a story of deference to professed expertise. Prime Minister John Howard sought the advice of high profile scientists and activists on environmental issues. Many of these advisors had impressive qualifications, and he listened to them mostly uncritically. In response, he tried to do the right thing.

As a result, the Howard government oversaw the introduction of legislation that banned broad-scale tree clearing in western Queensland and fishing over large areas of the Great Barrier Reef. In a deal with the Australian Democrats to get the GST through the Senate, his government introduced the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, now considered the centrepiece of federal environmental legislation. His government also planned to buy back large volumes of water as environmental flow for the Murray River.

But John Howard may simply be remembered as the prime minister who failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

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It was in January 1996 that Mr Howard made his first major announcement on the environment. He was Opposition Leader and he spoke of the proposed establishment of a $1 billion fund from the privatisation of Telstra to restore the national estate, including programs to arrest soil degradation. The policy was initially applauded by the environmental lobby, with the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) saying that it represented the most important environmental statement ever made by the Coalition.

Mr Howard won the 1996 election and, true to his promise, sold part of Telstra, with $1 billion going to the establishment of the Natural Heritage Trust which focused on salinity in particular.

The proposed 10 per cent Goods and Services Tax (GST) was the centrepiece of John Howard’s 1998 election campaign. Again he won the election, but the Australian Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate and he needed their support to get the GST through Parliament. They negotiated the passage of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill (EPBC) in return for passage of the GST legislation.

Any person may nominate a plant or animal species for protection under the EPBC Act and nominations have become an integral part of many environmental campaigns. Successful nominations normally secure significant government funding for the development of “Recovery Plans”.

Species can be listed under the Act if there has been a substantial reduction in numbers and geographic distribution, even if this reduction occurred decades ago with populations now stable or increasing.

The EPBC Act has been used to stop, delay or limit activities as diverse as dam-building, whaling and the growing of sugarcane. Most recently it was used to prolong the approval process for the controversial Bell Bay pulp mill in Tasmania.

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In the lead-up to the 2001 federal election, the National Farmers Federation (NFF) and the Australian Conservation Foundation joined forces to lobby the Howard government for $65 billion on the premise that vast areas of farmland were in ruin and salinity was spreading. This campaign was based on a report which quoted the national land and water resources audit which had been funded by the Howard government’s Natural Heritage Trust from the sale of part of Telstra.

A few months later, the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality was announced by Senator Robert Hill, then Environment Minister, with the promise of $1.4 billion in further funding. This Action Plan generated more plans requiring more government funding.

Much of the planning, including that for the likely extent of the spread of salinity, was based on computer modelling that has not stood the test of time. Indeed, head of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, Wendy Craik, acknowledged on national television in 2005 that flawed models had been used to talk up the salinity threat in 2001.

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First published in the IPA Review, January 2008.

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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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