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John Howard, environmentalist

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Monday, 24 December 2007

Also in 2001, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) was pleading for money to save the Great Barrier Reef. The subsequent fishing bans, while initially estimated to cost about $1.5 million in compensation to commercial fisherman, have since blown out to nearly $200 million. Furthermore, many argue that there has been no environmental benefit, with fishing pressure simply transferred to already more heavily fished regions of South-East Asia.

The banning of broad-scale tree clearing was a campaign issue for the Wilderness Society in 2001. Subsequent bans mean that Australia is on track to meet its target under the Kyoto Protocol but that campaign was about more than saving trees or Kyoto. A report entitled “Rethinking deliberative governance: dissecting the Queensland land-clearing campaign” by the Queensland Conservation Council explains that the new legislation established a framework for the regulation of land use on freehold land representing a significant departure from “dominant ideologies that accept private landowners retain sovereignty over land management”. Furthermore, all “carbon credits” have accrued to the government, not the individual landholders.

In 2004, logging in Tasmania dominated the election campaign. It initially appeared that both Labor and the Coalition would seek to outbid each other in terms of how much Tasmanian forest they could save. Then, after opposition Labor leader Mark Latham announced his forestry policy, the Howard government changed tack and was very publicly applauded by timber workers for promising to save their industry. This further cemented John Howard’s alliance with blue-collar workers across Australia and he won that election.


During the same year, campaigning to return environmental water to the Murray River created much angst within farming communities. It was feared that if Labor won the election, a Latham government would take up to 1,500 gigalitres of irrigation water for environmental flows, while John Howard said he would take only 500 gigalitres. But, in January 2007, under the Howard government’s $10 billion National Plan for Water Security, it was suggested that about 2,700 gigalitres - almost double what the Labor leader had proposed - be returned as environmental flow. Incredibly, farmers weren’t up in arms. This was in part because the government assured them that there would be no compulsory acquisition and that the water would be purchased at market price. The price of water skyrocketed and the government has not even purchased 500 gigalitres.

Each year when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meets, Australian environmental ministers court the associated media with their rhetoric condemning whaling. For example, in the lead-up to the meeting in Ulsan in 2005, Australia’s Environment Minister, Ian Campbell, denounced the killing of whales with grenade-tipped harpoons in Norway and said that he was both shocked and saddened by broadcast images of whale-cooking classes in Japan.

Meanwhile, the Howard government turned a blind eye to the slaughter of dugongs by Indigenous hunters using spears and speed boats in northern Australia. Dugongs, like whales, are long-lived marine mammals. The Howard government accepted that about 1,000 dugongs are killed each year by Indigenous communities and that this is probably ten times the estimated sustainable harvest.

In advance of the 2007 election, Mr Howard set up a “taskforce” which recommended 25 nuclear power stations be built - mostly along the east coast of Australia. Despite nuclear power being the only proven source of greenhouse-neutral base-load power, environmental groups condemned the proposal. So unpopular was the issue that the Labor party featured Mr Howard’s support for nuclear power in some of its 2007 campaign brochures and Mr Howard went quiet on the issue.

During the 2007 campaign the Labor party focused on Mr Howard’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol. The issue resonated. Al Gore had already painted the Australian government as a villain in his award-winning documentary film An Inconvenient Truth for refusing to sign Kyoto - for refusing to do what Mr Gore considered morally right. Al Gore went on to win the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Many advocates for action on climate change readily admitted that, even if fully implemented, the Kyoto Protocol will do virtually nothing to reduce rates of global warming because developing nations, including India and China, do not have to meet any targets.


Nevertheless, they insisted that Kyoto is an important symbolic “first step”. Mr Howard correctly claimed that the exclusion of developing nations would put Australia at a competitive disadvantage, and perhaps he thought that global warming would eventually fade as an issue.

To the very end of his term as prime minister, Mr Howard refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, even though his government was on track to meet its Kyoto targets and even though the political pressure to ratify was intense - including from within his own Cabinet.

The environmental lobby doesn’t work from a set of principles that accord with liberal values; rather it is philosophically anti-development and anti-industry. They met regularly to plan strategies and divvy up issues and they had John Howard hopping from one campaign to the next - always pushing his government harder and harder to meet the next moving target.

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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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