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Falling short of 'world’s best practice'

By Kellie Tranter - posted Wednesday, 22 July 2009

As non-renewable resources diminish, the power struggle between corporate marketeers and civilians escalates. Strange political bedfellows are emerging, like farmers and the Greens. In separate struggles we see mining versus agriculture, conservation versus development and government versus the people. But common ground can be found here, and almost invariably it comes down to exploitative greed on the one side versus cautious sustainability on the other.

Unfortunately, however, the debate is superficial and has gone awry because it is infused with "spin" - for which read "lies" - and devoid of real information. Environmentally, we are reaping what we have sown: we are now seeing and will soon be paying the price for unrelentingly mediocre "leadership" and grossly inadequate environmental policy development and implementation.

Reflecting upon recent stories about the Noosa River and two-headed fish, about policy decisions made by the New South Wales Government to sell off water reserves, privatise water supplies to consumers and mine the Liverpool plains, and about the Federal Government’s approval of a uranium mine that was a foregone conclusion brings to mind the calls of the State of Environment Committee in 2006:


... that the future role of a national state of the environment committee should be to provide data interpretation and commentary using accessible, up-to-date, relevant national data. The year 2006 must be the last state of the environment report in which the Committee initiates the process of indicator and data selection. Environmental data should be continuously updated and made publicly available on the web. This will require strategic responses that are tailored to national, state and territory, and regional needs and that are sufficiently understood and accepted to be sustained.

The Committee believes that, in cooperation with the Department of the Environment and Heritage, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the National Land & Water Resources Audit, and many other Commonwealth and state and territory instrumentalities, it has laid the basis for Australia to adopt an enduring environmental reporting system that has the potential to track changes in environmental pressures, conditions and responses. The nation needs such a system, the environment deserves it, and policy development and evaluation cannot occur without it.

While our Governments proudly spruik “world’s best practice” as they announce decisions that contradict their electoral platforms and are potentially environmentally disastrous, the reality is that no valid assurance of any kind can be given about the environmental consequences of any decision without reliable data. That means reliable Australia-wide data, assiduously gathered about nationally agreed environmental indicators and openly published to impeccable reporting standards. And that's exactly what we don't have.

The intergovernmental National Land & Water Resources Audit was a huge undertaking. Its second phase was a collaborative program between all states and territories and the Australian government, with the objectives of facilitating improved decision making on natural resource management by identifying national resource management priorities, and evaluating national resource management investments by developing and keeping accurate, timely information about Australia's natural resources. Its final report was due to be published in 2008 but is hard to find; in fact, after finding that the link on the Audit's website had been deactivated, my enquiries of the offices of the relevant ministers over the last six months were met with vague suggestions that it was still “with the Minister”. I was finally able to track down a copy and was interested to see that the National Land & Water Resources Audit 2002-08 Achievements and Challenges report highlights once again that:

  • Australia does not remain well placed to have the necessary information to deal effectively with the pressing environmental and natural resource management issues it faces;
  • Australia faces very pressing natural resource management issues that need to be dealt with at a wide range of scales. Information useful for management is required at many levels and available resources are inadequate. Stronger collaboration between the multitude of interested parties will be essential in meeting the challenge;
  • There is an urgent need to ensure the continuation of the collaborative efforts of the National Coordinating Committees in developing, maintaining, and building commitment to nationally consistent indicators, protocols and reporting frameworks;
  • There is an urgent need to task an appropriate body with the particular responsibility to pursue the vision of the Australian Natural Resources Information Infrastructure.

The authors go on to say:

  • Enduring systems need strong foundations. It is time to undertake a substantial review of the adequacy and efficiency of investment in natural resources data across the nation and assess the business case for better co-ordination and funding;
  • It seems clear that the natural resource management challenges being faced at all levels, whether at property, local, regional, state or national scale, have become more complex rather than less;
  • Drought, the implications of climate change, the seemingly accelerating spread of a multitude of invasive weeds and pest animals, the social and market pressures to demonstrate sustainability, and increasing community expectation of effective action by governments to protect the environment are amongst the many factors raising the urgency providing useful management information;
  • Agreement by the states and territories to use a national set of indicators and to collect information for national reporting remains a significant challenge. The plethora of indicators and organisations developing indicators and information systems, and the consistent presentation of the results of their activities, will continue to present a considerable coordination challenge to meeting national needs;
  • Roles and responsibilities and reporting arrangements need to be clarified and reinforced to allow clear pathways to agreement and adoption of indicators and a more efficient use of available resources across these areas of activity.

What should be alarming to us all is that the march of progress continues, notwithstanding the unanimous conclusion of government-convened working groups that we desperately need much more information before we can even attempt to fathom what is going on. And if we can't understand what is already going on, how can anyone possibly predict what environmental consequences any particular new activity is likely to have?

None of that seems to bother our governments. They just keep going, full steam ahead. When did you last remember an application for approval of a new coal or uranium mine being refused? In spite of or recklessly indifferent to their own ignorance, as identified by their own committees, they rely on the reports of "experts" who are invariably sympathetic to the marketeers who commission them, and they trot out the epithet "world’s best practice" when they announce approvals because it describes a process by reference to an industry standard but doesn't actually say anything about the particular environmental consequences of what they're approving.

All "world's best practice" really seems to mean is that a process achieves a balance that is acceptable to the marketeers between maximising their profits and minimising the environmental consequences the rest of us must suffer. Using DDT was undoubtedly once "world’s best practice" in insect pest management, just as thalidomide was once "world's best practice" in treating morning sickness.

Which brings me back to the appalling inactivity of our state and federal governments. How many times, and for how long, are they going to continue ignoring the calls of their own experts, keep failing to gather and publish objective data and use it in making assessments, and keep rubber stamping "development" proposals before their environmental consequences have been rationally assessed against objective benchmarks that have been formulated to protect the best interests of us all?

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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