The past month has seen the coming into force of the Kyoto Protocol, arguably the most significant piece of global environmental law in history. The government’s refusal to ratify has inspired Labor to make it a point of difference from the Liberals. As opposed to the nightmare of Latham’s Tasmanian forests policy last election, the environment could just be a genuine vote winner for Federal Labor.
The Howard Government has reiterated its standard environmental lines for its anti-Kyoto position, “it’s against the national self-interest”, “it will cost jobs” and “it will slow economic growth”. Conversely, Beazley was quick to associate himself with Kyoto proclaiming that climate change is up there with nuclear proliferation when it comes to threats to the national self-interest. Author David Madden pointed out in The Sydney Morning Herald that Howard has given the Protocol a bagging but as yet has been “slow to engage constructively with the issues”, so presenting Beazley with an opportunity to “sharpen the differences” between Labor and the coalition.
The Opposition’s job is made easier by the excuses made by the Government for not ratifying. Kyoto’s required reductions of 5 per cent of 1990 levels are minute compared with how much emissions need to be reduced according to leading scientists (up to 80 per cent). The response of the coalition is that because the reduction in emissions will be minimal there is no point reducing emissions at all.
Second, the argument is that economic growth will be slower but as yet Australia is set to meet its target while enjoying growth. These are hollow arguments that should reek of political opportunity for the Labor Party. Certainly much was made of our exclusion to international greenhouse markets due to Australia not ratifying Kyoto. These have the potential to reduce the costs for Australia in achieving its greenhouse emissions targets. Labor can show that saving the environment does not mean sacrifices on the economic front.
Labor’s stand is certainly a positive sign but perhaps a little short sighted. Environmental policy must go further if it is to darken the government’s image and portray the opposition as a party with environmental ethics and the guts to do something about it. The Howard Government’s position on Kyoto is reflective of a larger apathy on environmental issues. What is needed is a revolution in all forms of government to redress the significant environmental problems in Australia. It is up to the Opposition to heed this call as a sign it legitimately is beginning to “sharpen the differences”.
Part of this revolution will be the enforcement of environmental law including harsh punishment against offenders. The fault lies at all levels of government for the fact that such punishment has not been seen in our courts.
Some of the great polluters in our time have been the large corporations and organisations yet our courts still give inconsequential fines despite the massive profits earned by these firms. In EPA v Dubbo Council (2000) a guilty plea and co-operation earned the defendant a $15,000 fine despite prior convictions. The $70,000 fine imposed in EPA v BHP Steel (2004) - when you consider BHP’s profits - is relatively insignificant. The court took into account remorse and an early guilty plea as mitigation like in any other case, an irrelevant factor if you consider the fact that environmental damage is almost always irreversible. All the remorse in the world cannot fix the damage that’s been done. The purpose of these sanctions is so that the culprits do not re-offend, but are these fines sufficient enough to do this?
The fines are beefed up when it comes to private individuals however. There is a great element of inequality in the fact that in EPA v Waight (2001) the same mitigating factors of pleading guilty and clearing up the site were taken into account yet the defendant received an $180,000 fine. Why is it that more economically important, larger firms seem to attract lower fines? Maximum penalties need to be lifted and the courts need to use the maximum penalty where necessary.
But like Kyoto there is no one-step solution, steeper penalties are one thing but also the states and the Howard Governments’ whole environmental outlook needs to change. Even the Biodiversity Act of 1999, where ecocentric values emerged in the law proved too radical with the legislation watered down by some 400 amendments.
In that same year Mr Howard appointed Dr Robin Batterham as Australia’s Chief Scientist with the role of advising on government policy, including energy policy. The problem is that Mr Batterham also happens to work for mining giant Rio Tinto. In August last year the majority of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Committee said there was a conflict of interest in Mr Batterham’s case. The Batterham situation is another point scoring opportunity for Labor. A fresh attack on Batterham’s position, unlike the Tasmanian forests campaign, will not jeopardise electorates or jobs (except maybe his) or economic growth.
Nuclear power firm AREVA’s Kakadu uranium mining plan, soil salination and loss of biodiversity are very real threats to the environment and if any party wants to be serious about improving the dire situation then a solid and meaningful environmental approach should be well rounded and include these concerns which do not always reach the headlines.
The loss of the Tasmanian seats due to Mark Latham’s plan to save the forests was a very sad incident. Not only for the ousted leader but also for the future of environmental policy developed by the major parties. It may be a little cynical to talk about political point-scoring in the context of saving the environment for its own sake and the health and well-being of people worldwide but it is hard to see how else real and effective policy will be implemented in the near future.
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