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We hoped for better, Kevin

By Lyn Allison - posted Thursday, 1 May 2008

I hate to be a wet blanket on an event that captured the imagination of the country and did produce some good ideas but not a lot turned out to be new in this highly massaged summit. In fact the most preferred idea from the Water subset of the Sustainability stream was “just get on and do it”. We agreed that there were few ideas not already covered in the myriad of current, but yet to be implemented, government strategies.

But we were not there to criticise government. Vox popped participants told us on the big screen how optimistic and excited they were to be helping Kevin find the way - they were the fresh air that came into the dusty halls of parliament. They roamed more or less freely in the corridors of power and into the committee room heart of parliamentary inquiry.

All that inquiry and its hundreds of reports and their earnestly gathered recommendations were put aside to come up with a new set of ideas in a couple of hours.


Lengthy plenaries with inspiring speeches, warm chats on stage with participants, Hugh Jackman on the roaming mike finding more warmth in the audience and morning teas and lunches in the members’ hall left little time for putting the big thinking to the test in the workshops or the challenge of getting it down on paper.

It must have been exhilarating to sit around a table with people like former Premier Steve Bracks and Governor of Victoria, Professor David de Kretzner whose summiteer badges bore no fancy titles, and to know they too ate with a lunchbox on their knee and were bossed about like everyone else.

There were rules like: no targets, no dollars and “could” would be used rather than “must” or “should” as this was the style adopted by the Summit “Centre”. Hence “We could implement a set of national environmental accounts, including carbon and water accounts, to inform government, business and community decision-making. These could be linked …” We could have a “… national population policy and an immigration program that works truly in the national interest and that is a model for the world” but like the other “coulds” there was no time to consider how to do it.

There was a strict format starting with ambitions and priority themes and ending with the top ideas.

The ambition to dramatically decrease our ecological footprint while continuing to grow our economy and improve our quality of life got up despite Barry Jones’ observation that this was like saying we could grow fatter while getting to be thin.

Disagreements about sustainability were resolved by dropping all the ideas that were objectionable to business because the rule was consensus, not voting. So when the coal lobby objected to the proposal that no new coal fired power stations be built until CCS (carbon capture and storage) was commercially available, proven safe and efficient, and objected to any mention of renewable energy, they were relegated to the “disagreements” section.


Clean energy - that euphemism for burning coal and the costly process of burying its pollution - went in and it became imperative for the proposed emissions trading system to “… drive a transition to clean energy technologies”. Neat, but an ominous sign that the coal fired power industry is winning its battle for special arrangements in the Emission Trading Scheme to keep them in business while they wait 15 years for their technologies to become competitive with wind and gas.

The Minister’s smart meters idea for water and electricity went in, like so many others already in government policy.

Some ideas went nowhere, like properly pricing water to fund the infrastructure that might be necessary to “… be a world leader in restoring all over-allocated river and groundwater systems to achieve sustainable food and fibre production and resilient communities”.

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About the Author

Lyn Allison is a patron of the Peace Organisation of Australia and was leader of the Australian Democrats from 2004 to 2008.

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