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Australia's illusory participation

By Kellie Tranter - posted Monday, 16 February 2009

In 2003 Paul Stookes, Chief Executive of London's Environmental Law Foundation, said: "... When our social and increasingly cosmetic demands are threatened, modern society suffers from environmental amnesia ...". Perhaps we are all victims of the ancient curse: "May you live in interesting times!"

As the East Siberian Sea bubbles away, the Wilkins ice shelf hangs on by a sliver, ocean acidity climbs to dangerous levels, the Emperor Penguins begin their march to extinction and Australia stands in the midst of unprecedented devastation and human tragedy as a result of bushfires, one can't help but feel - or perhaps instinctively know - that some problems have now escaped from the control of government (PDF 558KB). Indeed, voting either Labor or Liberal nowadays is like selecting an eco friendly detergent: it promises all the right things but as a matter of practical application fails expectations.

Regrettably, it seems to be a widespread modern phenomenon that instead of governments governing they have come to take the role of "administrators". Instead of setting priorities in accordance with the wishes of the people who elect them, and then formulating and implementing policies consistent with those priorities, governments and the legal systems they create and direct by legislation have come to be vehicles by which opportunists are able to exploit natural resources, without accounting for the consequences of doing so. The environment - the most valuable and important resource for all living things, including us - is the inevitable casualty because environmental costs are just not factored into "economic decision-making".


Isn't it time we recognised the inability of our current democratic systems and bureaucratic and legal structures to confront, let alone manage, the global warming problem? It might be impracticable to suggest discarding them, but can we not at least set about improving them?

One easily effected improvement is recognising the basic need for public involvement in environmental decision making. And this is not a cry of some "mad greenie": it is a need that has been recognised by the United Nations, and as Paul Stookes says, “... This status derives from the fact that an environmental concern will not simply relate to private rights but will influence and affect rights of others in the locality or the wider world ...”.

The United Nations Aarhus Convention (50KB) returns to people a voice and standing on environmental issues. The Convention recognises every person's right to a healthy environment as well as his or her duty to protect it. It seeks to ensure that every individual lives in an environment adequate for his or her health and well-being. This applies not only to those of us living today, but to future generations as well. The Convention embraces governmental accountability, transparency and responsiveness. It sets minimum standards - a floor, not a ceiling - for citizens in the field of environmental decision making.

Indeed the Convention seems to espouse the same views expressed by the Rudd Government's "best and brightest" 2020 Summit participants in the “Population, sustainability, climate change, water and our future cities”; “The future of the Australian economy”; and “Australia's future security and prosperity in a rapidly changing region and world” groups.

Australia attended the third Aarhus Convention Ministerial Conference in 1995, which considered proposed UNECE Guidelines on Access to Environmental Information and Public Participation in Environmental Decision Making. Then in October 2001 the Director of the UNECE Environment Division, Kaj Barlund, expressed the conviction that several western countries would ratify the Convention before the first meeting of the Parties, provisionally scheduled for autumn 2002:

Despite the fact that western countries have generally been slower to ratify the Convention than their eastern counterparts, it is clear from their warm messages of support that they are working hard on their national legislation to be able to ratify the Convention. The delay is, however, an indication that the Convention is sufficiently progressive to prompt important improvements even in some of the most well-established western democracies.


The United Nations has even gone so far as to publish a simplified guide to the Aarhus Convention “Your Right to a healthy environment” (PDF 725KB)and an Aarhus Convention Implementation Guide (PDF 1.71MB).

Yet Australia has not yet chosen to become a party to this Convention. Why not? While this might have been consistent with the Howard government's approach, why hasn't the Rudd Government acted? Was this just another example of Australia's illusory participation in international co-operation, with a total disregard for the outcome?

Some may argue that our Commonwealth and State freedom of information and environmental protection legislation are sufficient not to warrant the need to ratify the Aarhus Convention, but that is just rubbish. It is as naïve as saying that a medical textbook published two decades ago will safely cover the current science. It is as misleading as the New South Wales Government calling legislation The Protection of the Environment Operations Act, but not imposing any obligation on the Environment Protection Authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Another example is Part 3A of the NSW Labor Government's Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. It is a legislative stonewall that moves in the opposite direction to the socially and environmentally progressive Articles 7 and 8 of the Convention: its goal is to prevent people having their say, to block public input instead of calling for public participation concerning plans, programs and policies relating to the environment and public participation during the preparation of executive regulations and/or generally applicable legally binding normative instruments.

If our State and Federal governments already engage in "world's best practice" in relation to their and our environmental management responsibilities, as is so often claimed, then they ought to have no fear of ratifying the Aarhus Convention. Why have they not done so?

The era of global warming sceptics, environmental exploiters and others who serve as rust on the razor to the throat of Mother Earth must end. Their greedy, misleading and anthropocentric shrieking can no longer be permitted to drown out the patient pleas of the Tuvaluans, the Inuit, the children of Burkina Faso or even the Australian Aboriginal people. The time is long overdue for Australia to ratify the Aarhus Convention. If Mr Rudd's focus on international participation and co-operation, and his self-proclaimed willingness to listen to the voice of his people, are not just window-dressing, then Australia should ratify the Aarhus Convention now.

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First published in ABC's Unleashed on February 10, 2009.

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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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