No one expected a green-tinged Liberal Party under John Howard. Not the public, which assured most pollsters before the 1996 election that it trusted the Australian Democrats and Australian Labor Party more on the environment. Certainly not conservation groups, which play footsy with conservatives only when they want to teach the ALP a lesson. And not the Liberals, with a membership then uninterested in the environment and a policy platform tending to the minimalist.
But this month the Howard government agreed to start pulling environmental flow back to the Murray-Darling rivers. It is the latest in unexpected big-ticket environmental moves by the Liberals. Cabinet has also moved towards protecting one-third of the Great Barrier Reef.
A muted press release merely announced structural adjustment for the fishing industry, despite Environment Minister David Kemp getting one hell of a cabinet win. Liberal environment ministers aren't allowed to gloat because it salts the wounds of an already outraged National Party and annoys some industry groups. Yet the record shows a Liberal government that has done more for the environment than any government.
These Liberals are accidental greenies. They knew whatever they did, they would never be accepted by some of the main conservation groups which, despite their rhetoric, cannot deal ideologically with conservative governments. But they headed up a country rapidly outspending its environmental bank account. In a green-tinged Senate, big political packages came with an environmental price tag.
Governance for the environment is difficult in Australia. The legacy of the floundering fathers' Constitution of federated states means states have control of water and much of the land. There are many environmental examples of state-federal bunfights paralysed by competitiveness, politics and finger-pointing.
The ALP-established environment policy under Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser followed the trend. But by the Hawke-Keating years, well-organised industry and some union groups were able to threaten greenish cabinet ministers intent on wider reform. They effectively turned federal ALP environment policy into bone-throwing events - a new park here, an inquiry there.
On ascension in 1996, the Liberals expected to go no further than the $1billion Natural Heritage Trust, a clever political ploy designed to buy votes for the part sale of Telstra. But a GST and diesel deal for the Democrats included a fat $1.2 billion environment package in new and changed spending directed to clean air and greenhouse initiatives.
The government was mildly surprised to note it was the biggest single amount given over to the environment. Perhaps it could deal with this bothersome portfolio after all. In the next deal with the Democrats, the Liberals achieved a complete overhaul of federal environmental legislation, giving sweeping new powers to the environment minister, and giving the community and conservation groups the right to be informed, to question and to go to court over decisions. States, industry and farming groups were furious. But the environment announcements kept coming.
Nearly $2 billion more for the National Heritage Trust, $1.4 billion for the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, $500 million for the Living Murray plan and hundreds of millions of dollars more for oceans, sustainable cities, water quality, land and marine reserve areas, and so on. There is even $150 million for Queensland land clearing should the Nationals stop helping farmers spoil the process with the same enthusiasm they are spoiling much of the land.
The Liberals got over their green shudder by placing environment under the trendy moniker, an aspirational issue. Not everyone wants a week in the wilderness but they like to know it's there. They want clean water in the rivers, fish in the sea and control over the bulldozers. The government knows investors and insurers are telling business that unless sustainability is up at board level, companies are taking considerable risks in the medium-to-long term.
Despite low-profile announcements, the message is getting through. Although for much of the past decade the Liberals have lagged behind Labor in polling on the environment, recent polls show the main parties level-pegging, sometimes with the Liberals in front.
Mind you, the Liberals haven't given up their day job: keeping the big end of town happy. The Howard government still refuses to sign the Kyoto Protocol, facilitates uranium mines and brings in wider fossil-fuel subsidies. Some of the government's environment spending has been slow or off-target and it slashed environment group funding. And environmental problems continue to worsen. The State of the Environment report shows we are not moving fast enough to overtake the rapid decline in natural ecosystems.
Still, it's hard to argue there hasn't been increased environmental spending, increased federal protection for more of Australia and more environment laws passed under this government. And it will keep coming. There is no guarantee the rest of Telstra will be sold but you can bet full privatisation would come with a hefty environmental price.
The forests issue is re-emerging. The campaigners are not just ferals but also the fed-up middle class - and they are gaining increasing media coverage. Clearly, the ALP will have to work much harder than it imagined. Tories as greenies? Go figure.