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November 26th 2012 print

Max Rheese

Ruining the environment to save it

From logging to fishing and the Murray, Environment Minister Tony Burke's record is unblemished. When presented with the obvious consequences of ill-informed and emotional green campaigns, he consigns logic and real-world consequences to the re-cycle bin


A brief analysis of Environment Minister Tony Burke’s "big-picture plan" for the environment was published in The Australian last week. On one interpretation it asppeared to equate activity with progress; on another, to favourably compare Burke’s work with the “chaotic policy revision” of the rest of the government.


Neither interpretation is justified. Most of the big environmental issues of the current government have produced poor environmental outcomes for the sake of political expediency.

The plan for the Murray Darling Basin, while a near intractable wicked problem that Burke rightly notes will never please everyone, fails to address one of the fundamental problems of water management in the Basin, which is the maintenance of an artificial freshwater lake system  at the end of the Murray. The lakes have a natural estuarine history, which has been altered by the construction of 7.6km of man-made sea dykes separating the lakes from the Southern Ocean. The tabled plan has some good points, but fails to address this fundamental problem, the continuance of which requires mind-boggling amounts of precious freshwater. A political fix, not a good environmental outcome.

The Tasmanian forestry "deal" is a farce. Brokering a deal just to end the forest wars, which will not end until forestry’s enemies have finished completely, is a poor environmental outcome when one considers both governments are complicit in a deal which transfers resource demand from world’s best forestry practice (like Australia) to countries with much less environmental regulation. This is apart from adding to the annual $2.3billion timber-products deficit we suffer in a country that has one of the world’s largest forest resources.

How much national park is enough? What biodiversity is threatened by continued sustainable harvesting? Tourism and timber harvesting have co-existed for a century in Tasmania. This outcome does not even come close to the true definition of conservation.

Tony Burke has never articulated which fish species is under threat in the debate over massive increases to Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that require a "no-take" regime, and the media have never held him to account over this. The facts are that we have the same number of fish species in Australian waters now as we did at European settlement.

A problem should be identified and quantified before a "fix" is put in place. 

The vacuous argument advanced by the Pew Foundation and other green groups that MPA’s will make coral reefs and biodiversity more resilient to changes in climate as a driver for more MPA’s is an embarrassment. The various and periodic coral bleaching events in the Great Barrier Reef National Park have never been, and never will be, mitigated by the reef’s national park status.

It is a matter of public record that we import 70% of our seafood for domestic consumption, which contributes to our annual $1.7billion deficit for seafood. The new MPA’s with their no-take regulations will only replicate what has happened to the timber industry – a transfer of environmental impacts from a developed country with high levels of protection and regulation to undeveloped countries with poor environmental standards. 

Australians can take the smug view they are protecting global fish stocks while plundering the resources of other countries — all the while living in a country surrounded by the third-largest fishery zone in the world, of which 40% is now closed. The science does not support the outcome. Another political fix, not a good environmental outcome.

The super-trawler fiasco self-evidently pandered to poorly informed public opinion led by an aggressive social-media campaign. The science and the data pointed one way; the minister went the easy, political fix. Instead of Burke providing leadership, he was led by public opinion informed by activists’ emotive campaigning.

Burke’s claim that the best way to get the politics right is to get the policy right has a lot of merit, but when is this going to happen and how much environmental and economic damage will be done in the meantime?

Most of these initiatives require subsidies and handouts of hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars of taxpayer funds to produce poor environmental outcomes in the long-term.  These funds could be much better spent on real environmental problems, such as soil degradation or removing the man-made barrages from the mouth of the Murray.

Rather than burnishing the sub-standard environmental outcomes that will become Burke’s legacy, all media should subject his political expediency and appalling legacy to critical analysis.

Max Rheese is executive director of the Australian Environment Foundation