Blog | 25th Nov, 2010

Who's up to the environmental challenges of our time?

If you believe the polls the Greens may yet hold the balance of power following the Victorian state election and could even succeed in winning Lower House seats.

The federal election result suggests their vote is ascendant and, at state level, the preferencing decisions by the major parties certainly indicate they feel threatened. But has this electoral threat produced an environmental policy response from the major parties? Does this mean that Victorians have better environmental choices this election? How do the two alternative governments stack up?

Let’s look at Labor first.

On climate change, Labor started out strongly. They set a target to reduce the state’s emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, and a plan to reduce emissions from coal use by 4 million tonnes per year by closing one quarter of Hazelwood power station. Labor also has strong plans to boost the energy efficiency of our houses and accelerate the deployment of large scale solar. This started to add up to a strategy but there are some dissonant notes. The emission reductions required to achieve the 20 per cent target are being “back-ended” to the second half of the decade leaving the hard work to the next state government. Labor has also granted $50 million for a new coal-fired power station which would wipe out the emissions from closing one quarter of Hazelwood. Unfortunately, this seriously undermines Labor’s climate story.

Elsewhere, Labor is supporting negotiations to end native forest logging, but hasn’t committed to actually protect any threatened forests. It is investing in improving the efficiency of irrigation in northern Victoria to return water to our rivers, but won’t buy water back from rivers. Overall the nature conservation agenda of the ALP is extremely lean this election, with no major announcements to secure new protected areas or boost biodiversity protection.

How about the Coalition then?

Making a comparison is tough. Why? Because less than three days out from the election, having been in Opposition since 1999, the Coalition is yet to release their formal environmental or climate change policy for this election. The Coalition can’t yet tell us how much emissions will reduce over the next four years if they win government on Saturday. This is an extraordinary omission from both governance and political perspectives.

From a governance viewpoint, the Coalition has failed to outline how it will tackle climate change, one of the biggest issues of our time, and yet they are asking Victorians to vote for them to “build the future”. From a political viewpoint, a major party in a state where 86 per cent of residents say they are concerned about the environment, has decided to dismiss community attitudes.

The few environmental announcements that can be found on the Coalition’s website are embarrassingly thin. For instance, the Coalition has a plan to save the Mordiallioc Creek, but not the Murray River. Now we all love our suburban creeks but really? Elsewhere the Coalition has released environment-related policies that actually take us backwards. Witness their plan to re-introduce cattle grazing into the Alpine National Parks, or their policy to make it harder to build new wind farms in Victoria.

Two years ago Victoria’s first ever State of Environment Report issued a clarion call to Victorian politicians, decisions-makers and the public to take action to arrest environmental decline. The massive report, which took three years to compile, told of a growing disconnect between Victorians and our natural environment and concluded that the state’s growing prosperity was masking the environmental damage caused by our society and lifestyles. It warned that Victoria is a disproportionate contributor to global warming and that the state’s waterways and biodiversity are being pushed to the brink of collapse.

Fast forward two years to the final week of the 2010 state election campaign, and it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that business as usual politics is just not up to the scale of the environmental challenges we face. The environmental warnings have just not penetrated current policies.

Whoever wins government this Saturday will govern until 2014. This is a critical four-year window in which we need to make crucial decisions to cut Victoria’s greenhouse pollution and reverse environmental decline before it is too late. Climate science clearly tells us that global emissions need to start falling by 2015 if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. That means that polluting and wealthy economies like Victoria need to make major cuts to our greenhouse pollution in the next four years if we want to allow the developing world some breathing space.

Perhaps the Greens are rising in popularity because people want strong action to safeguard our environment and the jobs and livelihoods that depend on it. That is a message that the major parties are yet to grasp. Unless something changes in the final three days of the campaign Victorians will either have a government backing incremental environmental reform or a government in complete denial. While one is clearly an improvement on the other, either way it won’t be enough to get us out of the mess we’re in. The major parties need to come up with more than preference deals to respond to this electoral and environmental threat.

This piece written by our Campaigns Director Mark Wakeham and was published on the ABC’s The Drum.