News | 28th Aug, 2011

Coalition finds that it’s not so easy being green

Sunday, 28 August 2011
Farrah Tomazin, The Age

In a speech to Parliament in November 2009, one year before he was elected Premier, Ted Baillieu strongly supported a carbon pollution reduction scheme.

''We owe the world an honest response to climate change,'' he said. ''Carbon transition is one of the biggest issues that will face Victorian businesses and families over coming years, but I have no doubt that we will in a few years be living in a carbon-managed economy.''

Today, Baillieu is less emphatic. It's not that he's against carbon pricing; he just doesn't like Julia Gillard's model. Bad for jobs, bad for costs, bad for Victoria.

But while the Victorian government has criticised the carbon tax in recent weeks, critics say its own environment credentials are weak.

The Coalition did not take an environmental policy to the election and, since winning office, it has given signals it may walk away from the state's legislated target of a 20 per cent reduction in emissions (beyond year 2000 levels) by 2020.

The legislation was introduced by the Brumby government and passed without opposition. Coalition MPs now describe it as ''aspirational''. Throw in the decision to let cattle back into the Alpine National Park, the possibility of more development in Melbourne's green wedges, and the scrapping of the climate change white paper – which proposed, among other things, the gradual closure of the Hazelwood power plant – and environmental groups are unimpressed.

''I can't believe how obvious they're being on the environment,'' says Environment Victoria chief executive Kelly O'Shanassy.

''They're systematically undoing a number of the gains made over the last 10 years and doing it at a time when the environment is in a worse shape than ever.''

Under Labor, Environment Victoria had regular contact with John Brumby's office or his environment minister, Gavin Jennings. As for the new government: ''You just don't get anything from these guys.''

Business groups have a different view. Faced with the threat of the Greens ahead of the election, Labor beefed up its environmental credentials and unveiled policies such as a higher emissions reduction target than the 5 per cent target proposed federally, and the phased closure of Hazelwood. Baillieu, according to industry figures, has taken a sensible approach as Victoria moves towards cleaner coal and geo-sequestration.

''We are pleased with the Baillieu government's measured and pragmatic recognition that energy security of supply is important and that the carbon tax is poison for small business,'' says Mark Stone, chief executive of the Victorian Employers' Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The Coalition has no big-ticket items on the environment. It had no stand-alone environment policy in the lead-up to the election, opting to put conservation-related commitments into other election plans, such as its energy or water policies. Since coming to office, the Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, Ryan Smith, has had a low profile, while Baillieu and Energy Minister Michael O'Brien drive the agenda.

It's a curious strategy: in a recent question time, for instance, Baillieu, O'Brien, Deputy Premier Peter Ryan, Water Minister Peter Walsh and Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge were all given Dorothy Dixers to talk about the negative impact of the carbon tax. Smith, despite being Climate Change Minister, got no question.

In an interview with The Sunday Age, Smith denied he'd been shut out and rejected suggestions the government had no plan to improve the environment. He cited a list of policy initiatives: such as installing energy-efficient street lights; doubling the state's energy efficiency targets; giving rebates to concession card holders who use energy-efficient appliances; and, one of his favourites, establishing a ''green tick'' accreditation program for small and medium businesses to shift to greener practices.

He admits these will not be enough to get to a 20 per cent cut in emissions over the next decade. When asked if the government takes the target seriously, he said: ''We have to take it seriously, because it's law.''

But the law – the Victorian Climate Change Act – must be automatically reviewed if a national carbon price is introduced, which could lead to the target being dumped, or at least brought into line with the federal target.

According to Smith, much of the Coalition's environmental agenda ''is on hiatus'' as a result of the federal government's carbon tax plan, which won't be legislated until the middle of next year. Until then, he says, the states face uncertainty. Some state programs may no longer be required as a result of the federal scheme, and issues such as compensation still need to be resolved.

He says: ''You might say, 'oh, you're not doing anything in this space', but there are a fair amount of restrictions on us.''

Environmentalists have concerns apart from carbon pricing. Cattle are set to return to the Alpine National Park and, while Victoria will refer the second part of its trial to the Commonwealth, Smith insists he is yet to see any evidence that proves the environmental impacts of grazing as a method of fire mitigation ''are worse than any other method of fire mitigation''. The government has also written to councils asking them for a wish-list of changes they'd like to see in their green wedge areas, prompting fears of further encroachment.

Leaked correspondence from the Department of Sustainability and Environment suggests it is planning to cut staff and there are fears old-growth forests could be opened to more logging.

''They went to the election with virtually no broader vision for the environment, now we're hearing that there is work going on, but they're certainly not talking to the environment movement or the community about what they're thinking,'' says Matt Ruchel, executive director of the Victorian National Parks Association.

Smith aims to deliver on the Coalition's election promises and get value for money doing it. ''I'm about getting practical outcomes … where you can say, 'this is what my dollar is being spent on'. In environment, sometimes that takes a while.''

Check out our rolling report-card on the Baillieu Government’s environmental performance