Blog | 2nd Jun, 2015

Report, ignore, repeat – A tale of environmental dysfunction

Last week, without any fanfare whatsoever, the Victorian government’s response to the 2013 State of the Environment (SOE) Report was tabled in parliament. The SOE report is written by the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability whose role is, amongst other things, to ‘report on the condition of Victoria’s natural environment and encourage Victorian and local governments to adopt sound environmental practices and procedures.’

The previous Coalition government failed to formalise its response to the report, leaving the current Andrews government
holding the baby. It’s hardly surprising then, that the response is pretty tame and limited to restating relatively unambitious pre-election policy commitments made by Labor.

This is not to say that commitments such as reviewing the Climate Change Act, the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act and the flawed Native Vegetation rules are not welcome. We commend them wholeheartedly. It just feels like there should be more.

The first SOE report from 2008 had a range of recommendations that still have not been implemented 7 years later. Some of those recommendations have similar themes to recommendations in the 2013 report.

For example, reforms in forestry have gone backwards during the last four years of attacks by a liberal national government, and progress on dealing with over-allocated rivers and wetlands in rural Victoria has been glacial.

When it comes to water, some key recommendations from the 2008 SOE report include:

W1.6 Act with urgency to increase environmental water reserves where they are currently insufficient to keep rivers in a sustainable condition, including buying back water. In particular, minor and moderate flooding events should be restored to floodplain ecosystems.

WR1 The Victorian Government should assess the merit of removing logging from Melbourne’s water supply catchments, to maximise catchment yield and water quality.

Since these recommendation were made 7 years ago, Victoria has consistently resisted purchasing water for degraded rivers, even from farmers and irrigators willing to sell. And Melbourne’s water catchments, as well as those north of the divide, continue to be unsustainably logged on an industrial scale.

It is pretty clear that key recommendations, and their government responses have been largely overlooked by government departments and policy makers.

Victorian governments know the benefits of environmental watering of wetlands; they have been integral to delivering great outcomes in some wetlands in northern Victoria. However, the job isn’t even half done. River health is still in decline and rivers still do not have their fair share.

When responding to SOE recommendations the government department responsible for implementing the report’s recommendations often provides meaningless waffle, rather than clear actions to fix the problems. One great example is this quote from the Government response to the SOE report recommendations:

“The asset-based approach to environmental policy and planning will ensure that ecological processes are considered in decision-making processes and prioritise public investment to focus on high value assets.

This departmental doublespeak is meaningless to most people, and it isn’t a solution.
So what is the solution to this ongoing government inertia that results in repetitive recommendations which are not acted upon?

There are two main arms of government that could remedy this situation. The Victorian Auditor General could be given the power to ensure that government responses to recommendations are actually implemented. Alternatively, The Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability could also appropriately fulfil this role if given the necessary power.

Allowing for external oversight in this way would give a clear incentive to government agencies to get on with the job and develop policies that help to remedy environmental degradation.

If nothing changes, then our state governments will merely continue to pay lip service to SOE reports without acting on them, and the reports themselves will continue to rehash the same old recommendations on the same environmental problems.

This is neither a good use of taxpayer funds, nor is it good for dealing with the environmental, water and climate challenges Victoria faces.