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Environmental Cringe?

Why Australia's environmental achievements receive more
recognition abroad than at home.

An address by the
Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage,
Senator the Hon Robert Hill,
to the Sydney Institute.

February 10, 2000

1999 was a stellar year for Australian sport with victories on the world stage in tennis, rugby, hockey, cricket and surfing, along with a swag of swimming world records.

Not surprisingly, these wins were rewarded with blanket media coverage, ticker-tape parades, and public receptions.

In all the hoopla, another of Australia's world championships snuck through unnoticed.

Australia finished last year with the best record in the world for the destruction of ozone-depleting halons, confirming our status as a world leader in ozone-related activities.

It has been a remarkable success story and it is just one of many environment issues where Australia receives more recognition abroad than it does at home.

It is regrettable that as a nation we are not more forthcoming in acknowledging the things we do well in managing our environment.

We have all heard of "the cultural cringe", a term used to describe Australia's penchant for failing to assert its traditions and accomplishments.

One of the unfortunate by-products of our failure to acknowledge our environmental achievements is the development of what could be described as an "environmental cringe".

This has been helped along by the more radical elements of the green political lobby groups who appear to decry everything Australia does as inadequate or second best.

These groups continually claim that Australia will be an international disgrace unless we immediately adopt their stance on their cause of the day.

For example, last year green groups said Australia would be an international disgrace if Kakadu was placed on the World Heritage Convention's "in danger" list.

Of course, at the same time they also claimed Australia would be an international disgrace if Kakadu wasn't put on the list.

Now this may appear farcical but as they say in politics, some of the mud still sticks.

Unfortunately our nation, its people and their unheralded efforts to work for a better environment are diminished by the desire of some to score cheap points by denigrating Australia's environmental performance.

For example, I have already mentioned our exceptional record on ozone-related activities.

Australia has destroyed more tonnes of halon 1211 than any other country. We have established a halon bank as a national and regional centre for the collection, recycling and destruction of halon gases. We are ahead of the timetable set by the Montreal Protocol for the phase-out of ozone-depleting HCFCs.

We have contributed more than US$17 million to a multi-lateral fund to assist developing nations and we are active participants in working groups under the Montreal Protocol.

Australian industry has won awards from the US Environment Protection Agency for its global leadership in the phase-out of ozone depleting substances.

It's an impressive record by anyone's standards.

But when news broke recently of our sale of 250 tons of stockpiled halon to the United States Defence Force for essential purposes, all that good work seemed to count for nothing.

The Federal Opposition immediately accused the government of destroying Australia's reputation on ozone matters.

This is despite the fact that the Montreal Protocol, which was signed and ratified by the former Labor Government, grants a blanket exemption for defence force purposes and allows the supply of halons for essential use purposes.

Labor also passed legislation allowing the trade of halons for essential use - the same legislation that this sale was approved under.

On top of that, former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating specifically referred to Australia's role in providing essential use halons to other nations in his 1992 Environment Statement.

The hypocrisy of it aside, Labor was playing to the environmental cringe, trying to paint a false image that Australia is a laggard in international environmental practice.

The radical elements of the green movement weren't far behind.

The Australian Conversation Foundation claimed Australia was now "setting a shocking example to the rest of the world."

But the international scientific community sees it quite differently.

The key advisory panel to the Montreal Protocol has stated that if all the halon were collected and destroyed, nations may have to authorise new production for essential use purposes.

The panel has also specifically backed the halon bank strategy, which we have adopted. It has stated "Repositories and clearinghouses provide a sound pathway for halons to be directed to critical uses. They are also a key to responsible trade across international boundaries and should be supported and encouraged by national governments." Simple scientific fact also dictates that it is preferable to use existing stockpiles of halons for essential uses rather than create new halon.

Australia acted responsibly in this sale.

But the reaction of the ALP and some green groups has once again seen the public left with the false impression that Australia is the world's environmental problem child. Perhaps I wouldn't be so concerned if the halon sale issue was an isolated incident.

There are a host of environmental issues where Australia is either a world leader or respected in the international community as an active participant but is still viewed suspiciously or in a negative light at home.

This year, the international environmental spotlight will be on Australia like never before, providing us with a unique opportunity to showcase our passion, our expertise and our achievements.

Australia has been chosen to host this year's international activities to mark World Environment Day on June 5. We will also host the 52nd annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission and, at the end of the year, host the meeting of the World Heritage Bureau.

Apart from all this we will be staging the first ever Green Olympics.

It has the potential to be a remarkable year - a year where the environment will be centre-stage as our nation expresses its aspirations for the new millennium.

The question is: will we use this year to celebrate or denigrate our record of achievement?

As the year begins it is a fitting time to put the record straight on Australia's environmental achievements and our standing within the international community.

In the middle of this year the Government's new Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act comes into force.

It represents the most comprehensive overhaul of environmental law ever undertaken by a national government.

It defines for the first time key areas of national responsibility and gives the Commonwealth appropriate powers to deal with these matters.

It also adds to the record of legislative reform in environmental matters undertaken by the Howard Government - a record which I believe is unmatched by any other Australian government.

But despite the new EPBC Act running to some 534 pages, the more radical green groups could not find anything in it worth supporting.

The ACF, for example, attacked the new law as being a "further fragmentation of environmental standards" and "a victory for narrow-mindedness and evasion."

But internationally respected groups such as the Humane Society International and the World Wide Fund for Nature disagreed with this extreme view and worked with the Government to amend the bill and see it passed into law.

The World Wide Fund for Nature went on to praise the new law as "the biggest win for the Australian environment in 25 years."

The Chair of the Environment Institute of Australia, Simon Molesworth QC, has also praised the Act's transparency and enforcement provisions saying "Indeed, this Act is actually equal to any environmental legislation I know of in any comparable jurisdiction around the world. ... As a composite whole, the advances we gain in this Act are actually better than any I know of in Europe. It is certain there is nothing comparable in any of the Asian or Pacific countries."

This positive view was shared by world renowned biodiversity expert Dr Thomas Lovejoy, the chief adviser to the World Bank in biodiversity issues, who says the Act is among the most innovative he has seen anywhere in the world, including the United States and Europe.

Despite these expert opinions from environmentalists, lawyers, and biodiversity specialists, the ACF still wants to mislead the public into thinking Australia's legislative protection of the environment at a Commonwealth level is inadequate and second rate.

Along with this landmark legislative reform, the Howard Government has brought to office a determination to involve the community in the task of caring for the environment and to provide them with the financial support they need.

The Natural Heritage Trust - funded through the part sale of Telstra - has been an outstanding success in this regard.

The Trust has already seen $700 million distributed to thousands of projects across Australia.

The involvement of the community provides an enormous pool of volunteer labour. It also ensures that the community becomes part of the solution to local environmental problems.

The Trust has also funded projects which support the priority policy areas of the Government - areas such as the marine environment, land degradation, management of river systems, endangered species, and protection of World Heritage areas to name just a few.

And it is in these key areas which Australia has gained widespread international recognition of our efforts.

For example, the OECD in its most recent Environmental Performance Review of Australia recognised our "solid legal, institutional and scientific basis for managing biological diversity", acknowledged our strong community involvement in voluntary conservation projects, and praised our forestry policies, improved air quality and improved fisheries management.

It also highlighted Australia's world leading role on marine issues.

This Government has achieved more in terms of protecting and managing our marine environment than any government before it.

We have developed Australia's first National Oceans Policy, committed $50 million to its implementation, and established a National Oceans Office.

The US, Canada, New Zealand and the Pacific Island nations have since sought our advice on how to go about preparing and implementing strategic plans to protect and manage marine resources.

We have also been recognised for our world-leading role in the protection of marine wildlife such as whales, albatross, dugongs, and the Patagonian Toothfish.

The Howard Government also established the world's second largest marine park in the Great Australia Bight along with another major park covering underwater sea mounts off the Tasmanian coast.

International support is now growing for the concept of such marine protected areas in international waters, legally enforced under international laws of the sea. This was a concept first proposed and developed by Australia.

Our management and protection of the world's largest marine park - the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park - continues to set the global standard for protection of coral reefs.

The expertise of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is continually being sought out by other nations and we have encouraged and supported better coral reef management practices among the nations of our region.

I think I could safely say that no other nation in the world manages and protects its coral reefs as well as Australia does. This is, no doubt, why the United States approached Australia to chair the International Coral Reef Initiative during 1997's International Year of the Reef.

This fine record has not stopped some green groups from scaremongering over the future of the reef.

Australia's management of its other World Heritage areas has also been unfairly attacked.

We have seen the sustained political attacks of green groups over the Jabiluka uranium mine.

Australia had acted responsibly in regulating the nearby existing Ranger mine - it is possibly the most monitored mine in the world. The scientists tell us it has not caused damage to the nearby Kakadu National Park in its 20 years of operation.

The work done by the Supervising Scientist in monitoring the health of the wetlands in Kakadu is world class and is symbolic of the high duty of care adopted by Australia in protecting Kakadu.

Again, I can confidently state that our management of Kakadu and our other World Heritage Areas is an example of world's best practice.

This outstanding performance has led to the World Heritage Bureau asking Australia to establish a Asia Pacific Focal Point for World Heritage Managers - in which Australia will share with the nations of our region our expertise in managing and protecting these areas of global significance.

Australia should also be proud of its efforts to repair the damage done to our natural environment through inappropriate land uses in the past.

The achievements of the Landcare movement, along with the remarkable success of the $450 million Bushcare revegetation program, stands in stark contrast to the continued reluctance of some State governments to implement effective controls on landclearing.

Australia's Landcare movement is now being used as a model for similar programs in South Africa and the United States.

Australia has also been recognised internationally for its forest management practices even though green groups may paint a different picture and our media continues to focus on protests in individual forest blocks.

Our Regional Forest Agreements have established an internationally respected benchmark for the responsible balancing of nature conservation and resource security.

Australia's expertise was specifically sought out by the World Bank to assist our regional neighbours to implement effective practices in their forests.

Australian industry has also made vast improvements in its environmental performance and, while we always would like to see them do more, they deserve credit for their achievements to date.

Australian companies have been quick to recognise that better environmental performance can translate in a better bottom line both through savings on production costs and improved consumer support.

Australia has been at the forefront of programs encouraging cleaner production, waste reduction, and environmental auditing. We are now among the world leaders in embracing the new concept of eco-efficiency.

We have also recently launched a National Pollutant Inventory - a database which allows all Australians to check what is being emitted by industry and other sources into their local environment.

Already Australian industry has shown their willingness to build confidence within the community by going beyond what was legally required of it in the first year of Inventory reporting.

Australia's expertise in hazardous waste management, environmental planning, mine management, air and water quality, and management of chemicals and persistent organic pollutants has been put to good effect in the nations within our region.

Through AusAID and our support of the United Nations Environment Program we have promoted better environmental practice for industries in developing nations.

We have also been a driving force in the APEC environment ministers forum which ensures we are well-placed to influence and support better practice on the environmental issues affecting our region.

Closely related to our industrial performance is our response to the challenge of global warming.

Greenhouse is another issue where Australia's efforts receive more recognition abroad than at home.

The Kyoto Protocol was a significant diplomatic and environmental victory for Australia in that the international community accepted the merits of our argument that the costs of reducing global emissions should be borne fairly among developed nations.

We have accepted a challenging target and we now are one of the most advanced nations in the world in implementing our domestic response to the Greenhouse issue.

The Commonwealth committed an additional $1 billion to greenhouse and air quality initiatives as part of the revised tax package.

The Australian Greenhouse Office, the first of its type in the world, is implementing a world-class suite of programs to encourage the development and commercialisation of renewable energy projects.
These programs have been supported by the Government's move to set a mandatory target of a 2% increase in the generation of renewable energy.

We are also playing a key role in developing an international carbon emissions trading scheme - the scheme which will ensure the success of the Kyoto Protocol.

Again, we receive more recognition for our role abroad than we do here at home in Australia.

For example, the Pew Centre on Global Climate Change represents some of the largest corporations in the United States who are actively confronting the challenge of global warming.

The Pew Centre has asked Australia to represent the non-European Union nations at a meeting in April in recognition of the early success of our domestic response and our active role in on-going international negotiations.

I could also go on about a whole range of other areas where Australia is recognised for its world leadership - protection of RAMSAR listed wetlands, Antarctic research and conservation, and protection of migratory birds.

This is not to say that Australia has achieved all that it is capable of or all that it needs to in the areas I have spoken of tonight.

Our nation still faces major challenges to overcome the threat of salinity, to improve the health of our river systems particularly the Murray Darling, to slow the rate of landclearing, to generate further improvements in waste management and reduction, and to enshrine the environment as a core issue in all industry decision-making processes.

But our performance to date gives us confidence that we can meet these challenges and continue to aspire to the goal of leaving our natural environment in a better state than we found it.

But if I could make one final observation, I would like to acknowledge the Australian community as world leaders in environmental care.

The increased level of environmental education, the growing involvement of schoolchildren and community groups in environment projects, and the massive success of household action programs such as recycling and energy saving, are all examples of the enthusiasm of ordinary Australians.

I would hope that as World Environment Day approaches, Australia takes the time to give itself a bit of a pat on the back and celebrate its outstanding environmental achievements.

I would also hope that the Australian media will seek out some of these environmental heroes and give them the acknowledgment they deserve - they're not hard to find. In particular, I would hope that our green political lobby groups can bring themselves to acknowledge that Australia compares favourably with the rest of the world across all environmental areas - even those areas where these groups would want us to do better.

Contrary to what some of these groups would have us believe, Australia does not have to go around with an environmental chip on its shoulder.

We should walk proud, knowing that our record is acknowledged by those around us, that our expertise and counsel is highly valued by our neighbours, and that our environmental future is safe in the hands of our committed and enthusiastic people.

Commonwealth of Australia