Without the environment, there is no economy. So where is the environment in policy releases and stories being discussed in the lead-up to the September election? Professor Ian Lowe raised this issue back in February http://theconversation.com/the-environment-issues-we-should-be-hearing-about-at-this-election-11929
Over-allocation of water resources, loss of soil structure and accelerated erosion, slow revegetation of cleared landscapes, limited recycling of wastewater, slow rates of re-use of stormwater, long term impacts of drought, all of these issues continue to need action and funding, but they are not considered to be priority issues in the current political agenda. The low level and insecure nature of funding for environmental action reflects this attitude.
So how much is being invested in caring for the environment which supports the economy and Australian communities? Since the days of the Howard government, the environment has not been funded from the recurrent mainstream budget, but from a series of special programs, starting with the Natural Heritage Trust which was funded from the sale of Telstra. Currently, the key funding sources are the Caring for our Country Program and the Biodiversity Fund.
Funding in all of these programs is allocated through an intensive application process which is overly bureaucratic, slow and consumes resources which could be more effectively directed to on-ground outcomes. The emphasis on accountability often means that more funds are spent on reporting and accounting than are spent on the ground. Catchment Management Authorities and Boards spend just as much time seeking funding as carrying out their priority tasks in managing natural resources.
Environmental dollars may sound big in political announcements, but they are nowhere near the scale needed to solve serious environmental problems. Priority activities are under-funded by 5-6 times. Excellent projects compete with each other, and often projects funded receive much less than their applications, in order to spread the limited funds as far as possible (over as many electorates as possible). This thin spread of funding has previously been described as ‘the vegemite approach’. As a result, none of the projects can be fully effective, as they are not fully funded. If a project involves on-ground works, such as installing a culvert, it is not possible to install part of a culvert – other things will have to be cut, like publicity, monitoring, field days and project officer time.
Environmental funding programs have been reviewed and revised regularly (within the same government) or re-designed and re-badged on change of government. This review process creates gaps in funding, stop/start projects, uncertainty of employment for project officers, incomplete funding for completion of projects, and valuable time spent on applications and accounting reports instead of on-ground results. The Coalition has announced that it will replace Caring for our Country with ‘Landscape Recovery’, within 12 months. In effect, that will mean another hiatus in funding, with projects and project officers in limbo while application and funding processes are changed.
Neglect of the environment now will lead to much greater expense in the future, as environmental services decline and costly repair action is required. Australia cannot afford to take for granted environmental services like clean water, clean air and healthy soils. It has been estimated that only 4% of the defence budget would be sufficient to fix the most critical environmental problems.
‘We have no Planet B!’ a supporter of David Suzuki said recently. Investment in environmental health is investment in jobs, the economy and the well-being of the community. Sustainable management of the environment and Australia’s natural resources should be a central issue in the national election next September. All voters should be lobbying for better protection and management of our natural assets, with secure funding and long term management programs. Get the environment onto the agenda for the election!