John Cain Foundation Address

In late February 2018, LEAN National Convener Felicity Wade addressed the John Cain Foundation. The speech attempted to explain the need for LEAN's campaign for new environment laws and institutions and the reasons why the environment matters to Labor and its historic mission. Hope you enjoy it.


The Cain Environment Legacy

It is with great pleasure I join you today at the John Cain Foundation. As you know John Cain’s environmental legacy is remarkable. I read the Victorian National Parks Association’s account this week. Cain Minister, Joan Kirner – who remains the queen of, and inspiration to all Labor enviro women –  famously set up Landcare, an innovation that revolutionised environmental stewardship in the rural sector. Tom Roper lead that Government’s remarkable environmental gains. The Cain Government TRIPLED the area of National Parks in Victoria. In 1982 there were 985,000 ha of park, by 1991 there were 2.78 million ha.

Such iconic decisions. First was the radical expansion of the Grampians or Gariwerd National Park. Other new and expanded parks included the Gippsland Lakes Coastal Park, the Murray-Sunset National Park in the west, the Little Dessert National Park and of course the wonderfully crowning and hard won achievement of the Alpine National Park (NP) – 646,000 ha of our wonderful, strange, uniquely Australian mountains. There were 5 new marine reserves, including Wilsons Prom. And the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act of 1988 was ground breaking work in identifying and acting to protect endangered species. Of course East Gippsland proved a harder challenge, as it became a key battle ground of that late 80s and 90s defining environmental debate over logging of old growth forests. Then as now, settling the dispute between environmentalists and the workers of the forest industry proved tricky for Labor. But John Cain managed to protect three key areas of East Gippsland, including important extensions to the Alpine NP and the famous Errinundra Plateau. It was quite some time before any other Australian political leader managed to take forested areas out of production. My early days as a conservationist were during the second round of the forestry wars in the dying days of the Keating Govt and working in my home state, NSW on Bob Carr’s forestry reforms of the late 90s and early 2000s.

The Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN)

So what is LEAN? LEAN was started in NSW in 2004 by two young women, now senators Jenny Mc Allister and Kristina Keneally. They were inspired by the creation of Labor for Refugees. They had two aims – to represent ALP membership concern for the environment and to do so in a way that provided our dedicated but under-utilised membership with paths to meaningful action in the party.  We still work with these dual aims, and see ourselves as much an organisation of membership empowerment as environmental policy.  

We are unashamedly about shifting policy, causing trouble, making change.

LEAN ebbed and flowed as is the way with entirely voluntary run action groups. In 2007, with the task of embedding climate action, LEAN became a national organisation. It remains a federated structure, with each state running to slightly different rules and distinctly different cultures, coming together to work on issues of shared concern.

In 2013 LEAN Australia re-formed – a data base and a drop box full of logos was pretty much the sum of its existence which young Dean Rizetti of the Victorian branch dropped me in an email as he got on a plane to head to Oxford.

We pulled together an event in July that year as it was 30 years since the High Court Decision to stop the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania. Former Radio National presenter and Franklin campaigner Peter Thompson interviewed Bob Hawke as we sipped shiraz. 

But what really motivated our rebuilding, was the fear of how the party would respond on climate change policy after the devastating Federal election loss in 2013. An election in which Tony Abbott had so skilfully divided the nation on climate policy.

A group of us sat in a pub on Spring St in late 2014 and adopted a plan to reinsert climate as a key part of Labor’s offering – by campaigning for 50% renewable energy by 2030 and adoption of the Climate Change Authority’s economy wide emission reduction proposals. Our efforts were by no means universally welcomed by the party and its hierarchy. But it didn’t stop us. Volunteers spoke to 370 local branches about the Labor imperative for action. I don’t have time for the whole story, I have written about it elsewhere (Inside Story: "Burying Margaret Mead") - but the happy ending was unanimous support at the last ALP National Conference.

I want to talk about two things today –  the specifics of LEAN’s current campaign – an audacious plan to reset the currently failing regime of environmental management in Australia - and the broader argument about why environment matters to Labor.

We have a problem

Australia is one of the richest countries on the planet.

We are also one of the luckiest countries in terms of the scale and majesty of our landscapes and the richness of our biodiversity. We are one of the world’s 17 mega-diverse countries.

In this combination – incredible wealth both materially and biologically we are rare if not unique. Most countries that are stewards to the planet’s amazing natural bounty are poor. What luck we have.

But we are failing and failing abominably. Most indicators of Australia’s environmental health are crashing.

We are one of the world’s worst land clearers. Our rates of deforestation put us in the top 10 in the world, alongside the Congo, Indonesia and Brazil.

We have one of the world’s greatest rates of extinction.  Late last year, Nature – the world’s pre-eminent enviro nerd academic journal – published a study that revealed that Australia is one of seven countries responsible for more than half of global biodiversity loss.

Australia was home to the first mammalian extinction that has been credited to climate change. Here in Victoria, we sit on the brink of the extinction our faunal emblem.  Vic Forests - hardly ones to overstate these things -  estimates there are about 2000 left on the face of the earth.  Yet we continue to log their habitat.

The Murray Darling Basin Plan struggling with rampant water theft reveals the failure of environmental governance as we bleed dry this great inland spine of life giving water.

On more urban concerns we aren’t doing great either. Penrith in Sydney’s west was the hottest place on the planet in January, local member Emma Husar is ropable as the less privileged pay for climate change with the heat island effect from which the leafy suburbs are insulated. Plastics choke our waterways, they poison our marine life and now are ending up in our food. Air quality and water quality are both under pressure and threaten quality of life and food security.

We are poisoning our agricultural assets with fertiliser fuelled production and struggling to keep feral animals and plants from undermining both farm production and the fragile, endemic ecosystems that can’t compete against domestic cats and indian mynas.

It is LEAN’s contention that this is the sort of problem only Labor can fix. It is not the site by site battles – the headline grabbing stuff and the activist rallying cry, it is the work of a serious reformist party of government.

We have a plan

Currently Australia operates under Federal environmental law from the Howard era – the EPBC or Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act, 1999.

At the time of its establishment, Labor Environment Shadow Minister, Kelvin Thomson said, “Although it might be the largest environmental bill introduced into the Parliament, it is neither comprehensive nor fundamental reform” (HoR, 29.6.99).

Julia Gillard described it as a “hastily cobbled together legislative nightmare” (HoR 29.6.99)

The Australian Conservation Foundation, the Wilderness Society and Greenpeace said, “Any Senator who votes for this unacceptable legislation will be supporting the degradation of Australia’s environment”.

World Resources Institute ranks Australia 37th of 70 in its global environmental democracy index - behind Mongolia, Cameroon and Russia. I don’t think their methodology is great, but whatever its weaknesses, it reveals our laws are NOT world’s best practice.

We need to completely rebuild the laws and institutions that govern environmental management in this country.  I won’t get pulled into the weeds, but there are a few key principles:

We need to enshrine Federal responsibility for and leadership in protecting Australia’s environment. Needless to say, when our Constitution was written, the environment wasn’t mentioned. This has lead to environment remaining a responsibility free zone, with no level of government responsible for maintaining Australia’s environmental assets. When major threats are identified, responding adequately falls through the cracks. We intend to enshrine in law the Federal Environment Minister’s responsibility to ensure the environmental health of the nation. And to give them the tools to make it so.

Our current laws focus on development approvals. These need to be reformed, especially from the point of view of business who get stuck in an opaque process, with two non-synchronised levels of government and shifting goal posts. None of us believe 5000 page environmental impact statements are radically improving environmental outcomes.

More fundamentally however, our laws must shift away from inadequately trying to ameliorate the negative impacts of development,  instead building processes to deliver proactive and positive management of environmental assets.

Let’s look at water management, air quality, deforestation, species protection and build national plans and targets that are then applied through levels of government and through bio-regional plans.  We need to approach the great threats like plastics or habitat loss in an integrated fashion.

Finally we need to ensure community interests are properly defended. When Australian Labor was designing the first environmental laws in the late 70s and 80s, those laws had as a central precept that the community had a right to be involved in the processes associated with deciding how public assets are used. Over time commercial interests have eroded this key concept and Labor has often gone along with it. Community involvement and recourse must be enshrined in environmental law.

Perhaps most importantly however, we are proposing the establishment of a new independent body. Like monetary policy has the Reserve Bank we believe the environment needs its own empowered, expert, independent and trusted body to lead the debate. The best laws in the world are irrelevant if they cannot be enforced and enlivened. Imagine a science fuelled, politically empowered institution that named the challenges, proposed solutions, advocated effectively.  

So LEAN is out talking to the rank and file about this. We have got the support of 270 local branches and volunteers are still at it – out in the evenings visiting draughty halls, speaking to the good- hearted people of the ALP and receiving almost unanimous support for the proposition that Labor has a job to fix this. But how does it relate to Labor’s broader mission?

Why does the environment matter to Labor?

It matters because our voters think it matters.

The ANU Electorate study has been conducted by the ANU every Federal election since 1987. It surveys 4000 people about how and why they voted.

The 2016 study revealed that 47% of voters identify environment or global warming as “extremely important” when voting. Now this was a bit of a “do you like kittens” kind of question as multiple issues could be chosen, but environment is named and named consistently as a matter of concern.  Perhaps more interestingly 19% of the electorate identified environment and global warming as the first or second most important issue in deciding their vote.

Outside of the predominant issues of health, the economy and education, the environment ranks ahead of superannuation and tax, and equal to government debt as issues voters are ‘extremely concerned’ about. As one senior Labor dude said to me – environment is an equivalent second order issue for our voters as debt is for the conservatives.

Look how much time the Coalition spend talking about debt. We hardly mention the environment.

But are those who care for the environment really Labor voters?  Yes they are. An environmentally concerned voter is most likely to vote ALP.

19.1% of the electorate, voted ALP and said the environment or climate change was ‘extremely important’ in 2016. This compares to 8.3% for the Greens and 14.2% for the Coalition.

(There were an estimated 2.5 million voters at the 2016 election (19%) whose 1st or 2nd most important voting issues were environmental. The ALP is the party of choice for these voters, with 6.3% voting ALP, 5.4% Green, and 5% Coalition.)

Union members are significantly more likely to either count environment as extremely important or as the most important issues than non-unionists. This of course partially reflects the feminisation of the union movement with teachers and nurses consistently supporting environmental action.

What is very important in this is that those who care about the environment identify as centrist. This is not about Batman. It is not about Sydney. This is about what I call the “normal” people – I always think of my cousins, an admin officer and an early childhood teacher from Sydney’s outer edge who talk about the lizards they love that bask on their driveway. Australians might not like greenies and the contestation they create but they do like the environment. It is Labor’s task to craft sensible, real environment policy – on our own terms and speak to the centre about this shared concern.

And of course, it is centrist voters who are more likely to shift their vote.

These numbers are borne out in the sweep of Labor’s legacy.

All of Labor’s most successful leaders reflect these insights. All have had environment as a key part of their agenda for government. Environment might not be a top order vote changer but successful Labor governments have understood that environment is an important aspect of the Labor version of a civilised society that we offer the Australian people.

I often like to use the examples of Bob Carr and Peter Beattie. They are such different types of politicians, different kinds of men – but both were hugely successful Premiers, leading their governments to multiple victories. Both were ground breaking, brave, innovative on environmental protection. Forest industries re-structured, parks estates expanded, land clearing halted.

At the Federal level, Gough Whitlam created the country’s first environmental laws, bringing environment into the purview of government.

Bob Hawke and his government however stand out in this hall of Labor Enviro heroes. Hawke is undisputed as Labor’s most successful modern Prime Minister. He came from the ACTU and never shied away from a deeply Labor persona of looking after the everyday of everyday Australians. But he was also a remarkable environmentalist.

I was at high school when Bob Hawke saved the Franklin. While I am part of the first generation in my family to go to university, thanks to Whitlam’s university reforms-  Hawke’s Franklin decision was the one that marked and inspired my childhood. It was deeply nationalist pride in where we come from, a symbol of optimism in Australia’s special and unique place in the world.

Hawke’s list of iconic decisions – Franklin, Kakadu, Daintree, leading the international push to stop mining in Antarctica – is impressive. But more than this, he also delivered early attempts at systemic approaches to environmental protection. In 1992 the Hawke Labor Government initiated a National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development aiming to “facilitate a coordinated and co-operative approach to ecologically sustainable development” toward long-term benefits not just “short termism”. This systemic approach is what Labor must re-embrace. Going beyond responses to the latest cashed up campaign.

It has been a quiet old time since, in Federal Labor. Don’t get me wrong, good Ministers have done great things. Peter Garrett and Tony Burke the environment Ministers in the Rudd-Gillard government delivered many great environmental outcomes – such as ending the Tasmanian forest wars and creating a national marine park network – but tackling the big picture, attempting to fundamentally address the challenge of crashing environmental health and protecting our natural capital as a key economic competitive advantages is one we’ve been AWOL on for some time.

So environment matters because it matters electorally, it matters because of our legacy...
and it matters because it is Labor’s historical mission

On my grim days I think environment only has a place in Labor in the “great men of history” kind of model, where empowered individuals use some of their personal political capital to make good decisions. This is not good enough and certainly does not reflect the ALP membership’s concern.

In classical economics terms, there are three factors of production – capital, labour and “the land” or resources used in production. The Labor party formed in response to the conflict between labour and capital. At the time of our creation, the land was a neutral actor, largely ignored. The last half century has shown capital is in fundamental conflict with “the land” as well. This threatens not only our livelihoods but life itself.

As Labor believes our lives should not be completely mediated by the market, so too the treatment of the environment should not be mediated by the market.  

And as my old boss Luke Foley always said, there is also just the ethical tradition of Labor. We should do it because it is right. In the 21st century a workers’ party committed to a fairer, better society cannot treat environment like an add on.  It must become part of our core story. If we fail to properly face this we will be proven an anachronism. 

While Labor in Government often does good things on the environment, we don’t talk about it an essential part of our mission. We are seen to do deals when campaigns get too hot.  We focus debate on places like Batman and the impossibility of “outgreening the greens”. It’s not about outgreening the greens it should be about running our own race, engaging as a serious party of government. Embracing it because we believe in it, engaging to solve the problem of protecting the environment alongside our traditional concerns of prosperity and equity.

And this is not anti-prosperity. As one business leader put it to me – we need to “collect the dividend created through better natural capital productivity”. Language that makes people like me squirm. But as the Deputy Leader said to me recently, everyone with half a brain knows that looking after the environment can augment economic success. Our challenge as a party is to win the political argument that there is prosperity to be had, money to be made, jobs to be created out of environmental management. As Ken Henry put it

"We need to manage our natural capital with the same diligence that we manage our financial capital. And this means an integrated national approach to natural capital management.” Sounds exactly like the LEAN agenda.

The environment matters to our electoral success.  But this cannot be a crude electoral interest discussion – it must be about Labor updating its mission to take this thing on. Own it. Do the policy thinking. Deliver the policy outcomes – Labor versions of them, rooted in our broader values. Independent of what interest groups are barking about.

Our campaign to rewrite the mechanics of environmental governance in this country sits firmly in Labor’s mission. While ferment builds on particular issues, we are doing the work to improve the processes so that decision making is better in the first place.

LEAN needs to win this campaign and deliver a policy commitment. But that’s the easy part. We must also win the heart of the party and have Labor own and celebrate environmental protection as part of our historic mission in these early days of the 21st century.



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