Baillieu’s vision for the environment is missing in action

Josh Gordon

April 19, 2011


    The Coalition’s green policy is merely a smattering of minor promises.

    YOU could be forgiven for thinking the Coalition presented a comprehensive plan for the environment to Victorian voters. A week before the November election, then environment spokeswoman Mary Wooldridge was out on the hustings reassuring environmentally concerned voters that the Coalition would have something more to say before polling day.

    ”Now, we haven’t fully released our policy yet,” Wooldridge told a Victorian National Parks Association forum. ”We’ll have more … to talk about in our policy.”

    But there would be no policy for the environment. If the Coalition did indeed have one to release, as suggested by Wooldridge, it was binned in the final week of the campaign.

    The association’s executive director, Matt Ruchel, says that after the election he questioned the new Environment Minister, Ryan Smith, about the wayward plan. ”We were informed that it was not released during the election campaign due to tactical reasons,” Ruchel says.

    Tactical reasons? One explanation is that Ted Baillieu had decided it would be futile to attempt to win over environmentally concerned voters on the left, given he had already announced plans to preference the Greens last. Better to save cash to woo voters in the middle worried about their power bills, while creating an impression the environment would not miss out. And better, perhaps, to target special interest groups such as the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association, which backed a Nationals campaign to oust independent Craig Ingram from his East Gippsland seat.

    Whatever the reasons, the Coalition clearly made a late decision that it could win the election without an environment policy, and that it was prepared to risk alienating voters concerned about issues such as global warming, biodiversity loss and land clearing.

    Adding to the blow for environment groups, the Baillieu government was quick to implement policies with potentially negative environmental consequences, including reintroducing cattle grazing to the high country, delivering on a 5 per cent statewide controlled-burn target by 2014 and guaranteeing logging of native forests would continue over the long term.

    This is not to say the Coalition has had nothing positive to say on the environment. There was a smattering of relatively minor policy promises, including cash for tree planting, waterways and Landcare.

    More broadly, the Coalition also backed Labor’s legislation to cut Victoria’s greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 and promised to match a Labor target to draw 5 per cent of the state’s power from large-scale solar plants by 2020, with an effective ban on new brown coal-fired plants. Whether the Coalition is actually taking such promises seriously is a different question.

    When asked about the 20 per cent greenhouse target earlier this month, Energy Minister Michael O’Brien stressed it was an ”aspiration” not a target, and that he would not risk placing upward pressure on power bills.

    ”We were elected on a platform which put cost-of-living pressures for Victorian families front and centre and it would be hypocritical of us to say that we are going to embrace targets that aren’t necessarily within our control and sacrifice the ability of Victorian families to pay their power bills,” he said.

    The government is also rapidly moving away from targets for renewable energy after an auditor’s report found the proportion of Victoria’s power generated using solar, wind and hydro had barely increased over the past decade despite hundreds of millions of dollars of government spending. The report found just 3.9 per cent of Victoria’s power is being generated using renewables – 0.3 percentage points more than in 2002, when Labor first announced a target of 10 per cent that was originally supposed to be achieved by 2010.

    One of the few tangible and significant environmental policies adopted by the Coalition was a promise to ask the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission to consider a gross feed-in tariff offering premium rates for energy pumped into the grid generated by households and businesses using solar. Yet even this policy appears to have stalled.

    ”Before referring this matter to the VCEC, the Coalition government will consider the findings of the Auditor-General on renewable energy that revealed that the Brumby Labor government lied to Victorian families on the cost to household budgets and effectiveness of its renewable energy schemes,” a government spokeswoman said.

    Add in a pledge by Treasurer Kim Wells to protect Victoria’s brown coal competitive advantage ”come hell or high water” and the government’s commitments seems dubious at best.

    Where all of this leaves the environment is unclear. I suspect the Coalition is being deliberately vague, reflecting a broad diversity of views within its own ranks, and a desire to appeal to voters across the political spectrum.

    But this strategy will only last for so long. At some point, Baillieu will need to either admit he has no vision for the environment, or release a comprehensive plan.

    Josh Gordon is state political editor.


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