The Hon Bob Debus AM
Environmentalist, Former NSW Environment Minister, Chair of The Great Eastern Ranges Initiative
Speech at the AEGN Sydney 10th anniversary celebration
“You are more important than you have ever been”
13 March 2019
Obviously enough I don’t need to persuade you to do philanthropy for the environment, but I am quite interested in why you choose the environment over say, medical research. It is my observation over a long time that a very high proportion of committed conservationists grew up in or near the bush. But in any event, the support that you give for the environment bespeaks a particular selflessness.
I was a Minister in New South Wales between a dozen and 30 years ago. I held quite a few portfolios and at one time they included both environment and corrective services. I was able to say that I was the Minster for Outside and the Minister for Inside!
Back then, I generally assumed that we understood the reasons for incarceration and the advantages of community rehabilitation better than we ever had before and that the number of prisoners would be reduced in the future.
I knew that the Liberal Party had established both the National Parks Service and the Environment Protection Authority in this jurisdiction. I knew that expertise in environmental science and land management was growing quickly — and so I generally assumed that future environmental administration would improve environmental protection and sustainability on a bipartisan basis.
But this all proved to be the opposite of what actually happened. My assumption of continuous improvement was an illusion, no doubt encouraged by my fortunate life as a baby boomer.
At the moment, in the immediate term, you are more important than you have ever been because while government is happy to build a lot more prisons and to put ever more Aboriginal people into them, it has been vacating the field of conservation at every level. The sudden one-off burst of expenditure for the Great Barrier Reef really only proves the point.
The reduction in government expenditure on nature conservation is represented by many commentators to be some kind of inevitable trend in public finances, but a moment’s reflection suggests that is absolutely not so. It’s a matter of ideology, that is to say, a matter of political choice.
The really dramatic expenditure reduction did not occur in John Howard’s time, but in the time of Tony Abbott. It was not made better by Malcolm Turnbull: it was made worse. Commonwealth expenditures on nature conservation are lower than they have been in 50 years. And in New South Wales, National Parks officials say to me, “We’ve gone back to the ‘70s.”
Yet, as a matter of political choice you could, for instance, materially reduce carbon emissions and increase the budget for nature conservation by six or seven times just by ending the federal subsidy on diesel fuel.
While government is now spending much less than it did on grants for nature conservation, it has over a longer period also withdrawn from the field at the administrative level. Natural resource management agencies, agriculture departments and national parks services are unable to deliver the local level services upon which landholders once depended.
A soon to be conducted environmental conference at the University of New England is billed as an opportunity “to explore the radically shifting paradigm for governing the environment”. The organisers actually speak of “governing without government”.
My Great Eastern Ranges Initiative gives some clues about this. It shows how governance and planning for conservation may be organised in the community against the background of greatly weakened administration by the natural resource agencies of government. A non-government backbone organisation holds together connected regional networks of local conservation groups across very large landscapes.
In today’s circumstances, private philanthropy and community organisation are reliable. Government is not.
And you all know perfectly well that this retreat of government is doubly perverse. It is happening at the worst possible time in all of human history — in some sort of inverse relationship to the urgent need for a whole new deal in nature conservation. The need is so great, I believe, that our society should really be treating conservation of the environment as we treated the project for post-war reconstruction in the past.
The people in this room don’t really need to be told about the existing and unprecedented threats to individual Australian ecosystems, many of them with World Heritage status; about the evidence of crashing insect and amphibian populations; about the iconic Australian species that are becoming locally extinct and vulnerable overall; that global extinctions are occurring at up to 1,000 times the background rate.
I will take the liberty of reminding you though, that the protection and rehabilitation of nature cannot be separated from the world’s response to climate change. I have personally embraced large landscape connectivity conservation initiatives because I have accepted the internationally supported argument that fostering the recovery of the lands that buffer and reconnect still intact natural ecosystems is fundamental to improvement in the future sequestration of carbon. That is to say, reintegration and protection of biodiversity across sectors and tenures is a necessary and critical element in the limitation of global warming.
At the same time, I accept the evidence that you cannot maintain a stable population of most species across anything approaching their normal range unless you preserve somewhere in the vicinity of 50% of their habitat.
As the eminent conservation biologist E. O. Wilson says, “Nature needs half.”
We can deliver half to nature with connectivity programs linking reserves and protected areas across ecologically critical hot spots like the Great Eastern Ranges, the Southwest of Western Australia and elsewhere.
In spite of the present situation, however, I don’t want to leave you feeling that your efforts will forever be needed, as they are now, to compensate for the failures of government.
Nothing is certain, but it is quite possible that government attitudes and policies will change a great deal in the next few years in Australia, at least return to a more normal, recognisable trajectory. Younger people with better understanding of the global environmental crisis will arrive: there will no longer be political benefit in perverse rejection of science or support for fossil fuel companies. Next May could well demonstrate that such benefit is already gone!
My own experience was always that nature conservation and natural resource management worked best when it was prosecuted by an alliance of government, community and the private sector, each filling the role for which it was best fitted: Landcare, the Clean Energy Package, the National Reserve System.
The philanthropic sector can often be more nimble, more innovative than government and well able to influence national strategy for the better.
I have already confessed to my past erroneous assumptions about rational behaviour. And it may be that our society won’t use new technology to help reduce the ecological footprint of homo sapiens. It may be that government will never resume the expansion of the national reserve system or better support the community to manage the land in between to benefit nature. It may be that government will never launch a great national plan to restore the environment and fight climate change in partnership with the private sector.
But the consequences are hard to contemplate and for the present I choose to remain optimistic. I hope you can do so too.