The Voice: a risk we have to take

For all its good signs, the passage of the government’s climate bill in Canberra last week was not the most propitious development last week; we should hold the applause for that until the Senate has its say. This is instead about another promising event – Anthony Albanese’s Garma speech.

The battle-lines have already been drawn over the PM’s ideas for a referendum to enshrine in the Constitution an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. He proposes a three-part question identifying the Voice, outlining its role, and emphasising Parliament’s power to make laws about it.

On Monday, as Senate President Sue Lines asked senators to recognise traditional custodians of Canberra land, Pauline Hanson called out “No I won’t and never will” before leaving the chamber. A furious Hanson later told the Senate that the prime minister was deliberately stoking racial division and the Voice would be “Australia’s version of apartheid”.

Warlpiri woman Jacinta Price, new Coalition senator for the Northern Territory and daughter of former Territory politician Bess Price, asked how the proposed Voice “will deliver practical outcomes and unite rather than drive a wedge further between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.”

A day later, former prime minister Tony Abbott argued in The Australian that the Voice would be a “race-based body” resulting in “a country that’s more divided and less well governed. The referendum campaign, he said, “will seek to exploit guilt about the past to overcome anxieties about the future”. 

Anthony Albanese recognised that “misinformation and fear” will be present in the campaign, but enshrining a Voice in the Constitution would be a national achievement that would be “above politics”. The referendum question, he told the Garma gathering, will be “from the heart”: “We recognise the risks of failure but we choose not to dwell on them – because we see this referendum as a magnificent opportunity for Australia.”

This is as exceptional as it gets in politics, both the place – Gulkula, a ceremonial site in a eucalypt forest near the Carpentaria coast – and the challenge, that once and for all we face squarely the running sore at the heart of our nation.

But it will take something exceptional to counter the voices being raised against empowering Indigenous Australians. Those voices are redefining concepts that for decades we took for granted. “Apartheid” and “racism” were once words used to attack oppressive policies, usually against black minorities. Now they’re used against policies seeking to empower such minorities. 

A quarter of a century ago we saw much the same resentment being expressed in the 1990s at the High Court’s Mabo and Wik judgements. Then, as now, an Indigenous minority was supposedly being favoured at the expense of generations of landowners allegedly threatened with losing their right to the land they thought they owned. 

Native title remains a hugely complex legal issue involving multiple jurisdictions and the interactions of Indigenous groups with numerous other users including miners, pastoralists and even town and city administrations. Nobody said it would be easy, but for all the hullabaloo at the time, where are all those non-Indigenous victims?

The idea of the Voice and the power of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart from which it first emerged are a world away from the sovereignty of law, the European concept on which modern Australia was founded and which continues to shape the way we manage things. 

Anthony Albanese and his government have decided that all Australians should vote on a proposal that marries these strikingly different concepts such that they will enhance and strengthen each other.

Allowing barely two years to work the marriage out, the PM seeks to end centuries of argument about the place – even the existence – of the first Australians. The proposal for a Voice is truly radical – in the literal meaning of the word, not extreme but fundamental – and demands a lot of Australians. 

The tradition of parliamentary democracy that the British brought to this country, a tradition that grew over centuries in lands far removed from Australia, is as important to me as I believe it is to Tony Abbott. It evolved in Britain, but so too is it now evolving here, taking on its own Australian identity.

It will be a big step in that evolution when our constitution recognises the unique voice of our land’s first peoples, for so long left unheard. This is not without risk. Even after it is further filled out it will remain for many something of a leap in the dark. But it’s a leap we have to take. And as the PM said, “If not now, when?”

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Labor must jettison failed mindsets

Good news out of Canberra: the national Climate Change Authority is recruiting, looking for directors and data analysts. Applications closed last Friday, but don’t let that stop you if you think you have what they want.

The CCA was set up by the Gillard government under former Reserve Bank chief Bernie Fraser to provide government with expert advice on the transition to a renewable economy. An incoming Abbott government tried but failed to get the Senate numbers to axe it.

Since then it has stumbled along on minimal resources, in the process seeing off Fraser and other original members including chief scientist Ian Chubb, ethicist and author Clive Hamilton, business executive Heather Ridout, and economist John Quiggin.

Fraser and colleagues didn’t go without a fight. Ahead of the 2015 Paris climate summit they recommended a 2030 emissions reduction target between 45 and 65 per cent below a 2005 baseline. That was a bridge too far for the Coalition. A defunded CCA has been silent ever since.

We can only hope that the Climate Change Authority’s near-death experience is a lesson learned. Politicians are rarely expert in anything but politics – certainly not in the complexities of turning climate science imperatives into viable national targets. They really need help, which is why it’s good to see the CCA resurrected.

But not with its present board, headed by Grant King, a former oil and gas executive, and including Susie Smith, head of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, a group sponsored by fossil fuel interests. Climate change minister Chris Bowen will have some explaining to do if he retains their services.

Here’s the rub. Carbon dioxide levels are continuing to rise, now topping 420 parts per million at Mauna Loa on Hawaii. After two La Nina years this year should be cool, yet the planet is within 0.2C of the record set in 2016. We are now in a place we definitely would not have wanted back when the CCA was set up. 

Old paradigms have to go. Continuing current oil, gas and coal extraction is undesirable. Opening up new fields is insane. Yet this is in prospect if the government, through environment minister Tanya Plibersek, waves through several significant gas and coal developments now in prospect.

It’s hard for all ministers in the Albanese government, settling into their new top jobs. When parliament is sitting Canberra crawls with fossil fuel lobbyists, in their ear daily, seeking to remind them of their “obligations” to ensure this or that project progresses, with promises of jobs and votes.

They all have their jobs to do, but some jobs are more important than others. Plibersek and energy and climate change minister, Chris Bowen, are being challenged to choose between helping to cut global emissions and meeting the needs of fossil fuel investors.

Judging by what prime minister Anthony Albanese told the ABC last week, the investors appear to be winning. He ruled out a moratorium on new projects, saying that would have a “devastating” impact on the economy and do nothing for global emissions because low-emitting Australian coal would only be replaced by high-emitting coal from elsewhere.

It speaks volumes about the abysmal state of our climate response that this new leader won’t rule out new fossil carbon projects. As the International Energy Agency says, extracting carbon from the ground has no useful role in any country’s future. The most urgent task of this revived CCA is determining how quickly these industries can be brought to a full stop.

It’s troubling that nearly a decade after the CCA proposed a 2030 target of a 45 to 65 per cent cut, the best a brand new, progressive Australian government can offer is 43 per cent. A floor it may be, as Bowen says, but it’s still way too low. And it’s too far away – the Climate Change Bill introduced last week has no provision for at least one earlier, interim target. A decade of fierce opposition to climate policy has clearly led Labor to lower its ambitions.

It’s also worth noting that no Labor politician has questioned the oft-repeated Coalition claim to have cut emissions by 20 per cent. This was based on carbon sequestration from a government-funded scheme which in March this year was described by a top administrator turned whistleblower as a “rort”. Does Labor intend to continue this deception?

Over many years, self-serving political point-scoring led to climate policy disaster. The new government and parliament must jettison destructive last-century mindsets. To help it do that, a revived, well supported, independent Climate Change Authority can’t come soon enough.

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The parlous state of our environment

Many observers, used to seeing Tanya Plibersek as shadow education minister and former deputy Labor leader, were surprised at her appointment last month as Minster for Environment and Water. Some thought it was a demotion.

She doesn’t seem to agree. When she stepped up at the National Press Club last week to discuss the State of the Environment report, or SOE 2021 (completed last year but withheld by the Morrison government), she spoke as if it was the challenge of her lifetime.

“Environmental degradation is now considered a threat to humanity, which could bring about societal collapses with long-lasting and severe consequences,” the report says. “Multiple pressures create cumulative impacts that amplify threats.”

Its findings ought to horrify us. Of its nine environmental categories – climate, extreme events, land and soil, inland water, coasts, marine, air, urban and Antarctica – most are in a poor state and all but one (urban) are reported to have deteriorated since 2016. 

It reports “abrupt changes in ecological systems” happening in Australia now, “valued and iconic” ecosystems at risk, marine heatwaves bleaching Great Barrier Reef corals, and bushfire severely damaging normally fire-resistant ecosystems.

Invasive species continue to burden the environment, the economy, human health and our way of life. Thousands of non-native species have been introduced deliberately or by accident over the past 200 years. There are now more foreign terrestrial plant species in Australia than natives.

With the state of the Murray-Darling system remaining on a knife edge, Plibersek said she was “gobsmacked” to read that of the 450 gigalitres of water which the basin’s 2013 management plan said should flow to the sea by 2024, just two gigalitres had been released.

I said the report “ought” to horrify people, but most people don’t see the damage because their lives have not (yet) been directly affected by it. Many view such language as “alarmist” – a word often used to dismiss proponents of strong climate or environmental action. 

This is at the heart of the awful mess described by SOE 21. The shelter and protection afforded by civilisation enables most of us to ignore nature’s nastier consequences. But extreme weather experiences in recent years should have underlined that continuing to ignore natural signals risks losing all that civilisation has given us, and more.

Plibersek is one of two ministers charged with leading Australia’s response to this mighty challenge; the other is Chris Bowen, Minister for Climate Change and Energy, charged with delivering an effective climate response and a massive transformation of our energy system. 

To even begin, they will have to join a lot of dots. Land, freshwater and marine management, biodiversity and carbon emissions are not discrete packages but parts of a whole. Their single all-encompassing brief is to ensure Australia remains habitable and its ecosystems viable. 

They’re up against it, and their biggest obstacle may be the federal system itself. SOE 21 noted that 93 per cent of the 7.7 million hectares of land cleared in the first 17 years of this century was not subject to federal environmental scrutiny. The states control land use in Australia, and until they agree to work with Canberra we can’t expect miracles.

The report points to “insidious” impacts of climate change “that disrupt the lifecycles of pollinators and beneficial predatory insects.” Loss of pollination, central to growing all our plant food, would make foot-and-mouth disease in livestock seem a side issue.

The implications of all this are huge, and a piecemeal, uncoordinated approach won’t cut it. As Graeme Samuel noted in his 2020 review of Australian biodiversity laws (which Plibersek says she supports), we must protect and nurture not just threatened species but whole environmental systems. 

Above all, we must get our priorities right. We must begin combined, coordinated efforts to deal with the impacts of urban expansion, land clearing, chemical pollution and invasive species. All current land and mine projects must remain within strict environmental limits.

Plibersek’s changes to environment laws, when they eventually materialise, must contain a climate trigger. More stringent oversight of land clearing and mining has to include preventing new fossil fuel projects of all kinds, including on-shore and offshore gas.

In settling into their new responsibilities, Tanya Plibersek and Chris Bowen will be well aware that awareness of environmental loss and climate change has lifted markedly among voters in electorates like theirs. 

They will surely know that the sort of casual indifference we’ve become used to is not an option, that they’re in this for the long haul, and they will need all the help they can muster, in the parliament and across the country.

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