The murky world of environmental regulation

In the depths of the Great Depression, a writer named Upton Sinclair stood for governor of California. His platform was to “End Poverty In California” (EPIC) by taking over disused properties and turning them into cooperative ventures for the unemployed.

Sinclair’s ideas struck a chord with Californian Democrats who formed hundreds of EPIC clubs and delivered him the party’s nomination. But well-resourced opponents overwhelmed his campaign with smears, dirty tricks and voter intimidation, and he lost.

Sinclair’s 1935 book about his campaign – “I, Candidate for Governor” – became required reading for political reformers up against big money. One of its memorable lines was this: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Let’s call it Sinclair’s Law.

There are many reasons why Sinclair’s Law is so relevant today in Australia, especially Tasmania. One is that over the past decade environmental science, a leading source of information on the physical world, has had to endure a succession of federal funding cuts culminating in a devastating 30 per cent hit in last year’s budget.

The natural environment, which underlies everything we are and do, is anything but political. But that word “environment” makes this branch of science especially vulnerable. For some politicians, especially but not only Coalition ones, it is a red flag for left-wing extremism, an attitude as foolhardy as it is monumentally tragic for the country.

This was on full display in a report by the ABC’s Ellen Coulter last week on the state of Tasmania’s water resources in the face of government plans for a massively expanded irrigation system – despite a major official report warning of lowering river flows and poor water quality.

When the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment (DPIPWE) released the report to the Greens on a Right to Information request, all recommendations were blocked out. DPIPWE said this was because none of those recommendations had been approved by water minister Guy Barnett.

Coulter reported that Barnett admitted not having read this critical year-old report, which sadly is no surprise. He also said it was up to DPIPWE to release it publicly – knowing full well that public servants who release information that questions assumptions behind big government schemes risk ending their careers.

It’s clear why the report was released only on an ROI request and why it took so long. But why on earth would a minister planning a massive increase in Tasmania’s irrigation capacity fail to consult a major report on river flows by his own government? There’s reason to suspect the answer comes down to the minister’s indifference to all things environmental. 

Coulter highlighted the distress of a DPIPWE water ecologist who resigned over the withholding of the water report. His story is backed up by a 2018-19 survey finding that over half of scientists and other environmental professionals in Australian governments face similar ethical challenges in their work, and a fifth report lost jobs and damaged careers.

A big user of Tasmania’s freshwater is today’s talk of the town, salmon farming, which has been in damage control since April when Richard Flanagan’s “Toxic” hit the bookshops.

Nowhere is Sinclair’s Law more applicable than in this controversial industry. Flanagan charges that whenever serious questions arise about the marine environment under and around fish pens and the freshwater environment downstream from salmon hatcheries, the industry and the government act together to prevent open scientific debate.

Environment – that word again. A state of the environment report is required every five years under a 1990s law passed by a Liberal government, but there’s not been one since 2009 – for which no-one has paid a penalty. Now the government says it’s trying to work out who should do it and expects an outcome at the end of the year. What’s that all about?

Laws are meant to apply to everyone – weak and powerful, rich and poor – but the government has been very selective in applying them. While keen to impose sanctions on action by environmental defenders, it has chronically and persistently refused to tighten restrictions on the industries that attract the protests.

NEXT MONDAY at 6 pm, the Tasmanian Independent Science Council will host a free two-hour online forum on the salmon industry’s environmental impact and regulation. The forum panel comprises ecologists Jeff Ross and Christine Coughanowr, biologist Lisa Gershwin, marine conservationist Kelly Roebuck and environmental lawyer Claire Bookless.

Previously planned as a Hobart public meeting, the forum is now online which will allow state-wide participation. Register by googling salmon eventbrite.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.