The law is plain. Under the State Policies and Projects Act 1991, every five years the Tasmanian Planning Commission must report on the state of the natural environment and how it is being managed.
The law also states that within 15 sitting days of receiving the report, the government must table it in parliament and make it available to the public.
For a while, this went ahead more or less as prescribed. The TPC delivered State of the Environment reports (SOEs) – albeit a little late – under Tony Rundle’s Liberal government in 1997 and under Labor governments in 2003 and 2009.
Had the law been fully complied with since the legislation came into force, we would now have had six SOEs to inform us. But since 2009 there has been nothing, and of the three completed reports just one short summary, of the 2009 SOE, is available to view online. So much for the historical record.
It’s a fair bet that in 2014, having seen off a Labor-Green coalition, Will Hodgman’s incoming Liberal government didn’t want to know about the state of the natural environment and had no issue with the TPC not delivering the goods. But the problem has persisted, right through the Hodgman, Gutwein and Rockliff governments.
Last month, a Right to Information request by the Environmental Defender’s Office and The Australia Institute yielded a 2019 options paper by a TPC officer which likened “traditional” SOE reports to all those last-century printed encyclopaedias and year books containing out-of-date information.
Australian SOEs, said the options paper, lacked standard indicators and measures, making it impossible to correlate variables over time or across jurisdictions, and rendering them ineffective as a management tool. They were a “substantial waste of financial and organisational resources for little gain”.
The paper said the recent absence of a Tasmanian SOE report had resulted in “no apparent material disadvantage… from a governance, administrative, legal, policy or environmental perspective”. Possibly, but it may also be due to a lack of government interest in the subject.
Another item in the options paper would not have gone unnoticed by the Planning Minister at the time, Roger Jaensch. An SOE, it said, would cost “in excess of $1 million”, funds which the TPC did not have.
Jaensch’s successor, Michael Ferguson, made no mention of funding for an SOE in his media release late last month when he said he would be directing the TPC “to produce a new State of the Environment Report by June 2024”.
Ferguson said the government recognised that the TPC “was not necessarily the appropriate body” to prepare SOE updates, but it was “the pre-eminent independent body” for the task. I think he means the TPC is all he has and it will have to do. I sought to clarify funding arrangements with him last week, but had not received a response when this went to press.
In his media release he made no mention of making SOEs more useful. The 2019 TPC options paper rightly criticised SOEs as currently done in most Australian states for their lack of utility for policymakers addressing real-time problems and needs. But its attack was directed at how environmental reporting was done, not whether it should be done at all.
The options paper described alternative approaches, notably a UN-backed framework called “environmental-economic accounting”, or EEA, which it said could revitalise Tasmanian SOE reporting and put us ahead of the pack.
In recording environmental changes, the EEA process analyses how they interact with economic activity – how each contributes to or detracts from the other. In 2017 the idea was supported in principle by then-environment minister, Elise Archer, but it was unresolved before this year’s cabinet reshuffle.
Ferguson’s directive to the TPC is “just do it” – deliver an SOE report in less than two years. My take-out is that he doesn’t want to waste more time on doing things differently.
Jeremy Rockliff says the government can walk while chewing gum. It is surely possible to complete an SOE while working on how to make them a better tool for running our state. In present circumstances, no task is more important.
This government has shown disdain for the cause of environmental protection. It has targeted forest protesters with heavy fines, sold water rights to irrigators without checking what that might do to our waterways, and allowed unchecked expansion of salmon farming with devastating effects in rivers and coastal waters.
The natural environment is the source of all our wealth. When it suffers, so does the other kind of wealth, the kind the government knows all too well. Why can’t it get that?