Governing by displacement

Everyone knows how, when faced with a big, important task to be done, the mind looks for something else – anything else – to put off doing it. Psychologists call this displacement.

Looking at the mind-boggling array of chronic problems confronting us, it’s hard not to conclude that displacement is what drives those who run the country. Instead of engaging with big underlying issues – inequity, poverty, social division, climate, environment and the like – governments distract us with “solutions” that far from improving things can actually make them worse.

This is not new; what is new is the scale of it. Chronic, entrenched, pervasive problems get sidelined by superficially attractive displacement activities, accompanied by the lie that they are actually delivering the right results.

Take income and housing, fundamental to future social stability. For decades the “solution” has been trickle-down economics, whereby rich people are taxed less to “benefit” the poor. Hence regressive policies like negative gearing, capital gains tax breaks and franking credits, distractions that increase inequity while avoiding the main issues, poverty and a place to live.

Climate change has attracted any number of activities including green hydrogen, pumped hydro and a new Bass Strait power link which, while arguably beneficial in the longer term, are not addressing the core issue of reducing carbon dioxide emissions quickly. That can only be done with radical changes to personal and corporate behaviour and investment patterns.

Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen has argued convincingly that the Albanese government is on the case to effect these radical changes through strengthened emissions targets and incentives to people and corporations to cut carbon emissions. But these are small beer compared to the actions that really would make a difference – clear timelines for eliminating fossil fuel industry subsidies and stopping mining and burning of coal and gas.

Then there is the environment. 

Graeme Samuel, charged by the Morrison government four years ago with reviewing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, found that “Australians do not trust that the Act is delivering for the environment, for business or for the community”.

There was a long silence, which is what we’ve come to expect when governments are asked to make an effort on behalf of nature. Then last month Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek declared that the Albanese government would implement all of Samuel’s 38 sweeping recommendations to make the EPBC Act actually do what it never did – live up to its name.

This might be a game-changer as Plibersek implied. Making a healthy natural environment a national priority, spearheaded by a new national Environment Protection Agency, has the potential to stop cosy deals between business and governments. But only time will tell.

Tasmanian governments have a long history of protecting such deals from environmental scrutiny. Current deal-making involves mining, logging, agriculture and fish farming – projects like clearing tracts of rainforest and old-growth eucalypt forest, salmon hatcheries that disgorge into rivers and rising numbers of fish-pens in ever more crowded coastal waters. 

Activities like these used not to attract public scrutiny (some in government and business doubtless wish that was still the case), but the old days of sporadic protests by fringe actors are gone. Informed by science and community unease, environmental discourse is now mainstream, found in law courts, boardrooms and an endless string of public “consultations”. 

But in the make-believe world of Tasmanian government it’s a different story. A multi-year Legislative Council inquiry that ended last May heard evidence about how marine and flow-through freshwater fish farming, besides significant environmental impact in coastal and inland waterways, posed a threat to human health, including neurological disease, via heavy metal contamination and algal blooms. 

“Tasmania’s salmon industry continues to be one of the state’s success stories and the Tasmanian Government is a proud supporter of it” was the opening sentence of Primary Industries Minister Jo Palmer’s response to that inquiry’s 463-page report. She made no mention of the natural environment; in her one-way street it’s just an obstruction.

The only change to the government’s position was to allow further public “consultations”, deflecting angry public criticism of the industry with bland reassurances. Intense questioning in the final one in Huonville last month extracted the information that foreign-owned salmon farming will resume its expansion in new inshore leases from May next year. 

The Tasmanian government’s displacement activity of pushing industry and infrastructure projects at the expense of the natural environment has been happening for so long that the protagonists have no idea how to stop doing it and get back to regulating. That promised national Environment Protection Agency can’t come soon enough.

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