How To Kick Bad Policy Habits


What would a truly sustainable society for Australia look like?

I’m talking about a society where industries don’t pollute the sea or the atmosphere, and where growth for some is not accomplished at the cost of poverty and inequality for others.

I’m talking about an economy where the pollution and other costs that industries impose on current and future citizens are properly regulated and taxed, but in which enterprising people can still transform society for the better by virtue of hard work and good ideas.

I’m talking about a society where our government taxes citizens at a fair rate to provide the public goods and services we all require, and where the policies we collectively pursue don’t trade short-term expediency for long-term disaster.

Is this "complete sustainability" possible? I don’t know. A simple glance at our daily newspapers (themselves in declining health) shows how difficult it will be to achieve.

In her influential 1984 book The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman described "folly" as the pursuit of a clearly disastrous government policy, even in the face of available evidence and public opinion. Our current economic and environmental policies on climate change now meet that definition. If "business as usual" means burning ever more carbon to create ever fewer jobs and along the way to cook the planet’s climate, then "business as usual" is actually the policy nearly all Australian governments are pursuing.

Cigarette addiction is a kind of personal folly. In return for the short-term enjoyment that nicotine confers, smokers trade a future of ill-health, disfigurement and possible death. Worse, they also affect the health of others. They litter our streets with the waste product of their addiction, while complaining about the taxes governments levy on their drug.

Our governments are no less addicted to a different kind of dirty combustion: burning coal. As the report released this week by the Climate Group found, when it comes to coal and the coal industry, our state governments are three-pack-a-day wheezers. In 2008, coal made up 87 per cent of Australia’s stationary energy supply. Renewables make up just 5 per cent — and most of this figure is thanks to legacy assets like the Snowy River hydro scheme.

Australia’s reliance on coal for our electricity generation leaves our politicians with some uncomfortable choices. Banks, aware of the medium-risks of steepening carbon prices, are already refusing to renew debt covenants and lend fresh money to coal-fired power stations for essential running costs. State governments like Victoria’s — which sold off public power generation assets 15 years ago — may soon be forced to buy such assets back, simply to keep the lights on.

Contrary to popular belief, coal mining creates relatively few jobs — far fewer than service industries like the retail or cultural sectors — but it does provide indispensable mining royalties and state government tax revenues. This is the real reason state premiers like Anna Bligh and Nathan Rees are so desperate to expand their state’s coal industries. The Rudd Government’s renewable energy target (apparently no longer even "mandatory") of 20 per cent by 2020 seems a long way away.

Monday night’s 4 Corners program by Sarah Ferguson on coal exploration in the Liverpool Plains illustrates the madness. In return for hundreds of millions of dollars, the NSW Government sold coal mining rights to BHP Billiton and Chinese coal miner Shenhua; both are now aggressively prospecting. The Liverpool Plains are among the most fertile farm lands in Australia. Located at the head of Australia’s ailing Murray Darling Basin, they contain vast underground watercourses that eventually flow into the lower Basin.

And the NSW Government has sold these rights to companies that want to mine coal. Coal! The very mineral that is most responsible for anthropogenic global warming. The same mineral that leading climate scientists like James Hansen argue we must stop burning if we are to prevent dangerous, runaway climate change. It is folly on the grandest scale imaginable.

Other follies are readily apparent. Take urban planning, a field which over the past 30 years has produced a sophisticated body of academic literature which clearly demonstrates the huge costs to our economy and society of building ever more sprawling suburbs further and further away from the jobs and amenities people need. The "costs of sprawl" literature is extensive and well documented. Planning policies which promote in-fill development and housing near employment sources and along established transport routes are far less costly in terms of pollution, traffic congestion and household petrol budgets than the typical Australian model of building on the edge of our already vast outer suburbs. In the early 2000s, the Victorian Government actually recognised this with its Melbourne 2030 urban growth boundary.

Late last year, Victoria’s Premier John Brumby and Planning Minister Justin Madden announced that their Government was effectively abandoning the Melbourne 2030 boundary — only six years after implementing it. Caving in to special interest groups headed by the Property Council’s Jennifer Cunich, Madden wrote a curious op-ed in The Age attacking the "cultural snobbery" of the inner-city types and justifying his decision in reference to his own childhood growing up near Melbourne’s airport. What was good for the Madden family is apparently also good enough for hundreds of thousands of Victorians moving to Melbourne over the next two decades.

Unfortunately, certain things have changed since Minister Madden grew up. The price of oil, for example. Is it "cultural snobbery" to point out that many of these families will effectively be stranded in outer suburbs, far from their jobs, once the price of petrol rises above $8 a litre, as the CSIRO predicts it will by 2018? As Griffith University’s Jago Dodson and Neil Sipe point out, the combination of mortgage debt and oil vulnerability in Australia’s outer suburbs is a ticking time-bomb. In contrast, a report by SGS Planning’s Rob Adams, commissioned by the Victorian Government’s own Transport and Planning bureaucracy, details the billions in extra costs that "business as usual" urban sprawl will cost the Government.

According to Adams, "the hidden costs of development, of 1000 houses built on the periphery of the city or the fringe of the city, are $300 million more than 1000 houses in the city." Speaking at a meeting of the Planning Institute of Victoria, he explained, "if we carry on building the way we are building, we will spend $110 billion more than we need to on building in the wrong places."

"We are building in poverty," Adams concluded.

But these long-term costs can be safely ignored by a government desperate for the stamp duties and other property taxes (not to mention the party donations from property developers) that sprawling outer suburban development delivers. "The power to command frequently causes failure to think," wrote Tuchman in 1984.

The march of folly goes on.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.