The Coalition's Green Army, a proposal to repair land and water degradation via a 15,000-member trainee workforce, is the cornerstone of its environmental policy. If it sounds familiar it should; the policy is (appropriately) “recycled”.
Green Army 2013 is a new version of the policy we heard about during the 2010 election campaign – with a budget cut of $100 million. It is in turn a revamped version of the Green Corps, a paid work experience program run by the Howard government aimed at reversing environmental degradation from 1997 to 2009.
Tony Abbott was critical of the performance of Howard’s Green Corps projects in a 2010 speech at the Sydney Institute:
“Over the past 15 years, the intermittent attention of a Green Corps team, a few Work for the Dole crews, volunteers and council bush regenerators have largely failed to make a difference … There were never enough Green Corps teams to deal with all the environmental restoration projects submitted by councils, landcare groups and national parks.”
Abbott’s new scheme promises to clean up river and creek beds, and revegetate sand dunes and mangrove habitats. The scheme would begin next July, with supervised groups of nine workers delivering 250 projects worth $50 million in its first year.
The program is targeted at school leavers and unemployed youths between 17 and 24 years. Hunt’s office has stated a goal for the Green Army of 15,000 participants per year by 2018-19.
Green Army participants will receive up to $16.03 per hour. The Coalition will also pay for equipment. By contrast, participants in Prime Minster Kevin Rudd’s National Green Jobs Corps—a Green Corps replacement program which ran throughout 2010 and 2011—received $41.60 per fortnight.
But how effective are these programs? According to the Coalition's figures, Howard's Green Corps planted 14 million trees, put in 8,000 kilometres of fencing, ripped up 50,000 hectares of weeds, collected over 9,500 kilograms of seeds, and constructed and maintained over 5,000 kilometres of walking tracks.
Murdoch University Professor of Sustainability Glenn Albrecht told NM that the Green Army, like the Green Corps, would never be able to make a long term difference, as any gains could easily be undone.
“If it’s really just weeding and tree planting, similar to the sorts of things that were done under the Howard government’s programs, a lot of that work, particularly in periods of savage drought, was simply undone because there was no long-term follow up,” he said.
“None of these things are going to make one iota of difference if we have an environment that’s heating to the point where all of the major ecosystems of Australia change,” he said.
The office of Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment and Heritage Greg Hunt told New Matilda the Green Army was not a part of the Coalition’s Direct Action plan to tackle climate change.
“The Green Army is an environment policy which will complement our Direct Action plan on climate change … with emissions reduction through tree planting or revegetation an added benefit. But projects will not be assessed on that basis,” said a spokesperson.
Hunt’s office said the scheme had been developed with environmental not-for-profits Greening Australia and Conversation Volunteers Australia, previously involved in Green Corps.
Both organisations told NM while they had been consulted, they were not involved in the development of the new policy.
Conservation Volunteers Australia, which declined requests for an interview, but told NM such schemes made “significant” environmental contributions.
“Such programs make significant contributions to environmental outcomes, are attractive and popular with land management agencies,” it said in a written statement.
A Greening Australia spokesperson said the organisation never spoke to the Coalition about the Green Army specifically.
“We weren’t actually talking to them specifically about [the]Green Army. We were talking to them about a whole range of programs that they might have,” said head of marketing and communications Jonathan Duddles.
Greening Australia hasn’t seen the Coalition’s policy document but it’s in favour of the Green Army as a policy. Even so, it would prefer to see the development of longer-term and strategically focused projects.
Duddles said, “Let’s see if we can actually get these focused on really strategic landscapes in strategic areas with science underpinning to achieve greater outcomes.”
Experts are divided over the merits of the Green Army. Some would rather see the money — an estimated $300 million to cover 1500 projects — help households and businesses reduce general environmental impacts and clean up emissions, or expand existing parks and wildlife organisations.
University of Western Sydney lecturer Neil Perry, who specialises in corporate social responsibility, told New Matilda while the Green Army wasn’t a bad idea in itself, “from a political perspective, it can certainly be seen as green washing.”
“If they’ve got pro-polluter policies, then this is a nice little program that’s hard to argue against and takes the focus away from the Coalition’s other policies, which potentially encourage carbon emissions,” he said.
The Coalition has promised to scrap the carbon and mining taxes and reduce green tape via a one-stop-shop for environmental approvals if it wins government.
Perry would prefer to see a program dedicated to training to help households and business reduce their impacts on the environment.
The money “could be used for training, and that’s not just to reduce household carbon emissions; it’s to reduce all types of environmental impacts on behalf of businesses large and small,” he said.
Charles Darwin University Director of Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods Andrew Campbell told NM the program was sound in its own right, given it does not undermine existing environmental volunteerism.
“[I]t’s absolutely crucial that government supports volunteerism, not undermine or replace it. If you have the message going out that you should only fix the environment is someone’s paying you to do it, then that would be a really unfortunate outcome,” he said.
“It’s a very good idea to tackle land degradation, to clean up waterways, to get rid of weeds and so on… There’s more to the environment than just tackling climate change,” he said.
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