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Australia’s Prime Minister Proposes Destroying Environment for Votes

Tony Abbott’s conservative government is willing to put local wedge issues on the world stage — even if it embarrasses his country.
Photo via Tourism Tasmania

Since being elected to power last September, Australia’s conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Liberal-National coalition government have been attempting to scale back or altogether dispose of initiatives and policies important to environmentalists, while proposing initiatives that they hate.

Abbott’s administration has axed the independently-run Climate Commission and legislation that would repeal Australia’s carbon tax, and has cut funding to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. It also approved the expansion of a coal port that would allow some 3 million cubic meters of soil to be dredged and dumped near the Great Barrier Reef, which is already frighteningly imperiled.


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Another of Abbott’s provocations concerned the protective boundaries of a World Heritage forest area in Tasmania. Last year, Australia’s previous and more progressive Labor government successfully proposed that the area’s boundaries be extended. The current government wanted to reduce that extension by 43 percent — more than 180,000 acres — and open it up for logging. It argued that “these areas detract from the Outstanding Universal Value of the property” because they “contain plantations and logged and degraded areas.”

This week, at a meeting of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in Qatar, the proposal was quickly and unanimously rejected.

Early talk from the government and media suggested that the proposal stood a chance. It is clear, watching the committee discuss the proposal, that there was no way it would pass. There was no debate, and the seven minutes spent on the proposal was so short, there’s no link to it on the relevant UNESCO website. The delisting of land from World Heritage status for the sake of logging would have been a dangerous precedent. The committee in Qatar apparently agreed.

On reflection, it seems as though the Australian government never really cared if the proposal was successful. In fact it’s more than likely it recognized that the gambit was doomed.

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After an unfavorable evaluation from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Australia’s government announced ahead of the meeting that it would abide by the committee’s decision.

Like most documents that are considered by a UN body, the IUCN’s evaluation is written in a non-partisan tone. But sometimes the authors of these reports can’t help themselves and a little attitude seeps through. How can you tell when you’ve pissed them off? When they politely but repeatedly emphasize the insufficiency of your paperwork.

That’s what happens in the IUCN evaluation of the Australian government’s proposal.

“The proposal for the modification is very short, being only 9 pages in length,” and it “contains no detailed justifications or explanations,” the report says. “No mapping or more specific analysis regarding the natural and cultural values of these areas is provided.” The authors also note an unfavorable comparison with the previous government’s bid for the extension. “This relatively scant information contrasts with the much more extensive justification provided previously by the State Party, in support of the inclusion of these same areas at the previous session of the World Heritage Committee.”

What had been implicit in the IUCN’s evaluation became explicit a minute before the unanimous rejection of the bid. The Portuguese delegation of the 21-nation committee spoke and said the reasons given for the reduction of the site are, “to say the least, feeble.”


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Australia’s conservative government is not incompetent — its proposal was feeble because it didn’t have a chance anyway. The international guidelines the government was challenging are well known, and it would have had to put forth a very strong argument if it wanted to convince others that the land it wanted delisted is mostly plantations and logged areas, when in actual fact the opposite is true.

The two major parties in Australia — the conservative Liberal Party and the center-left Labor Party — are ideologically quite similar. For whichever party is in opposition, the simplest path to winning an election is to focus on wedge issues, preferably local ones. In Tasmania there is no more obvious wedge issue than the conflict between loggers and conservationists. It’s been going on for decades.

Abbott has called loggers “the ultimate conservationists,” and his Liberal party is apparently convinced that coming out against last years World Heritage listing extension won it seats in Tasmania.

So it appears that we witnessed an awkward and internationally scrutinized extension of local Australian wedge politics in Qatar this week. There are election promises that you care about and then there are promises you can’t possibly keep. Abbott’s coalition was willing to send a scant nine pages to UNESCO — and embarrass Australia on the world stage — in order to help it get elected.

Follow Girard Dorney on Twitter: @GirardDorney