Australia being unable to afford greater environmental protection is a government myth that refuses to die
Hundreds of billions of dollars can be rapidly mobilised to help manage a global pandemic, $368bn has been committed to purchasing submarines, annual fossil fuel subsidies reportedly exceed $10bn per annum and the federal government hasn’t ruled out stage-three tax cuts, estimated to cost more than $250bn.
And yet, successive LNP and Labor governments have failed to act on repeated calls from experts to substantially increase environmental spending.
In the case of listed threatened species, it’s estimated that around $1.7bn per annum would greatly increase our ability to improve survival prospects. For perspective, reallocating the money committed to submarines for a much scrutinised and questioned defence against a far-from-certain threat could instead fund threatened species conservation annually for more than 215 years. Such a funding injection would represent a steep change and be transformative for conserving Australia’s biodiversity.
Environmental collapse is a very real and current threat to life as we know it, and along with stronger environmental policy, laws and enforcement, increased community engagement and personal behaviour change, investing in the environment is our best defence. It’s a shrewd, national investment – not a cost – and an investment that could create thousands of new jobs, sustain and further grow industry, and make us happier and healthier.
It’s critical to recognise some basic economic realities and principles in the context of insufficient and dwindling environmental spending. Federal budgets are not like our household budgets. As economic experts and researchers point out, countries with their own sovereign currency can and do create money to spend on what they care most about.
Federal budgets are not like our household budgets. As economic experts and researchers point out, countries with their own sovereign currency can and do create money to spend on what they care most about.
Governments should spend on and subsidise what they want more of and tax what they seek to reduce. One therefore wonders why, in a climate crisis, are billions still committed annually for fossil fuel subsidies, but at the same time, Australia’s wildlife and those seeking to better care for and conserve it must frequently come cup in hand, and all too often get naught. Last year, Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz suggested a windfall gains tax on our gas industry was a “no-brainer”. The Australia Institute estimates that the gas industry made $40bn in windfall profits last year, so just one year of a windfall profits tax could fund nearly a quarter of a century’s worth of threatened species recovery that the government repeatedly tells us is unaffordable.
Despite these economic arguments, and in the face of Australia’s abysmal conservation record, little changes. Instead, Australia’s more than 1,900 threatened species in dire need of increased care are reduced to 110 priority species with insufficient additional funding, and we’re told a “Green Wall Street” will be a major part of the solution via Labor’s reboot of a former LNP policy, a market-based “nature repair bill”. Diving into the submissions to the bill show that it’s far from clear – from industry and scientists – just if and to what extent such a market and demand for biodiversity investment from industry exists, and how much support it’ll need from government and taxpayers to succeed … if it succeeds. Further, emerging evidence suggests that public financing biodiversity conservation may actually be more efficient and effective anyway.
Beyond once and for all putting an end to the myth that we can’t afford to better care for and protect Australia’s much-loved wildlife and environment – our home and life support system – one can’t help but see the parallels and similarly devastating impacts of government refusal to commit to investing in other important areas. Jobseeker, housing and out-of-pocket costs when seeing GPs are just three white-hot examples.
Budget and election times bring into sharp focus the Australia we envision and yearn for. We can have nice things, if we choose to. Personally, I hope for an Australia that’s kinder, fairer and that truly values the importance of the environment and the unique, remarkable and wonderful species we share it with.
- Euan Ritchie is a professor in wildlife ecology and conservation at the Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University
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