Monday, 5 October 2015

Changed policies, changed system, same power centre

A year ago today – though I forgot – I read an article from the West Australian dating back to 1980, the year of the appalling Lonie Report whose effects will be seen this week in record hot October temperatures.

In my early 2000s university classes, it was taught that Australia only became a dreadful laggard on environmental issues with the demise of the Hawke Government following swings against Labor in Victoria with the 1990 Federal election. This has been outlined much more recently by the magazine Chain Reaction in Maria Taylor’s Global warming and climate change: What Australians knew and buried ... then framed a new reality for the public (available for free download here).

It is certainly possible to argue that Australia’s environmental policies during the 1980s did not stand out as bad so much as they did in the 1990s and beyond – for instance we had much tougher pollution legislations than the UK and New Zealand.

This is especially so since the unique ecological characteristics that for genuine justice would require Australia be the absolute world leader in environmental protection were less well-documented. None of The Future Eaters, Tom McMahon’s studies of global runoff (Global Runoff: Continental Comparisons of Annual Flows and Peak Discharges) plus Barry Lovegrove’s study ‘The Zoogeography of Mammalian Basal Metabolic Rate’, which reveals the exceptionally slow metabolism of Australia’s largest native mammals compared to large mammals elsewhere (though a search failed to find the supplementary material I was looking for), had been published before 1990.

However, this article, titled ‘Japan Cleans Air, Cleans Up Myths’ by later Age journalist Tim Colebatch suggests – as the incidence of totally wasteful road projects even before the Lonie Report made me suspect – that there was an extremely powerful lobby limiting or eliminating the ability of Australia to be anything other than a laggard in environmental policy. Colebatch shows that in 1980 Australia’s car industry was rigidly opposed to legislation to move Australia’s pollution standards closer to the strictest standards of Japan and California, despite the fact that motor cars were clearly the cause not only of a significant proportion of greenhouse gas emissions but also of toxic pollutants like nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide. Given that Australian native environments likely have smaller tolerance for these toxic pollutants (Australia is much lower in volatile elements than the Enriched World) it would, even beyond these more modern ecological findings, be logical that Australian environments required much cleaner air than those of Europe or Japan.

It is true that Colebatch ignore Australia’s lack of engineering skill compared to Japan or Germany – undoubtedly a direct result of Australia’s superabundant land and lithophile minerals which allow it to be very wealthy without these skills – and the potential influence of unions. Nonetheless, with less lobbying from car manufacturers and mortgage belt voters (who would struggle financially if petrol in Australia were made as dear as modern ecological knowledge suggests should be required, which equals a price far in excess of what any nation pays currently) it is probable Australia could have developed the technology to radically reduce both emissions and fuel consumption to levels half or a quarter of the long-term standard approximately 11.5 litres per 100 kilometres (20.5 miles per US gallon) as used greater fuel tax revenue to invest in public transport. The 57.5 percent import tariff then in use – even for someone who deplores tariffs – could have been a wise ecological move were it used not to prop up inefficient local industries but to permit the vast investment in rail transit that was overdue even in 1980.

The essential conclusion from ‘Japan Cleans Air, Cleans Up Myths’ is that Australia’s status as an embarrassing environmental laggard is much older than Maria Taylor presumes. In fact, Australia’s descent to such a woeful laggard was made inevitable with demands for lower taxes and reduced regulation which began in the late 1980s, when it was clear our massively protected local car industry (protection in 1984 was equivalent to a 135 percent tariff) could not compete economically. The powerful mining industries no doubt sensed they could gain larger profits with regulation of car imports and taxes eliminated. With the support of car-dependent and family-oriented mortgage belt voters on a uniquely abundant land supply, there was no way Australia’s politicians were likely to be capable of achieving even the very modest 20 percent reduction planned in 1990 – although that would have threatened the powers-that-be in the mineral, coal and road industries enough.

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