The poisoned chalice

Issue 

Coalition leader John Howard has pulled out all stops to buy the votes of environmentalists on March 2. His four year "green plan", costed at $1 billion, is more than double the amount promised by Labor. However, there's a poisoned chalice in its implementation — the partial sale of Telstra. Like Labor, the Coalition is targeting crucial rural marginal seats in its bid for power. These areas are facing some of the most devastating ecological problems in the country, and the Coalition is determined to outdo Labor in what it regards as its natural constituency. The Coalition's environment plan is much the same as Labor's, but with a bigger budget. It pledges to rehabilitate the Murray-Darling basin and introduce a national forests reserve system, a coastal and clean seas program, a national wetlands and endangered species program and a national feral animal control program. But, like Labor's "green plan", it fails to meet Australia's international commitment to curb greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2000, and it avoids introducing the principle of polluter pays. With the exception of the National Association of Forest Industries, the main lobbyist for the woodchip industry which has always opposed (from the right) the establishment of a national reserve system, the other peak industry bodies seem happy with the Howard plan. This includes the National Farmers' Federation and the Mineral Council of Australia, which welcomed a new approach to environmental impact statements that is likely to impact on the protection of unique wilderness areas. Clearly, a plan cannot have appeal to both peak industry bodies and conservation groups without containing some major compromises. Pork barrelling, even with large sums of money, will not solve this country's ecological problems. Perhaps, with another $6 billion, some of Australia's acidity problems would start to be solved. But unless the underlying causes of environmental destruction are tackled, the money will be wasted. Another major problem with Howard's plan is its pledge to abolish Labor's three-mines uranium policy. Labor's is already a pro-uranium policy. However, to date, widespread anti-nuclear sentiment has prevented Labor from opening up more uranium deposits for mining and export. Given the widespread opposition to the French nuclear tests in the Pacific, Howard's pro-uranium plan hasn't received too much publicity. But it alone should make environmentalists think twice about offering any support to the Coalition. Those, like the leaderships of the Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation who believe they can play one party off against the other are kidding themselves. Labor and the Coalition have the same approach — profits first, and environment and people a very distant second. Green organisations were unanimous in their concern at the Coalition's proposal to trade off of one national asset for another. This reflects a majority sentiment which wants Telstra to remain publicly owned. A Herald-AGB McNair poll, taken last September, showed that 61% of people "strongly" opposed the sale of Telstra. While Democrat leader Cheryl Kernot said she did not support the trade-off, she has also made numerous statements in support of a public inquiry into the benefits of a Telstra sale. The same poll found that 59% opposed the continued selling of public assets. Of course this didn't stop the federal Labor government from pushing ahead with the sale of Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank. Rather than trade off Telstra for the environment, why not trade off most of the defence budget, or the billions of dollars of tax cuts and subsidies the government hands over to the corporate rich, or the billions of dollars being spent on freeways and roads? At least, if this was to happen, the poisoned chalice would pass to many fewer lips.

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