Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Wednesday Forum: resolving environmental conflict

For some time now, I have been writing about the environmental wars raging across New England. Peter Firminger (@PeterFirminger) provides regular updates on the same topic.

This Wednesday Forum seeks your input. What are the main environmental conflicts in your area? How might they be resolved? Can they be resolved?

To set a context, I have been back through my previous posts to try to pull some issues together.

Access to information

Access to information appears to be one of the recurring problems. For example, how many Australians have heard of the Hunter-Bowen orogeny, also known as the the Sydney-Gunnedah-Bowen Basin? That's where the coal is. Or the Liverpool Plains?  That's one of the current environmental flash points.

You will see public discussion on the importance of ground water on the Liverpool Plains, but who knows that it's the largest ground water deposits in New England? People all across Australia form views on New England environmental issues without knowing where New England is nor the significance of the specific issue.

Lack of knowledge applies at local level at well.

How should information be made available?

Winners and losers

All Government decisions involve winners and losers. In theory, problems can be resolved to some degree by compensation from winners to losers. In practice, this doesn't happen.

Take the coal deposits in the Hunter or Liverpool Plains.

Development of those deposits involve costs extending beyond the investment costs. We have lost agricultural land, problems of congestion, higher service costs. These are generally local. There are some local economic benefits, but with Fly In, Fly Out these are reduced. The general benefits go elsewhere.

This is not an argument against development, just for better recognition of the spread of costs and benefits and for better compensation. How might we do this?

Who owns what?

Our present Government structures are skewed. At national level, we say that things like mineral resources are a national resource that must be used for the benefit of all Australians. Then mineral resources belong to the crown in right of the state.

Through Royalties to the Regions, WA wants to see funds from development benefit areas from which the resources are extracted. The Commonwealth says resources are national and opposes WA plans. Without its own Government, New England is ignored.

In Tasmania, the Government and Greens develop a plan to preserve native forests. Because this affects State revenues, the Commonwealth is expected to provide compensation. The justification given is that those forests have a unique value. By implication, they are a national asset justifying national funding.

In New England, Malcolm Turnbull proposed that the waters of the Clarence should be diverted to water South East Queensland. The justification given was that the Clarence was a national resource.

I argued that the Clarence was a New England resource, that any decision to divert resources should include compensation to those affected. This was opposed in the Clarence partly on the grounds that the Clarence belonged to those in the Valley regardless of where the water came from. There was no recognition that those on the Tablelands had an interest in the water.

Those further west argued that the waters should be diverted to the western streams to maintain irrigation. Those further south and in the capital cities argued that farmers and communities on New England's western slopes and plains should lose their water to keep environmental flows going and give Adelaide water.

On Cape York, environmental groups from the south gained sufficient support to lock up the rivers on general environmental grounds. This was opposed by Aboriginal groups who said that you are taking away our rights.

So who owns what? How do we accommodate cascading ownership claims?

 Individual vs Group rights

One of the difficulties in current arrangements lies in the conflict between individual and group rights.

The purchase of water rights from willing sellers under a market system can wipe out entire communities. Landowners may sell out to mining companies and disadvantage other adjoining landowners. Private gains go to a few, costs are borne by others.

Again, a better compensation system would help, as would better regional planning.

Action without responsibility

In each Australian constitutional entity, the voters have equal rights. That's central to democracy. Two problems arise.

The first is that entities cascade from national to state to local. The voters and governments at one level can and do over ride those below.

The second is that pressure groups take action without any responsibility for the consequences. Voters in  Sydney can force action in circumstances where they are simply not affected in the short term by the consequences of their actions.  

It's a classic case of authority without responsibility.

I will pause here. What do you think?

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