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The Federal Parliament, political parties and environmental policy: enhancing Australian federalism and democracy to meet the environmental challenge. Paper presented to the Environment Institute of Australia 13th Annual National Conference, Canberra, 6-8 December 2000

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Paper presented by Brett Odgers

to the

Environment Institute of Australia

13 th Annual National Conference


Canberra, 6-8 December 2000


The Federal Parliament, political parties and environmental policy:

Enhancing Australian federalism and democracy to meet the environmental challenge



The Environment Institute has set the conference themes around an evaluation of the century-old Australian federal system and the opportunities for the Institute and its members amongst the changes to this system.  As denizens of the National Capital, members of the ACT Division are being solicited to celebrate Canberra’s role in the development of the federation.  In Old Parliament House at dinner tomorrow night, we will all be able to dwell on Canberra’s Seat of Government experience.  It dates from 1927 only, although Canberra’s development as the National Capital goes back a further 20 years.


The focus of my paper is the federal Parliament.  From the viewpoint of the natural environment, the record of the federal Parliament and national political parties is no great cause for celebration.  Nevertheless, they possess properties and are undergoing changes that have the potential to capitalise on other positive institutional developments and improve Australia’s capacity to meet environmental challenges.  Hence, the subtitle of this talk: “enhancing Australian federalism and democracy”.


I hope to show which institutions are more effective and along the way I want to indicate their relevance for the Institute and environmental practitioners.

Environmental challenges


Governments in Australia have lately be en trying to come to terms with water management, land degradation, biodiversity and salinity.  They continue to struggle with forests and fisheries and fail to apply sustainability criteria in areas such as transport, urban planning, taxation and energy use.  More generally, the restoration of the natural resource base, shifts to renewable resources and energy systems, reductions in greenhouse emissions and regulation of consumer credit are hardly on the governments’ radar screens for sustainable development.


The terminology of the environmental challenge is important.  Sustainable development conveys the integration of social, environmental and economic factors.  Stuart Harris, one of the three chairs of the Ecologically Sustainable Development Working Groups (1990-92), considered the term “ecologically” was particularly significant because “probably more than any other country in the developed world, Australia’s ecological resources are both large and in need of protection”.  The ecological dimension is of course even more significant in the global context.


There are common features about these seemingly intractable environmental challenges.  Firstly, the subjects are of great magnitude, complex and broadly cross-sectoral, involving other policy portfolio areas as well as other environmental media.  Secondly, there are potent long run prospective impacts on the wellbeing of future generations.  Thirdly, they are of macro or international spatial dimensions, rather than micro-local or even regional scale.  Fourthly, purported costs of measures to implement environmental policies are not compared with the current and prospective environmental costs.


This paper is confined to the earlier stages of the policy cycle: problem-identification, agenda setting, consultations with stakeholders and the community, conflict resolution and policy formulation.

Australia’s institutions


Institutions are understood as the accepted behavioural rules that govern actions, organisations, the distribution of power and relationsh ips.  They constitute the social infrastructure, procedures, value systems and social conventions.  There is extensive interdependence, therefore, between the various forms of institutions


The criteria for institutional design are commonly defined as feasibility, efficiency, adaptiveness, robustness, inclusiveness and “reflexivity” (policy learning and creativity).  


The old institutions of parliament and political parties appear rigid and unchanging.  They can be seen, however, as culminations of a host of other institutions that are currently exhibiting rapid change in response to social, economic, environmental and technological forces.  The most pertinent and interesting of these changes are in the institutions of democracy, citizenship and community values and action.


The proliferation of non-government organizations, interest groups, social movements and communi ty-based actions in Australia over the past 20 years could arguably be described as a renaissance of democratic forms: including the social responsibility in the Greek concept of citizenship; Thomas Jefferson’s local self reliance, civil society and deliberative democracy; John Stuart Mill’s anti-majoritarian political system; and AD Lindsay’s Democracy (1929) which envisaged citizens discovering through community discussion and voluntary associations some common interests which prevail over individual and sectional interests. 

Environmental performance of the federal Parliament and political parties


The formal Constitution has been amended few times in its century, although Cheryl Saunders showed recently that processes are available to significantly imp rove the chances of constitutional referenda being passed.  These processes link up with other moves by Parliament itself to encourage understanding and debate about constitutional issues, whilst involving the public more in its deliberations (the National Convention on the republic proposal an important precedent).


The powers of the federal Parliament derive from the constitution, yet over the century Australian federalism has alternated amongst various modes.  The sequence since 1973 has more or less been centralist coercive, then cooperative, followed in the 1980s by the more common concurrent exercise of powers by the Commonwealth on the one hand and the States and Territories on the other, then a coordinate (strict separation of powers) under the New Federalism of the early 1990s and, for the past 5 years, decentralist- even devolutionary - federalism.


As well as forming governments and oppositions (alternative governments), the main function of parliaments is to examine, initiate and pass laws, entailing the vital activities, as the representatives of the people, to raise and debate issues, question and criticise government, examine proposed new laws and review or monitor the implementation of legislation.  Through these latter functions, parliaments can regain influence in policymaking.


Procedural reform to loosen executives’ control over parliaments has made little progress.  However, there is an increasing readiness on the part of the federal Parliament to make wider use of its committees and extra-parliamentary bodies to influence policy formation, scrutiny and monitoring, in addition to the growth of administrative and freedom-of-information laws and tribunals.


Executives resist accountability measures and the establishment of independent public bodies.  In the Commonwealth sphere, the Productivity Commission, Auditor-General and administrative review bodies are influential.  However, in recent years the Commonwealth Government has supported “summits” or assemblies of people’s representatives, from vested interests through to youth, on major and complex issues such as taxation, constitutional reform, drugs, genetically modified foods and even “national strategies”, which have attracted media and public endorsement.  This could be seen as filling a vacuum left by the decline of parliaments as representative, deliberative institutions.


Historically, there is hardly any record, except in wartime, of Parliaments or the Executive dealing comprehensively with issues of great magnitude or wholesale restructuring; of choosing to address the need to alter national goals or underlying economic and social norms (although some examples in the public finance, employment and public health field provide precedents).


Under conventional assumptions by governments ( allied to abject weakness on taxation increases) about the role of the state, the public sector has been contracting.  Parliaments, however, have to respond to the people’s concerns, to the forces of new technologies and of globalisation, to the steady accumulation by private corporations of power over production, consumption and human wellbeing and to changing values in the community. 


Parliamentary committees have assumed an increasingly important role.  Their responsibilities are comprehensive and there is a strong tradition now of particular reports being responsive to long-term community concerns, of enduring value and having a salu tary impact on policy and administration.  I will take this argument a bit further in a moment in relation to the Senate.


Federal Parliament and its Parliamentary Departments (of the Senate, the House and the Parliamentary Library) are making progress towards the inclusiveness of its processes and structures by raising the awareness and participation of citizens; and disseminating greater information and debate on public issues, given committee powers of inquiry and access to prime sources of information. Yet Parliament has little control over agenda- and priorities-setting and policy time frames; and entertains only superficial aspirations to debate overarching goals, values and guiding principles. 

Political parties


What is the performance of politica l parties?  Professor Murray Goot of Macquarie University in a recent Senate Occasional Lecture questioned whether we are in a period marked by a decline in the level of trust and confidence in politicians and the political process, and a growing alienation from the major political parties.  Using data from a variety of survey sources - some of it stretching back over 50 years - he provides findings that contradict a number of conventional notions.  He demonstrates:

  • voters are no more disengaged from politi cs now than in 1972; if anything, the interest sustained since the 1960s is greater
  • a decline in the reputation of politicians for ethics and honesty, with a growth in electoral cynicism around the credibility of election promises (suggesting a need to be much more ethical)
  • a weakening of identification with the major parties, but voters continue to think that elections matter and that the two major parties are different
  • voters are still influenced by political parties and their leaders in their judgments o f political issues, ie. party leaders can lead and shape public attitudes
  • compulsory voting does not mask discontent with politics.


For most of the Commonwealth’s history, political parties have been assumed to make Parliament and cabinet government worka ble.  They are the principal agents of policy and state power.  They have a vital role therefore in elevating processes and debates to the commanding heights where goals may be set and criteria of national interest and priority applied rigorously. 


In fact, the major political parties have in the past 20 years converged in assuming a primacy of select economic objectives along with reacting ad hoc on other issues and to the more insistent lobbying of particular interest groups, regular opinion polling by their party organizations and talk-back radio.  Their preference for rhetoric obscures reality.  The interdependencies, linkages and longer time frames of competing policy issues tend to be ignored.  Only recently have there been shifts to acknowledge, for example, social impacts of economics orthodoxy and reconciliation implications of indigenous peoples’ policy. 


Currently both major parties are generally weak on natural resource, sustainability and environmental issues.  Improved organisational structures, wider participation by party members, policy professionalism and access to dedicated think tanks and other expert advisers are raising the capacity for policy development.


Of particular significance is the National Party.  It has the largest grass roots membership of any party and disproportionate power in the federal Coalition ministry, yet its share of the House of Representatives vote at the 1998 election fell to 5.3% and it has only three Senators.  In struggling to maintain its rural constituents, the NPA has to contend especially with the imperatives of sustainability, natural resource and environmental issues.


The Democrats are the most democratic of the parties but seem less capable than the others in distilling, integrating and upholding consistent policies from their constituent and other sources.  The ALP and Liberal Party are progressing with internal democratic reforms and becoming more amenable to professional sources of advice.  The Australian Greens have an especially rich base of information and advice, incorporating the history and resources of the conservation movement (with a membership many times that of the other political parties) and a readiness to consult widely with other interest groups.


The days when parties had a mass base are long gone.  The evolving configuration of power and policy formation is especially relevant where the imperatives of environmental policy and sustainable development involve shifts in basic concepts, values, ethic s, perceptions and understanding of complex issues.  Proponents of policy change need to take an opportunistic and risk analysis approach towards realising the potential of all political parties.  A notable recent phenomenon, which would have been probably inconceivable in the old Parliament House, is the formation of several largish groups, across party factions and even with cross-party links, on religious, secular values and ethical issues.


A major drawback for members of parliament, as indeed for governments, is that ESD has lost the political force and momentum it had during 1991-93 when the wide range of interests represented in the ESD process had achieved integrated principles and proposals and were collectively committed to their achievement.  How much better would the position be if an office of Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment or Sustainability had been created akin to the successful institutions established by New Zealand and Canada?  With the revival of fortunes by Auditors-General in Australia, the opportunity exists for the Environment Institute to lobby once again for such a body.

The role of the Executive and the Public Service in environmental policy


The Executive is created by and directly responsible to Parliament: ministerial responsibility entails individual responsibility for the administration of respective departments and collective Cabinet responsibility to parliament (and the public) for the whole conduct of administration.  With the decline in this responsibility in practice and the Executive’s age-old desire to dominate Parliament, the location of policymaking is mainly with Prime Minister and the Executive, their party and advisers, and the Public Service.


Coincident with the period of the ESD process in 1991-93 were radical reforms of Commonwealth and State bureaucracies and centralisation of power in PM’s and premiers departments. The objectives were leadership, control, coordination and efficiency, giving rise to the precept of “whole of government” positions.  In parallel, consideration was being given to “new federalism” and distinctions between “core” government functions and those that could be divested, privatised or contracted out.


These developments were an opportunity to define “the public interest” in ways that could clarify criteria, methods of assessment and policy priorities, together with procedures for consistent application. The prevailing view has however been that cabinet and ministers, the elected representatives, are the founts of the public interest along with statutes, policy statements and the like.  This “retrospective” view ignores a number of factors: firstly, ministers have choices, power and discretion; they often need advice on prospective outcomes, impacts and ramifications for other portfolios (“whole of government”).  Secondly, policies emanate from negotiations and the weighting of competing interests, some of whom (e.g. future generations) may not be represented.  Ministers are not omnipotent in assessing their political risks and, accordingly, they have a need for information about stakeholders, or prospective winners and losers.


The opportunity for fundamental policy integration based on criteria of “public interest” (or “common good”) remains to be taken.  The Australian Public Service, however, has been losing capacity to contribute or be involved.  The new Public Service Act 1999 promotes efficiency, probity, service delivery, contractual employment and impartiality, but no reference to “the public interest”.  The remnant of that traditional duty is Section 10 APS Values “the APS is responsive to the Government in providing frank, honest, comprehensive, accurate and timely advice and in implementing the Government’s policies and programs ” [my italics]. 


Citizens are seen as customers or clients, giving rise to a “democracy deficit” or “lack of citizen inclusion” (Curtin, 2000).  Managerial skills and private sector experience are recruited whilst the store of intelligentsia, professionals and experts is discounted (Yates, Institution of Engineers, 2000).  Consequently, the scope, the time and the incentives for the Public Service to convey to the executive analysis of the public interest or, say, priorities for sustainable development are scarce. 


The OECD Environment Committee has defined “policy integration” to include strategic or policy environmental assessment, priority targets in the state budget, sustainable agriculture, energy and transport priorities, economic instruments and fiscal measures (notably taxation), natural resource accounting and annual reporting, and a stronger role for the Environment Minister in Cabinet Committees.


The UK Government’s White Paper (1999) on Modernising Government said


“Policies too often take the form of incremental change to existing systems, rather than new ideas which take the long term view and cut across organizational boundaries to get at the root of the problem”.


The Canadian Government has established a Policy Research Initiative which is a cross-portfolio research bureau charged to bring integrated and longer run policy issues into the public arena and “common space” of governments, beyond narrow Departmental interests and priorities.


Commonwealth structures and processes for institutionalising policy integration are poorly developed, with notable current exceptions such as the Australian Greenhouse Office and the primary industries, resources and energy portfolios, which are subject to collegial Ministerial direction and show a genuine and consistent, if slowly evolving, commitment to ESD. 


The Public Service failed in the early 1990s to design an appropriate vehicle for the ESD strategy or to assimilate the Resource Assessment Commission as a promising ESD mediating, integrating and research agency.  Similarly, the Economic Planning Advisory Council was abandoned in 1996 after a short but very productive period.


Consequently, in the natural resource and environmental field, the Commonwealth bureaucracy for its part has not been able to engage whole-of-government commitment, to the scale, complexity, urgency and significance of resource and environmental issues, nor has it yet grasped the potential leverage of the ESD strategy for these purposes.


Intergovernmental bodies and environmental policy


A most promising sign of progress has been the very recent Prime Minister’s Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality (November 2000), which significantly is a product of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).



Intergovernmental relations and bodies are not well studied in Australia.  They have also not been particularly transparent or accountable in their operations.  However, from an environmental viewpoint at least, and with respect to the functioning of the federation more generally, COAG is of great significance.


COAG is the main forum for policy development by the heads of government from the three spheres (local government has a seat) on fundamental issues of national and strategic significance other than fiscal relations, which is the agenda of the equivalent (less the President of the Australian Local Government Association) Premiers Conferences.


COAG was established in 1992 as the result of pressures from the States and the complementary aim of the Commonwealth to achieve greater efficiency in the allocation of roles and responsibilities between the spheres of government.  COAG was seen as necessary to address issues on a “whole-of-government” basis, i.e. where major national issues could be resolved on the basis of full policy integration and to overcome the shortcomings of intergovernmental Ministerial Councils.


During the formative period 1990-92, environmental issues and the ESD national strategy were prominent in the short list of COAG agenda items.  Water resources in particular were connected with micro-economic reforms, another leading agenda item; greenhouse policy assumed added importance with the prospect of an international treaty with major economic and political significance; and the States were concerned about continued Commonwealth takeover of environmental matters.


Criteria for inclusion on the COAG agenda include: most governments and the PM have to agree; the issue must be widely known and strategic (like ESD) and the subject of authoritative reports; with a “champion” amongst the heads of government; subject of political and economic imperatives; a perception of mutual benefits from policy change; prospects of early progress and political feasibility; and COAG as the appropriate vehicle (Weller, 1996). 


A further COAG requirement is the achievement of whole-of-government (WOG) positions, which is a step towards policy integration but not subject to a “national interest” framework of principles and criteria.  For example, COAG participants subsumed the ESD strategy under environmental issues and micro-economic reform generally, with the result that more fundamental, system-wide sustainability issues have not been raised. 


Although it has met only twice since 1997, COAG had provided momentum to the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment and its water reforms have been beneficial, providing a generic frame for a wide range of complementary measures.  It has tended to influence government and legislation generally in ways that represent a devolution of functions away from the Commonwealth whilst confirming Commonwealth hegemony with respect to potential leadership and fiscal hegemony.  It remains to be seen how the balancing of GST revenues with the State/Territory sphere will work.


COAG has met only twice since November 1997 - namely the meeting on drugs policy in April 1999 and the November 2000 meeting which featured the salinity strategy.  COAG depends on a supply of high profile national issues, individual champions among heads of government and concerted initiatives by governments on pressing common problems.  It shares with other ministerial councils their principal failing, the separation from democratic and parliamentary processes of informing and engaging the public.




Since 1972 the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council has provided a forum for its members to exchange information and develop coordinated policies on national and international issues.  Members are the Commonwealth Ministers for the Environment and Science, and the ministers responsible for the environment and conservation in each State and Territory, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.


A perennial problem is agenda overload.  Attempts to set priorities have rested normally on simple comparisons and negotiations over current concerns of respective jurisdictions and the resource constraints of smaller States.  The National Strategy for ESD has not been used as a framework for quantitative assessment of agenda priorities.  Liaison with COAG and other ministerial councils is facilitating an ESD perspective in respect of economic significance, e.g. with salinity, greenhouse strategy, water reforms, native vegetation and marine protection.


ANZECC has a very close relationship with the National Environment Protection Council.  They both have obligations under the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment (1992), which aims to improve environment protection, heritage and nature conservation through a cooperative national approach.  Established in 1996, the NEPC is a powerful statutory body that determines mandatory national standards for Australia for air, water, noise, vehicle emissions, waste management, hazardous wastes and contaminated sites.  Its charter is explicitly ESD and protocols ensure public and stakeholder consultation.  Like ANZECC it has liaison agreements with intergovernmental councils in the transport and health sectors.


NEPC seeks to achieve “best practice” environmental regulation through streamlined procedures and careful choice of policy instruments.  The processes of policy and standards formulation, however, are cumbersome and resource-intensive, due to the need for a sound scientific basis for draft standards, consultation protocols and the varying exigencies of the member jurisdictions. There is a risk of piecemeal or parochial compromises on overall strategy and standards. 


At the same time, the records of both bodies tend to show that concurrent federalism is at work in positive and efficient ways: the jurisdictions learn from one another, more readily adopting innovations and progressive policy outcomes through their regular exchanges.  They achieve measures of policy integration intergovernmentally and within the public services.  NEPC is advanced with local government, professional and NGO consultation, a major failing with ANZECC and Ministerial Councils generally.



The Senate


The Senate is a feature of the Australian constitution and represents in many ways the system’s upholding of democratic processes and resistance to the decline in responsible government.  Persistence and resilience have maintained its parity in lawmaking powers with the House of Representatives (except that it cannot introduce or amend proposed laws that authorise budget expenditure or impose taxes).  It can initiate non-financial legislation.  Its composition of 12 senators from each of the States and two from each of the mainland Territories (always one half the number in the House of Representatives), elected for six years with half the Senate retiring every three years, consolidates its multiple functions of legislature, States’ house, house of review, regulatory scrutiny and deliberative assembly. 


Further, it is elected by a system of proportional representation (PR)(unlike the House of Representatives’ first-past-the post preferential), which enshrines representation of minorities and inhibits the dominance of the two major political parties and the Lower House.  In addition to a general decline in voter identification with the major parties, many voters now cast their Senate votes with a view to the review, checks, balances and deliberative role of the Senate.  Since 1974 it has become almost impossible for the Government party to be the majority in the Upper House.  In the past 30 years the Opposition party in the House of Representatives has never had a majority in the Senate. The trend in recent elections has been for up to 25% of Senate primary votes to be cast for minority parties and independents. 


PR expands the scope for the Senate, compared with the House, for representation beyond major parties and territorial constituencies to reflect community diversity, significant groups, social movements and issues or values that are ignored or neglected by the major parties (Sawer and Miskin, 1999).  Its significance for ensuring better government and broader participation in decision making has been confirmed by the comparative international study by Arend Lijphart (1999) Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in 36 Countries .  Comparing proportional representation systems with majoritarian systems, he found that the former yielded a better quality of participatory democracy and more efficient, productive government. 


Lijphart shows that the PR system, based on consensus-building, wide power sharing and deliberative policy formation, encourages institutional diversity.  It accords well with a federal system and the experience of the Senate indicates its performance has strengthened the policymaking capacity of Australian political institutions.


The powers of the Senate and the holding of the balance of power in the Senate confer immense political power on minor parties with sufficient numbers.  The recent experiences of the Democrats, who presently hold the balance of power in their own right, indicate that procedures for negotiations with the Government of the day are not well developed and have favoured the latter.  The minor parties have yet to realise their own strengths.  Amongst their strengths is they have already adopted valuable networks and consultation processes commensurate with both the specialised and wider constituencies they purport to represent.


Recent changes in the Senate committee system are intended particularly to strengthen further the powers of inquiries over government for the production of documents and witnesses, and for facilitating the participation of citizens and interest groups.


The Senate has made provisions for the committee structures to be representative of its overall membership.  The two West Australian Greens Senators, supported of course by a majority of the Senate, achieved this advance, along with other changes giving the Senate more time for scrutiny and debate, in 1994.  One of them, Dee Margetts, recalls how very few Senators had participated in the debate that year on the new World Trade Organisation and National Competition Policy legislation.


During the crucial GST tax debate, when the Senate had three committees inquiring and reporting in concert, it demonstrated its potential for strategic community opinion formation and interest group integration.  This illustrated its more general capacity to raise awareness about macro issues, promote public debate, mobilise a range of expert opinion, attract publicity and secure community and interest group involvement.


Both the Departments of the Senate and the House of Representatives are working to expand community involvement in their procedures and practices.  They arrange frequent lecture series, seminars and briefings on a wide range of policy and institutional topics, often with the support of the Parliamentary Library.  These represent substantial opportunities to inform and discuss with Senators, Members and their support staff.  Committees are empowered to undertake activities to inform themselves o issues without the necessity for a formal reference from the chamber or a Minister.


“Environmental issues” have been accorded a great deal of attention over the period 1970-99, but the scope of water, land and ocean resource management topics has been smaller and more specialised.  Moreover, the number of natural resource management topics has declined in the past five years.


Cross-sectoral issues have received attention.  The committee responsible for health has on a number of occasions cross-referenced its work with the environment committee.  The industry, science and technology committee and resources and energy committee produced several reports in the early 1990s that were connected explicitly with land and water management.  The foreign affairs and trade committee has from time to time looked at environmental and agricultural issues. 


There could be opportunities, particularly nowadays, to insert resource, environmental and sustainability issues into the deliberations of economics and finance and transport and infrastructure committees.  Few such opportunities have been taken in the past, with the outstanding exception of the Senate committee inquiries into the GST in early 1999, when submissions and witnesses from environmental groups were taken into account.  No committees appear to have given much attention to wider or more fundamental issues of sustainability, such as the deliberations of the House of Representatives Committee on Long Term Futures and the Australian Population (Barry Jones’ committee).


In quite recent times, the standard of performance individually and collectively has been very uneven across the committees and amongst Senators in general.  The most significant example, affecting both the committee system and the Senate as a whole, would probably be the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill of 1999.  The Bill consolidated existing Commonwealth legislation, strengthened Australia’s capacity to protect its biodiversity and replaced the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act that was hitherto the most potent instrument available to the Commonwealth for integrating environmental goals with other national economic and social policies.


The Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Legislation Committee had called for submissions in late 1998 and their report drew attention to basic issues still requiring consideration.  The precipitate last round negotiations, covering a host of amendments, was between the Government and the Democrats, with the latter consulting very selectively with some peak environmental groups, dismissing those with fundamental concerns about the legislation.  The fast tracking of this legislation, with its major gains and major flaws, was met with dismay by key interest groups, representing the industry sector as well as the environment movement.  The EPBC Act lacked mechanisms for the implementation of ESD and relinquished a great deal of the concurrent powers, which the Commonwealth could exercise over ESD.


The style of committee reports from both Houses is consensual and bipartisan, although recently Senators of the two major parties have broken this pattern.  This development raises again the question of whether Senators and Members should be bound by a code of ethical behaviour and principles of public interest.  Government responses to committee reports are in any case very uneven.  


Renaissance of federalism and democracy


In his 1995 book Beyond the Two Party System Ian Marsh argues that the proliferation of interest groups, social movements, community organizations, think tanks and strengthening of minor parties has taken power away from the major parties and established a new pattern of democratic governance.  The new pattern is more suited to the incorporation of fundamental and complex social and environmental issues; it influences public agenda setting and opinion formation; and assists in interest integration and in the groundwork for policy implementation.  The Senate and some intergovernmental bodies such as the Murray Darling Basin Commission and the NEPC are well placed to mobilise this interest group and community involvement.


Confrontations like the Franklin Dam, Wesley Vale, Wet Tropics rainforest world heritage and 1990 federal election (with the ACF supporting Labor) have been supplanted by a vast array of organisations and mechanisms.  The problems and the stakes are bigger and more urgent but the community-wide resources being brought to bear have grown commensurately.  There are abundant interest groups networking, acting in concert and contributing to debate on issues of ESD and environment.  They are well organized and securing stronger and more independent funding.


Incorporation of environmental groups by governments is becoming thereby less of a problem.  The ACF is having a greater impact through its partnerships with other NGOs, including business and farming sector organizations.  NGOs can leverage resources through networking within Australia and internationally.  They can respond to problems, opportunities and solutions faster in many instances than government.


The Institution of Engineers and the Royal Australian Institute of Architects have recently been publishing reports, exhorting their membership and undertaking publicity appealing directly to governments, in all three spheres, through the public and the business and other professional sectors, to be more serious about ecologically sustainable development.


The most significant recent example of influencing government policy in this fashion would appear to be the ACF/National Farmers Federation report National Investment in Rural Landscapes and subsequent promotion by Phillip Toyne and Rick Farley of, in effect, a new decade of Landcare.  The former had worked with three consultancy firms and the Land and Water Resources Research & Development Corporation and the latter were supported by a report of The Australia Institute, providing altogether a solid base of research, analysis and media sales.  A promising aspect is that the representations are aimed at bipartisan (party) political support and at all relevant Ministers, including the Treasurer.


As governments forgo power and competence, communities increase their expectations regarding their own sovereignty and capability.  Local and regional community and NGO/interest group activities are increasingly assuming responsibility for their future welfare and development (eg. Cape York, Lake Eyre).




  1. Australians can celebrate their federal system as generally a blessing.  At the century landmark it maintains the checks and balances for stable government, enhances democratic institutions, represents regi onal diversity and retains scope for Commonwealth leadership and intergovernmental cooperation in the national interest.


  1. As environmental challenges become bigger and more urgent, the federal Parliament and major political parties seem to be among the lea st flexible, capable, visionary and creative of our political institutions.


  1. However, as the culmination of the political system, Parliament and the major political parties are proving responsive to changes in the other institutions and reasserting some pa rity with the Executive.


  1. The Executive and the Public Service are handicapped in the capacity to meet environmental challenges, thus throwing increased responsibility onto intergovernmental bodies, the States and Territories and communities, as well as Pa rliament.


  1. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) is an institution that has worked well, but is under-utilised and has a major failing in its separation from democratic processes of transparency and debate.


  1. The renaissance of democratic institutions and grow ing resourcefulness of non-government and community organizations provides multiple channels for influencing environmental policy and outcomes, thereby restoring strength to the political system.


  1. In his 26 October 2000 lecture at Parliament House on The C entenary of Australia s Federation: what should we celebrate? Professor Geoffrey Blainey thought that there were some things we could certainly celebrate.  He noted, however, a failure of federalism - “the national interest is not well defined”.  In my assessment of the present situation, the configuration of our national interest is more likely to emanate from the diverse sources of non-government, professional, business interest and community group activity, impacting upon government and political party institutions than the other way around.








Brett Odgers

4 December 2000




Marian Sawer and Sarah Miskin, Representation and Institutional Change: 50 years of Proportional Representation in the Senate, Department of the Senate, 1999.


John Uhr, Deliberative Democracy in Australia: The Changing Place of Parliament, Reshaping Australian Institutions, Cambridge University press, Melbourne, 1998.


Patrick Weller, Commonwealth-State Reform Processes: A Policy Management Review, Australian Journal of Public Administration Vol. 55 No. 1 (1996)

pp. 95-110.


Roger Wilkins, Intergovernmental Relations: Ensuring Informed Cooperation in Strategic Policy Development and Considering National Imperatives, speech to the 5 th Annual Canberra Australian Public Service Forum, November 1994