Has sustainability become a dirty word in Australia?


Ironically, it seems the sustainability revolution for Australian business has been still born or deferred a decade – just when the macro level national sustainability issues Australia will have to deal with over the coming decades come into focus.  Arguably, many of our leading politicians and business leaders still have their heads in the sand in preference to facing up to some difficult choices.   At least Crown chairman James Packer admits the point, recently describing his post GFC epiphany in the following terms: “I was being too aggressive and had too much debt.  I think I just assumed the world was going to keep growing and if you weren’t knocking out 20% compound returns, you were doing badly.  I didn’t understand the relevance of risk adjusted returns”.[xvi]

The standing down of a policy and business emphasis on sustainable development mirrors the marginalisation of the other big challenge shaping Australia’s capacity to create new opportunities – namely, its’ lagging productivity performance, alternating and incomplete embrace of innovation, and the need for a major reorientation in industry policy away from sacred cows like the Australia car industry.  The exception of course remains the Australian farming sector whose exposure to global markets has denied them the luxury of deferring the need for ever increasing efficiency and innovation in their businesses.

Another contrary driver against sustainable development has been the resurgence in the old fashioned and largely discredited view that business and economic competitiveness is actually undermined by compliance with environmental regulations and an insistence on safe environmental standards.  This is a curious assertion popular here in Australia when the Global Competitiveness Index Report for 2011-2012 shows that 7 of the 10 most competitive countries in the world are European – not a place known for slack environmental standards. Indeed the World Economic Forum report shows that national fiscal imbalances are more likely to pose more of a threat to future competitiveness[xvii]. So we should not cop the line about not being able to have jobs growth and strong environmental regulation – it is nonsense.

But I think many in industry and some in government too have lost perspective on these issues. The other day at the Australian Pipeline Industry Association conference, its CEO Kevin Lester, took a crack at environmental standards as impeding business development. He told his audience: “We need to ensure that environmental regulatory and compliance framework is fit for purpose and not some dreamt up ideal that hinders pipeline planning, approvals and construction…”  As far as Mr Lester is concerned: “We need to be pragmatic and not lose sight of what we are actually trying to achieve – constructing a pipeline…”[xviii] 

I say in response: Yes, the pipeline construction is important and should not be delayed unnecessarily.   And yes the APIA does have a reputable environmental code of practice.  But the red back spiders he cited reportedly as an illustration of an irrelevance in the environmental impact assessment of a coal project misses the point.  Biodiversity does matter and while common red back spiders may not be endangered, the integrity of ecosystems is a salient point in assessing environmental impact.   The approach we take to maintaining biodiversity mirrors rather glaringly the core values we uphold as a community on sustainability development.   I would have thought that what we were trying to do was build a pipeline sustainably.

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