The Environment, Child Protection and Indigenous Disadvantage: An Agenda for the Attorney-General of 2015

The boomers will remember the reforms of the 1970s and 80s, spurred by two decades of generational, gender and race conflict, which coloured a then grey Australian justice system.  Most of the reforms, such as no fault divorce, race discrimination and later sex discrimination, are still in place today.  More recently, a dominant concern is the rapport between government and the governed.

As you will recall, in 2010, Australia enacted human rights standards by which to measure our actions.  Yet despite billions having been spent over the last decade, deep-seated problems still need our urgent attention.  Some regions are experiencing the worst weather conditions and events on record, habitat loss and urban sprawl have grown unabated, the gap between rich and poor has widened, and Aboriginal disadvantage and imprisonment have not been stemmed.

Now, in 2015, our government is determined to again look through a different prism, to confront these difficult and controversial problems.  As you know, my role as Commonwealth Attorney-General is unique, as the states and territory parliaments were abolished in 2012.

As Attorney-General, I will work with my cabinet colleagues in this new government elected to govern in the ‘fifth way’ to fully focus on three interlocking policy areas – the environment, child protection and Aboriginal disadvantage – devoting all effort and available funding to achieve real, practical and lasting change to secure our future survival.

We cannot survive – morally or practically – without a healthy and clean environment, which includes diverse and extensive habitats for all species.  The government will introduce environmental legislation that draws a real balance between the importance of a healthy environment and biological diversity and the interests of humans.  So often, when politicians talk about that balance, they are comparing valuable ecosystems with 200 jobs, neglecting our health and the health of the environment over development at any cost and dicing with our very future for the sake of a privileged present.  Of course, employment is necessary for social equity and community well-being, but the rollercoaster of increasing population, energy use, development and consumption, has no destination and is running on empty.  I am uncomfortable with the idea that everything, including air and water has to be valued in monetary terms. Nonetheless, all ideas will be on the table.  We will seek a new paradigm for our age that moves us from self-interest to sustainability, just as the industrial revolution took us out of servitude and subsistence.

Our culture is diminished if we don’t respect our past.  Our past is not just about ANZACS and Bradman, but also about Aboriginal Australians.  Ignoring Aboriginal history and law that protected the environment rather than selfishly exploited it underpins our failure to live more lightly and sensitively in this land.

Children, the most vulnerable members in our society, need our complete protection and care.  The government will oversee a vast increase in early intervention programs and far greater family support.  The government will particularly focus on reducing violence in all its forms.  As Attorney, I will significantly increase funding for violence prevention programs.  Violence has a devastating social impact and cost.

None of this is new.  What will be different is how we approach it:

  • We will take the same sort of approach to these issues taken in 2008 to address the global financial crisis: a vast investment of funding and a concentration of effort.  All ministers will participate in planning and taking ongoing responsibility, not just the relevant ministers.
  • We will greatly increase funding for community services.  Until now, governments have worked in short-term fiscal cycles where funds must be expended or lost and money is wasted while non-government services are starved.  We haven’t saved in the good times for social programs so that they can be sustained when times aren’t so good.  We have a Future Fund and infrastructure funds; we will institute a community investment fund and we will take a long-term focus that gives the community sector confidence in pursuing projects and outcomes.
  • Most of our social programs in the past have been universal in application – one size fits all.  Little effort has been put into devising innovative and sensitive ways to implement new ideas because they are usually done ‘on the cheap’ and imposed down from the top.  Our government will be unified in our goals but have available a multiplicity of responses.
  • Our government will support programs devised and implemented at a local level.  We will support partnerships and collaborations where the contribution of all partners is valued and decisions and responsibility are taken at the lowest appropriate level, particularly by the people who are primarily affected, necessitating a radical overhaul of bureaucratic methods.
  • The government will introduce some structural changes starting at the top so that we can more effectively promote and monitor our reforms, such as that we will: appoint to cabinet an expert in each field to ensure that cabinet discussion is grounded and better informed and debate is more robust; appoint a minister at deputy prime minister level to have overall responsibility for each of the areas of the environment, child protection and Indigenous disadvantage; require all policy decisions to be in the public interest and for the public good; and increase transparency in political donations and in lobbying so we are not diverted from our objectives by a compromised democratic process.

We are not compelled to make the same mistakes if we properly reflect on the past and listen now to the very people who are experiencing the troubles that we are trying to solve.  We will be determined to act with care and not be tripped up in political haste.

Now, if I were Prime Minister ….

Tony Woodyatt is Coordinator of the Queensland Public Interest Law Clearing House