OPINION

Bob Hawke leaves behind an important environmental legacy

Bob Hawke is perhaps credited most often for his economic reforms, but he also leaves a tremendous legacy of protecting Earth's wilderness.

Without Bob Hawke, Antarctica would be a quarry, Tasmania's iconic Franklin River would be flooded and Queensland's Daintree rainforest would be a timber plantation.

As the world grapples with the urgent threat of global warming, it's worth reflecting on Hawke's environmental legacy in particular.

Former prime minister Bob Hawke with former Greens leader Bob Brown at the 25th anniversary of the High Court decision to stop the damming of the Franklin River. Picture: Peter Mathew

Former prime minister Bob Hawke with former Greens leader Bob Brown at the 25th anniversary of the High Court decision to stop the damming of the Franklin River. Picture: Peter Mathew

Protecting Antarctica was by no means inevitable, nor even considered desirable at the time. Initially, the diplomatic momentum worldwide was all behind a treaty to enable mining on the frozen continent.

"I just couldn't believe it. Here was the last pristine continent. We were going to be called upon to ratify [the mining treaty] and I thought 'No bloody way'" Hawke said recently to Nine's Nick O'Malley.

Hawke set out on a mission to reverse the treaty-and the course of history-to instead ban mining and preserve the icy wilderness for conservation and peaceful scientific inquiry. How fortunate we all are that Hawke succeeded in his endeavour. It's almost impossible now to imagine any current Prime Minister setting out on such a course, certainly not without being swamped by dozens of economic models showing it would 'cost' tens of thousands of mining jobs and lost profits domestically.

Earth's 7.7 billion or so human inhabitants are facing a climate emergency of our own making. January was Australia's hottest month on record, 2018 was Australia's third hottest year on record and if you're younger than 35, you've never experienced a month in which the average surface temperature of the Earth was below average.

Australians suffered through a summer of disasters that brought the reality of global warming home in a way no UN report ever could. Together we sweltered through massive heatwaves, endured a crippling drought (exacerbated by the mismanagement of the Murray Darling Basin) that starved a million fish of oxygen in the Darling River, watched in horror as bushfires consumed not only people's homes but incinerated rainforests that were previously resilient to burning, followed by unprecedented floods that drowned tens of thousands of head of cattle and left farmers bereft and bewildered, describing it as 'hell'.

Is it any wonder that climate change has rocketed up the priority list for a majority of voters?

Australia's emissions are rising, not falling. The Department of Environment and Energy released a report in December which says Australia's emissions will be reduced by just 7 per cent by 2030 - miles away from our current 26 per cent target, despite Australia having had half a dozen failed climate and energy policies in as many years.

This week 62 scientists, Nobel Prize recipients and Australians of the Year signed an open letter, organised by the Australia Institute, to urge whichever party wins government to make urgent action on climate change a top priority for the next Parliament.

Former Chief Scientist for Australia, Professor Penny Sackett, said: "The time to act is now. Not 2050 or 2030, but now".

I'm no climate scientist, but I know we can't tackle climate change by building more coal mines and opening new gas and oil fields. The public isn't stupid-they know this too.

Leaked polling from the Queensland Resources Council this week shows the reputation of the resources sector is in the toilet, thanks mainly to the stench that wafts from Australia's coal industry.

The report found the resource sector's reputation is 'not as weak as the two sectors facing royal commission, banking and aged care'-which is like boasting that politicians are more trusted than used car salesman-and that coal mining is associated with 'damaging the environment' and 'walking away' from it.

As the world grapples with the urgent threat of global warming, it's worth reflecting on Hawke's environmental legacy in particular.

Queenslanders don't view the mining industry as favourably as they do tourism and agriculture and, worse, they see the mining industry as a threat to both. And if you wanted to protect existing coal jobs in the Hunter Valley or elsewhere in Queensland, the last thing you would do is to subsidise a new coal mine in a flat coal market.

The Adani coal mine is the poster child for the crisis of trust engulfing the resources sector. In most of Australia, it is seen as a threat to not only the climate, but to the land rights and sovereignty of the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners, to farmers and to the clean water they depend on to water their crops and cattle, to the tourism industry and perhaps most of all, as a threat to the health of the iconic Great Barrier Reef.

The ACT became the first Australian state or territory to make a formal declaration of a climate change emergency this week, passing a motion proposed by ACT Climate Minister Shane Rattenbury. The next federal parliament should follow Canberra's lead.

If the 46th Parliament does not grapple with Adani and global warming in a meaningful way, we risk its legacy becoming three more wasted years, added to the five we've lost since the repeal of the carbon price.

The death of Bob Hawke will cause all voters to reflect on his legacy and hopefully all politicians to reflect on theirs. Bob Hawke is a union and Labor legend, but he was also a prime minister beloved in a way few current Prime Ministers could even dream of.

Apart from his economic reforms, he introduced Medicare, the Sex Discrimination Act (before which it was not unlawful to sack women who married or became pregnant, or just because they were women), he gave asylum to all Chinese students in Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre and he abhorred racism, organising financial sanctions against South Africa that became known as "the dagger that finally killed apartheid'.

Hawke's staunch anti-racism stance certainly stands in stark contrast to the current level of debate, where government ministers discuss plans to weaken racial discrimination laws by asserting "the right to be a bigot", where white supremacist slogans are openly debated in the Parliament and where the Prime Minister asserts the Greens are a greater threat to Australia than One Nation.

Any one of the Hawke Government's achievements is a legacy any world leader could be proud to leave behind. As the two-thirds of Australia who haven't pre-polled head to the ballot box, it's impossible not to make comparisons with our most recent crop of Prime Ministers and contenders.

What will the Coalition governments of Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison be remembered for? Stopping the boats? Repealing the carbon price? The same sex postal ballot? Free trade agreements? Cutting income and company taxes?

Today, before you cast your ballot, cast your mind forward three years and think about the legacy the next Parliament will leave behind.

As Bill Shorten observed, 'Every Australian carries around a monument to Bob Hawke with them, their Medicare card. A green-and-gold promise that the health of any one of us, matters to all of us'.

I hope we have another Prime Minister who bequeaths Australia with such a profoundly kind legacy in my lifetime. Vale, Bob Hawke.

  • Ebony Bennett is Deputy Director of the Australia Institute. @ebony_bennett