Leadership vacuum complicating waste crisis response

Published on Mon 15 March 2021 4:53pm

Now since 2018, we’ve had a Prime Minister who loves marketing, he loves packaging, there’s been a push to use waste and recycling as a conveyor belt of shiny ‘announceables’ that give the appearance of environmental action, which in turn gives some Liberal members something they can cling on to in the otherwise scorched earth landscape of the coalition’s environmental performance.

Mr Wilson (7:11pm) – Thank you, Deputy Speaker. I’m glad to speak to the motion and grateful to the member for Sydney. He is a person who understands the crisis facing our environment on multiple fronts. I suspect that he is at least occasionally concerned and frustrated by the shortcomings and underperformance of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, including in the area that is the subject of this motion because the reality is for the first six years of this Coalition government nothing whatsoever was done to improve Australia’s waste and recycling outcomes.

It was the decision by countries in the Indo Pacific to stop accepting our waste that prompted this government, now into its third term, to implement the export ban. The current National Waste Policy and accompanying Product Stewardship framework was established by Labor 10 years ago. For nearly seven years, the coalition did virtually nothing to add to that work.

Now since 2018, we’ve had a Prime Minister who loves marketing, he loves packaging, there’s been a push to use waste and recycling as a conveyor belt of shiny ‘announceables’ that give the appearance of environmental action, which in turn gives some Liberal members something they can cling on to in the otherwise scorched earth landscape of the coalition’s environmental performance.

We know they’ve done absolutely nothing about climate change. They’ve embarked on the self-harming demonization of renewable energy. There’s been a complete vacuum in relation to EPBC reform coupled with departmental funding cuts in the face of a worsening extinction crisis, and a wilful blindness when it comes to the impact of catastrophic fire and flood risks.

Now, that is quite a rap sheet. It’s a record of serious neglect and incompetence. But hey, look over there. We’ve passed a bill to ban the export of waste that other countries already refuse to accept.

Nevermind that we’ve failed to support the infrastructure required to recycle that waste, especially plastic.

Nevermind the product stewardship and government procurement and material standards and labelling have all been left untouched by the rolling sequence of coalition environment ministers – four ministers in five years.

So, Deputy Speaker, despite the government’s strong desire to present its work on waste reduction and recycling as their lone environmental achievement, the reality does not bear that out.

We know that three quarters of the funding under the Recycling Investment Plan announced two years ago remain unspent, including all of the $100 million loan funding through the so-called Recycling Investment Fund.

We know that’s why the government finally adopted Labor’s policy and introduced some direct funding in new recycling infrastructure which should have preceded the export bans and now comes two years late.

We know that barely 5 per cent of the much-vaunted contribution to the Pacific Ocean Litter Project has been provided even though plastic trash remains a terrible health and environmental burden on Pacific Islands.

And we know that waste overall has risen, even though the National Waste Policy calls for a 10 per cent reduction by 2030.

We know that the rate of plastic recycling in particular has fallen it’s got worse from 12 per cent to 9 per cent, according to the National Waste Accounts, and the target for incorporating recycled plastic in packaging is badly off track. It’s barely 2 two per cent.

Only last week, the business sector has pleaded with the government to stop sitting on its hands with respect to the elimination of harmful and unnecessary single use plastic.

And, Deputy Speaker, that last point goes to the reference in the motion to the importance of the Commonwealth showing leadership in its collaborative work with the states and territories. That’s one of the standard ways any federal government can achieve positive change and prevent our Federation from going about tackling national challenges in eight different ways across eight different state and territory jurisdictions. And that should be how we go about tackling waste and recycling.

We’ve seen a version of this already with container deposit schemes. In 2019. Labor committed to leading a process that would deliver a national container deposit scheme. In the meantime, the states and territories went about implementing their own schemes.

The Morrison government wasn’t interested in that national leadership piece. Now we have those eight schemes either in place or forthcoming. They’re not nationally consistent. And what’s the number one national policy ask of the Australian beverages council – a nationally consistent system.

Surprise, surprise.

We face a similar issue right now with eliminating harmful single use plastics because everyone is in in the sector, in civil society and state, territory and local government are looking at this problem.

And as with the container deposit scheme, the states and territories are the ones taking action – South Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory, and most recently, WA.

But where’s the national leadership? It’s going to be a costly mess for business. It’s going to be complications and confusion for Australian households.

That’s a result when you take a hands-off approach at the national level. That’s the problem when you leave the hard work to everyone else.

So, the Morrison government should give up its cynical quest for some half convincing environmental gesture and knuckle down to the difficult but necessary work of government.

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