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Conservatives and conservation



I'm a conservationist because of Rex Hunt. You know that 1970s Australian Rules footballer who later made a career as a fishing guru and with his over-the-top shouty footy commentary.

Fiona Katauskas cartoonWhen I was a kid of eight or nine, weekends would involve being dragged out of bed pre-dawn by my dad to put the boat in the water of Port Phillip Bay. I enjoyed the fishing for the sport and got a thrill out of seeing what fish was on the end of the line on the rare occasion we got one to the surface. On weekends I would pore over Hunt's Fishing Port Phillip Bay and from it I would learn the behaviour of all the fish that were fit to eat, where to catch them and what tactics to use.

Reading this guide and others like it was my introduction to ecology. They filled me with a sense of wonder for what lived under the surface, but also a sense of anger and loss for what once was. They would often mention what sorts of fish you used to be able to catch in a particular location and how much bigger and more common they used to be. They documented the decline of our rivers, bays and oceans. It didn't feel right that we had impacted our environment so much that I couldn't catch huge snapper or salmon like the old blokes used to.

It's fair to say this was not a radical entry into conservation — it's a pretty conservative position to not want to stuff up your environment so that you can still catch fish. Theodore Roosevelt, one of the earliest exponents of conservation from a conservative point of view put it like this: 'Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.'

The most prominent self-described conservative in Australia, former prime minister Tony Abbott, has expressed many views on conservation and on the merits of addressing climate change, but none of these views could be argued as coming from a position of conservatism that Teddy Roosevelt could agree with.

In echoes of his effort while prime minister to establish a global coalition of like-minded countries against climate change action, Abbott recently addressed a UK forum where he questioned not whether climate change was real, but whether it was actually doing more good for the world than bad.

This sort of perspective isn't consistent with how previous conservative Australian political figures have dealt with issues such as climate change and the environment. Robert Menzies had enormous faith in scientists and grew CSIRO funding year-on-year. Liberal prime minister John Gorton stood up to the Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen when he tried to give oil companies free reign to drill on the Great Barrier Reef. In 1990, Liberal shadow minister Chris Puplick developed a detailed and ambitious climate change and environment policy that would be derided as a greenie-plot if it was proposed today.


"There are significant overlaps in relation to conservative values and conservation but we are in an era where political figures that self-identify as conservative are compelled to take an anti-conservation position."


When he was environment minister, Liberal Senator Robert Hill essentially took the elements that Australia had agreed to at the Rio Earth Summit and turned them into a comprehensive set of laws and policies that are substantively still in place today, including the National Heritage Trust, the National Reserve System, marine reserves, and the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Another Howard-era environment minister, Senator Ian Campbell, developed such a love of whales that he joined the advisory board of radical activists Sea Shepherd.

There are significant overlaps in relation to conservative values and conservation but it appears we are in an era where political figures that self-identify as conservative are compelled to take an anti-conservation position.

The value of self-reliance is incredibly well-aligned with conservation and climate action. Australians have managed to embrace the notion of water conservation with great success, through government interventions and through personal actions such as installing water tanks. Yet somehow, the notion of energy or electricity conservation hasn't been as successful, though individuals installing solar panels have been one of the better results. Self-reliance implies both that we can deal with whatever the world throws us through our resilience and ingenuity, and that we are better off by getting on with it, rather than waiting for solutions to appear from elsewhere. Former NSW Liberal MP Michael Richardson was an exponent of this approach and authored a number of books on the subject.

Like me with my fishing guidebooks, many conservationists have been driven to act through a sense of nostalgia for what once was, combined with a sense of civic duty. After I got my fix of fishing guides, I joined the youth-focused conservation group, the Gould League, to get my dose of nature. I loved getting the stickers and books, posters and badges, and hearing about all the great activities that were being done to save our wildlife.

Through the Gould League I felt a connection with kids like me who participated in similar activities almost a century earlier. Others have developed a connection to nature and a willingness to help through groups such as cubs, scouts and guides. This similar spirit can be seen in landcare groups and bushcare groups across the country, largely found in Liberal and National Party voting electorates.

Australia's environment is unequivocally in decline. Our climate is changing for the worse and it is impacting our natural environment and our way of life. Yet self-described conservative politicians have increasingly and aggressively opposed any policies that would address these issues.

It's hard to see whether the current anti-science, anti-environment phase of right-wing politics in Australia will be an aberration or become the norm. However I don't believe these views are as unanimous among those with conservative values as is currently on display from the current crop of right-wing politicians. Australia would be well-served if some conservative leaders in Australia stood up for climate change action and conservation. If they did, I think they would find they weren't alone.



Tim BesharaTim Beshara is nature conservation professional currently working in politics as a media adviser for a Greens Senator. You can find him on twitter as @tim_beshara

Topic tags: Tim Beshara, Tony Abbott, climate change



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Existing comments

A great article. There was a study a few years ago into framing climate change for conservatives. It found nostalgia was indeed a very powerful tool. Most climate change framing is future focused, as in 'stop this future catastrophe', but the future is more progressive territory. Conservatives are more focused on the past, so the framing that worked for them was 'restore the environment to how it was when you grew up'. Asking them to remember childhood moments in nature was really powerful. I think the issue is most environment orgs are progressive and only push progressive messages that work with their 'base'. We need the conservative enviro orgs - e.g. fishing orgs - to start putting out messages on climate change

Greg Foyster | 18 October 2017  

Thank you for the thoughtful and concerning article. Unfortunately for the common good of Australia, the conservative members of the Turnbull Coalition Government only want to play identity politics. That is, any policy or idea put forward by a environmental group or the Greens (even Labor) must be opposed because they are the opposition and we cannot agree with any proposal they propose. A good example was earlier this year when the PM and Minister indicated that a Carbon Intensity Scheme was a proposal that would be considered, Mr Bernadi forced the Government to drop the idea because it was a Greens policy and thus it cannot be entertained. Unfortunately for Australia, this attitude is childish but in view of the Government's slim majority, the conservatives hold the whip-hand. GL

Graeme Lee | 18 October 2017  

"Australia's environment is unequivocally in decline". I do not believe that on balance there is any evidence for that claim; indeed in so many ways the opposite is true. A sad characteristic of the Green movement is its pessimism and indeed constant "crisis" mentality; indeed its feed off that, and to the detriment of the mental health of our young people in particular.

Eugene | 18 October 2017  

Great article. The sad part is that the 2.5 billion or so people inhabiting the industrial polluting nations India, China and the USA add further carbon emissions to the industrial total through their daily living. Comparatively, Australia's 24 million people and lack of major industrialisation are relatively infinitesimal contributors to global climate change and there is little that this country could contribute to effect major changes in the progressive march of the changes. We have, as pointed out in this article, been reasonably successful in the recognition and successful rehabilitation of the local damage we have caused to our environment, its flora, fauna and natural waterways. That is all we can hope to achieve until the aforementioned nations make radical changes in their practices.

john frawley | 18 October 2017  

Tim, thank you for a sensitive , personal assessment of the needs for conservation. I agree how our early experiences can influence in later life. Like you , I fondly remember the Gould league and it's informative and colorful charts and posters. Being a kid out in nature caring for the environment and protecting animals and insects, ,obviously in your case , set up patterns and habits for later. This is so good to hear.Education in the wonders of creation can play its part in raising awarenesses. Best wishes for your continuing interest in our wonderful world.

Celia | 18 October 2017  

There is a gross over reaction to growing "renewable " sources of energy in Australia, the targets are too severe as the renewables are not ready and need lots of investment to bring on stream. We cause less than 2 % of carbon emissions in world. If we turned off ALL CARBON EMISSIONS , over four years, there would still be a temperature rise, but there would be a disaster in many phases of life, no plastics for example. Electricity is responsible for One Third of carbon emissions. My source are articles,in The Australian newspaper.

Adrian Harris | 22 October 2017  

Abbott, and his like-minded supporters, who call themselves ‘conservatives’ are nothing of the kind. True conservatives know how to move with the times, they know how to manage change so that the babies are not thrown out with the bath water. Abbott and co are reactionaries - they keep wanting to return to the bath water.

Ginger Meggs | 23 October 2017  

What a very interesting article. Thanks Tim. It has to be remembered that the Liberal Party has rarely been liberal in its politics. Some LNP MPs may have taken action to assist conservation at home, but they have always supported US wars around the globe which have destroyed the environments of those under attack - not to mention the huge loss of life, the great suffering and destruction of infrastructure. Tony Abbott does not come from a liberal, Liberal background at all. He is a product of the National Civic Council (NCC) , the extreme right wing element in the Catholic Church in Australia. It was Bob Santamaria, the founder of the NCC and the DLP and a strong supporter of Franco and Mussolini, who advised Tony to join the Liberal Party. This has been a contributing factor to the incredible conservatisn in Australian politics. Tony Abbott and his colleagues in the extreme right of the LNP Coalition are hell-bent on supporting the large corporations no matter what cost this may mean for the environment, social justice, human rights and international peace. They are a very strong force to be reckoned with and this is the reason why the current PM, Malcolm Turnbull, who is supposedly more humanitarian and liberal is supporting policies that will not protect the environment or human rights.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 24 October 2017  

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