During his 11 years as Prime Minister John Howard oversaw the introduction of 20 major pieces of environmental legislation by four different environment ministers. This resulted in the end of broad scale tree clearing in western Queensland, the declared of large areas of the Great Barrier Reef out of bounds to fishermen, and through the $10 billion National Plan for Water Security the potential return of very large volumes of water to the Murray River. Other initiatives included the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs and support for “solar cities”. But John Howard may only be remembered as the Australian Prime Minister who refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
He was Prime Minister during a period when climate change became the global issue and the grand gesture important for people looking for symbolism as much as real action on this and other environmental issues. But Howard has never been particularly good at conspicuous compassion. Rather he listened to environmental activists with impressive titles such as ‘professor’, and he distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to groups like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Indeed under the Howard government there was record spending on the environment including $4.3 billion in his government’s last budget compared with less than $500 million in Labor’s last year of office (1995-96).
But after 11 years, lots of legislation and billions of dollars, John Howard is still seen as a pseudo-environmentalist – is this a fair assessment? And in particular, why didn’t Howard ratify Kyoto, given that as a consequence of the legislation banning broad scale tree clearing his government was on track to meet its targets uner the Kyoto Protocol?