Tone on Tuesday 127: The Minister for the Environment

We rich nations, for that is what we are, have an obligation not only to the poor nations, but to all the grandchildren of the world, rich and poor. We have not inherited this earth from our parents to do with it what we will. We have borrowed it from our children and we must be careful to use it in their interests as well as our own. Anyone who fails to recognise the basic validity of the proposition put in different ways by increasing numbers of writers, from Malthus to The Club of Rome, is either ignorant, a fool, or evil.” Moss Cass, Australian Minister for the Environment, at the OECD, 13 November 1974

Anthony Albanese raised some eyebrows with the appointment of Tanya Plibersek to the Ministry of Environment and Water, rather than Education, the portfolio where she had developed detailed policies during the long years of opposition.

The chattering journalist classes of the Murdoch and Nine newspapers see it as a demotion; but I see it as a masterstroke, even if it wasn’t intended as such.

The Environment Ministry

Arguably ‘climate change’ is the most intractable issue of those championed by Labor and the Teals in the recent election; (ICAC and women’s issues could be addressed in this parliament but achieving deep reductions in greenhouse gases could take many more years). The ministry for ‘Environment and Water’ (Plibersek) will be as crucial as the ministry for ‘Energy and Climate Change’ (Chris Bowen). Labor is right to set them apart, in contested space, unlike the LNP which lumped them together to sideline them.

We think of the environment as being central to our quality of life, and are concerned with continuous threats from urban development, farming, mining, land clearing and so on. However, an ‘environment portfolio’ wasn’t always so important. Indeed, it has only existed for 50 years when ‘environment’ was added to the ministry of ‘Arts and Aboriginal Affairs’ in the dying days of the McMahon government.

Moss Cass

Elected in 1972, Gough Whitlam knew it was important but he wasn’t invested; he rated it 26th out of  27 ministries (only ‘Science’ was lower) and gave it to Moss Cass, an avowed socialist, who’d won Maribyrnong in Melbourne from the LNP. He was a most unusual ALP member, arguably the most progressive of Whitlam’s progressive ministry (in the foreground with a heavy beard).

Moss Cass was redoubtable. A medical doctor, the son of refugees from Belarus, who were GPs. He had developed machinery for bypass in heart-lung surgery and worked on community health with trade unions. He had very progressive views, supported abortion rights, legalisation of cannabis and decriminalisation of homosexuality when all three were illegal. He became politically fired up and challenged PM Menzies and took some bark off him in the early 60s before being elected in 1969.

He took to the Ministry of Environment and Conservation (as Whitlam labeled it) with alacrity. He established the Environmental Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act of 1974, establishing a framework for EPA acts in every state. In this he was, perhaps surprisingly, supported by Rex Connor, the minister later much maligned for bringing down the Whitlam government in his attempt to nationalise our mineral wealth (would that he had been successful; we’d be as wealthy as Norway, with far less environmental argument and damage).

Cass dropped the ‘conservation’ tag, deeming it unnecessary, and forged ahead under sole title ‘environment’. Despite his protestations Cass was unable to save Lake Pedder, but was fundamental in ending sand mining on K’gari (Fraser Island) and reducing ran uranium mining in Kakadu, and former leader Bob Brown has credited his efforts with helping create the Greens. Moss Cass had astonishing careers before and after politics, you can read about his extraordinary life in the obituaries published recently upon his death at 96 in February, in the SMH, Whitlam Institute, his son Dan Moss in the Saturday Paper, and Guy Rundle in Crikey (who described the ministers in the photo above as looking like homicide squad detectives).

After Moss Cass

In the 28 years that the LNP have been in power since Cass’s time, the environment ministry has been conjoined with Arts, Science, Home Affairs, Housing, and Community Development. Robert Hill, the best of the LNP’s eighteen ‘environment’ ministers, held the portfolio for over five years, without the other add-on’s, and with distinction.

More recently the standing of the ministry in LNP hands deteriorated under the stewardship of Greg Hunt and Josh Frydenberg, to the appalling approach taken by Sussan Ley to protect the reputation of the Great Barrier Reef rather than the reef itself. Never mind the coal and gas mines hastily approved before being kicked from office.

Under the 19 years of Labor, the names continued to yo-yo, adding Sport, Tourism, Heritage, Population, Communities, Sustainability and Territories to the mélange. Seems the environment can’t ever stand on its own, and it was hard to take the work of Barry Cohen, Graham Richardson, and Ros Kelly seriously in the Hawke / Keating governments, despite some wins.

The Rudd / Gillard years saw three increasingly dedicated and competent ministers, first Peter Garrett, then Tony Burke and finally Mark Butler, who wrote a quite comprehensive book on the Climate Wars. Which brings us to the current minister. Let’s not underestimate her task undoing years of neglect from the LNP: their abrogation of responsibility for endangered species, their championing of gas and coal mines, and their lack of support for the Great Barrier Reef.

Tanya Plibersek, (in yellow in Albanese‘s ministry women), is one of the most competent of the new exceedingly competent ministry. Maybe that’s why Albanese saw her as a threat and tried to knee-cap her. Well, that’s to our, and the environment’s, advantage. I predict that she will be the best advocate for the environment since Moss Cass.

Not Doctor’s Wives, but Doctors

A little sideline musing about the relationship between medical doctors and the environment. Moss Cass was the first of several doctors who have led a charge for an ‘environmental movement’. Recently several doctors have advocated for action on climate change; witness Dr Sophie Scamps Teal win in Mackellar, and the irony of Dr Monique Ryan ousting Josh Frydenberg, a former environment minister, cannot be lost on the LNP, who thought these electorates were safe for them with ‘doctors’ wives’; turns out they were the doctors.

A Personal Coda

In 1975 Moss Cass swapped the ministry of the environment for media, enjoying a furious four months before the Whitlam government was dismissed. He started establishing SBS (Special Broadcasting Service). He founded the Australian Press Council (but repudiated its voluntary basis), and when Rupert Murdoch labeled it “sinister” (thinking about himself) Cass hit back hard, accusing the press of “bizarre distortion and hysterical over-reaction“. And he established 12 community radio stations, including 2SER in Sydney, 2RRR in Melbourne and 2XX in Canberra.

The last one provided a start for my part-time career in radio. In 1977 I started with a weekly half-hour program on 2XX about the alternative technologies for the environment called ‘Softer Paths’, graduated to a rock and roll program called ‘A wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom’, and was invited on to the board (the only white heterosexual male in ten – Moss would have loved that diversity.)

After that most enjoyable introduction I became a radio commentator on matters of urban design and architecture. First on ABC Canberra (with Wendy Wicks); then occasionally over many years on ABC RN (with Geraldine Doogue and Alan Saunders); and then weekly for almost 10 years as one of the ‘Woodies’ (later ‘Homies’) on Saturday mornings with Simon Marnie on ABC 702; more recently in podcasts on the Architecture & Design digital platform.

Vale Moss Cass. I am professionally indebted to him for his gargantuan innovations for the environment movement, and personally grateful for my minor media career.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]

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