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With two weeks to go until the 2022 federal election, most of the key policy offerings from the major parties have already been outlined – but there are some big gaps. From conservation to education and the arts, both Labor and the Coalition have been short on detail. Here are six areas where voters are left in the dark:
There is no shortage of evidence that Australian governments are failing to protect the country’s environment and that its unique wildlife and landscapes are suffering as a result.
Over the past three years, the evidence has been laid out in several reports. Graeme Samuel, the former competition watchdog head, was charged with undertaking a once-a-decade review of national conservation laws and found they were failing and the environment was in unsustainable decline. The auditor general reached similar conclusions.
The Coalition made deep cuts to environment program funding after being elected in 2013 and it has been only partly restored. Australia is the global capital for mammal extinction. The number of ecosystems and species under threat is accelerating, in part due to extreme events such as bushfires and ocean heating, due to the climate crisis. Plans to protect them have often not been delivered.
Despite this, at the time of writing neither major party had released a new overarching environment policy, or formally responded to Samuel’s 38 recommendations on how to fix the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
The Coalition has tried and failed to pass legislation that would hand more environment decision-making powers to state governments – a step described as cutting “green tape” – and been criticised for not improving wildlife protection. Its commitments are here.
Labor is sharply critical of the government’s performance, and has suggested it would listen to Samuel. But after taking a clear position to the 2019 election, including promising to overhaul the laws and introduce a national environment protection authority, it has been quieter this time. Its commitments are here.
The Greens’ policies include supporting much tougher environmental laws and setting a goal of “zero extinction by 2030”.
What could the next government do to address the problem? Some scientists laid out their vision here.
Australian scientists are calling for more government research funding, which has declined in recent years despite vaccines and treatments for Covid-19 highlighting the key role science plays in tackling global challenges.
The pandemic has brought widespread job insecurity and plummeting morale among Australian researchers. A Morrison government decision in December to veto some funding grants has had a “chilling effect” on academic independence in Australia and made it harder to attract international talent, a Senate inquiry heard in March.
A new position statement released by the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) has criticised the current approach to science funding as “not fit for purpose”.
It said: “Today, Australia’s science funding system is characterised by a real declining base level of government support for public science agencies and universities.”
“Despite one-off funding for research and science during the pandemic, in 2021 the Australian government’s investment in science was 0.56% of gross domestic product – which is lower than peer nations – and has declined over the past decade.”
It comes amid criticism by a leading Australian climate scientist that the national science agency, the CSIRO, has turned into a “very extravagant consulting company” under the Coalition.
Prof David Karoly, who worked on four of the six major assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told Guardian Australia this week that CSIRO scientists had been barred from speaking publicly about government policy, and that budget cuts had transformed the agency into one reliant on external contracts to survive.
As Covid-19 was about to send Australia into its first series of major lockdowns in early 2020, the Coalition government absorbed the Department of Arts and Communications into a “super department” called the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, removing the arts as a portfolio. .
Over the ensuing year, the arts and culture sectors became one of the hardest hit financially, up there with tourism and hospitality. Lockdowns, venue closures and social distancing rules drained about $1.4bn from the live entertainment industry in 2020 alone.
Yet neither major political party has outlined a single cultural policy in the election campaign to date.
In the March federal budget, Josh Frydenberg confirmed that the Covid-19 relief scheme for the arts, the Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) fund – a spend of $200m over the past two years – would receive a further $20m over the next 12 months; then all pandemic-related assistance to the arts would end, despite the industry’s peak bodies warning that the sector would take years to recover from 24 months of inactivity and financial drain.
The ALP would not be drawn on whether the party would announce any arts or cultural policies before the election. The office of Labor’s arts spokesperson, Tony Burke, would not confirm whether Labor would reinstate the word “arts” into the arts portfolio, should the party form the next government.
Policies arts and cultural bodies want to see implemented as a priority after the election include a national insurance scheme to cover live event cancellations or postponements due to Covid infection (the state-based systems currently only cover disruptions due to border closures or lockdowns – scenarios looking increasing unlikely as states and territories ease their public health restrictions), an overarching fully funded cultural body to train, promote and significantly expand all First Nations arts practices and, in the screen industry, a federal government commitment to legislate for Australian content quotas for the multinational streaming platforms.
Given sustained high levels of virus transmission across the country, far more Covid deaths this year than the previous two years combined, and the arrival of three new Omicron subvariants in Australia, health experts have expressed surprise at the absence of coronavirus policies from the election campaign.
“In terms of policy, there’s almost nothing there, which is amazing seeing as [Covid] has dominated Australia for the last two and a half years,” said Prof Adrian Esterman, chair of epidemiology at the University of South Australia.
“[Covid] hasn’t gone. It’s still here, even if the pollies don’t think it is,” he said. “There’s simply no guarantee that in the next few weeks we won’t see a new variant coming along … that’s even more transmissible than these new subvariants.”
The Coalition has not announced any pandemic-specific policies as part of its election campaign, but Labor has said it would establish an Australian Centre for Disease Control for future pandemic preparedness. The move was floated back in 2020 but the commitment has hardly been broached in the past several weeks of the election campaign.
Last month, the Senate’s Covid committee called for the establishment of an Australian CDC. Bodies including the Australian Medical Association and the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases have said such a centre was well overdue.
Anthony Albanese has also flagged support for a royal commission into Australia’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Education is usually a central issue in the election and 2019 was no different, with Labor promising $14bn over 10 years for public schools.
That ambition has been scaled back this time, with Labor promising only a “pathway” to full funding when states and the commonwealth renegotiate funding agreements that run to the end of 2023, on top of $440m for new grant funding to help students and teachers manage the pandemic.
The Coalition has been even more limited with its commitments, promising $21.6m to respond to priorities including the pandemic and $40m for 700 new Teach for Australia teachers and 60 new teachers through La Trobe University’s Nexus program.
While these initiatives may be worthy, none of them answer concerns from the teachers union about when public schools will receive full funding and catch up large inequities with non-government schools. The Greens have proposed giving public schools $49bn over 10 years, to fully fund all costs including out-of-pocket fees charged to parents and guardians.
Higher education policy has been quiet since the Coalition passed the jobs ready graduate reform package, hiking the cost of arts and other degrees in 2020.
In December, Labor promised up to 20,000 extra university places over 2022 and 2023, and 465,000 free Tafe places in nominated areas of skills shortages. Tanya Plibersek has promised an “accord” with universities to review the funding system, but that stops short of committing to unwind specific fee changes or restore the demand-driven system.
The Coalition has promised $240m for “trailblazer universities”, a boost to wage subsidies of regional apprentices and $22.6m for more than 29,000 additional in-training support places.