A green army missing the point

Australia has long grappled with the challenge of creating a conservation industry to restore the landscape. The Coalition's latest incarnation is unlikely to be effective.

For a few years now, ever since 'new green gobs' became a bit of a buzzphrase, I have been trying to come to grips with the fact that there is no recognisable landscape restoration 'industry'.

This was really brought home to me a few years back when I went to a “Green Jobs” roadshow presented by the ACTU, ACF, and Climate Institute. 

Most of what they talked about were established trades jobs doing something with an environmental flavour (for example, electricians installing solar panels, plumbers installing water saving devices, etc). 

I asked them about ‘my’ industry, and they sort of got a bit uncomfortable and said, yes, it was important but they hadn’t had the funds to look at it, and (this is the kicker) they couldn’t work out how to engage with us ... they couldn’t find a peak body or any sort of national structure or anything. Fair point.

Of course, there are – different – national Landcare bodies and the regional NRM bodies and ecological restoration bodies, but none of them really fit the bill as a peak body. 

Recently I became aware of a 1989 CSIRO paper written by Richard Eckersley, and it was a bit of a revelation – Regreening Australia: the Environmental, Economic, and Social Benefits of Restoration. Way back then he identified the need to develop a permanent skilled workforce ...

“The report is not advocating a huge public works program, run by government, that adopts a single system of tree planting across the continent. To be effective, the program must be tailored to the particular needs of a region, managed at a local level, and carried out using, where necessary, private contractors.

The program would not be a job creation program, undertaken to occupy armies of unskilled unemployed. The problems and opportunities are real. To be economically feasible and to achieve its objectives, the program would have to be made as effective and as efficient as possible. The jobs involved would be as legitimate and as useful as any other (my emphasis), and in many cases would require training and skills.”

Jump to 2013, Richard Eckersley wrote a report for the Australia21 organisation*: Repairing and preparing Australia's landscapes for global change: Why we must do much more. It was a report on an expert roundtable, held at the University of Melbourne on February 21, 2013, to consider the question: ‘What are the benefits of large-scale reforestation and revegetation, and how can they best be achieved?’

This report makes some really interesting observations and recommendations. There was considerable discussion – and agreement – on the need for a landscape regeneration ‘industry’ that would produce the necessary capacity to implement policy, increase professionalism, and provide technical services, education and extension.

– Success in this whole exercise would be if the ‘revegetation industry’ achieves the same status in Australia as the mining industry. You can count this as a number of things but it’s a cultural shift, in that revegetation and sustainable land management are seen as part of our identity, what we do, both for rural people and city people. It also needs to be seen as an economic activity based on sustained, long-term investment through public-private partnerships.
– In the same way that realising economic benefits from mining depends on public investment in infrastructure, training and skills and private capital in resource extraction, large-scale revegetation and land repair will require public investment in green infrastructure and private investment in a range of benefits.’
– If it’s the case that government is going to step up with large amounts of money for large-scale work, then there is a bunch of structural problems in the system. Indeed, the revegetation industry doesn’t really exist. It’s a bunch of sheltered workshops and cottage industries around the place.’
– We really need to develop a whole level of professionalism.... if you take the mining industry analogy, we need the revegetation services business to be there, with all that technical expertise, just like we would expect from other sectors, rather than it being seen as a job for volunteers.
– A landscape ‘industry’ could provide jobs almost anywhere in Australia, so making an important contribution to social and economic stability in the event of global economic troubles. This job creation would support rural communities and help the unemployed in urban areas. The 1989 CSIRO report noted ‘regreening Australia’ could be an important component of guaranteeing people an adequate income in return for doing socially useful work. The report stimulated programs such as the current Green Corps, which give young people work experience and skills.

The current Green Corps is barely recognisable from the original Green Corps, which commenced in 1997 and was itself one in a long line of similar schemes over 20 odd years. In any event it is about to be superceded by the Coalition’s proposed new Green Army. From its own website:

The Coalition will create a standing ‘Green Army’ that will gradually build to a 15,000 strong environmental workforce. We will create and properly resource the Green Army, as a larger and more lasting version of the former Green Corps. It will be Australia’s largest-ever environmental deployment.
It will mark the first time that Australia has approached environmental remediation with the same seriousness and level of organisation that we have long brought to bushfire preparedness and other local and regional priorities.

Unfortunately, this policy will do nothing to advance the development of our industry. It will adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, using a standard model with teams of nine young people plus a supervisor working for six months while also undergoing (very) basic environmental training. This number of 'trainees' will swamp an already threadbare jobs market. It’s topsy-turvy, cart-before-horse – pick your own analogy.  What we need are real jobs, not ephemera.   

Ironically, the Coalition also has a policy for a new loan scheme to support apprentices. This policy states that only apprentices employed in occupations included in the National Skills Needs List will be eligible. The only skill in this extensive list that comes even close to Landscape Restoration is Landscape Gardening, and they are really chalk and cheese; they require very different skill sets. 

So 15,000 young people a year will gain work experience and training in a vocation which has very little demand, and the real kicker is that in putting all these teams on the ground they will be taking work away from the few commercial operators currently struggling to make a living who could provide that employment.

The program could be made far more effective by dramatically cutting the number of 'trainees' and using the funds to create a proper structure as recommended in the Australia21 report. This would provide better outcomes for the participants, the environment, and the community. The new government really needs to listen to the people who are out there doing this who understand how the real world works.

David Hudson has experience in implementing green programs at a regional level, as well as a background in community conservation programs.

*Australia21 is an independent, non-profit organisation whose core purpose is multidisciplinary research and inquiry on issues of strategic importance to Australia in the 21st century.