Regulatory failure and regression of environmental protections: greed, governance and generality

A/Prof. Robyn Bartel1

1University Of New England, Armidale, Australia


Environmental crime is often considered separately to ‘real’ crime, and environmental law not ‘really’ law. Regulatory failure is common, and evident in Australia in land clearing, water theft, waste dumping, biosecurity and the live export trade. Similar poor performance is demonstrated in other jurisdictions and there is regression of environmental protection and controls internationally. However, the environmental law may not be singular, rather it may be the proverbial canary in the coalmine. In Australia, scrutiny of the performance of the banking and financial service industries, the health sector, and education providers has revealed pervasive poor performance of compliance and corporate governance. A comparative analysis of regulatory oversight and regression in several public policy areas reveals some common causes, including declining norm agreement, increasing fracturing of self from public interest, and stark imbalances of knowledge and power. Such factors are hardly new, however traditional solutions are unlikely to be successful, given their patchy track records. Lessons learned from moral economy perspectives (e.g. Scott, 1976) and the experience of ‘educating upwards’ are evaluated for their potential applicability. The deployment of ‘weapons of the weak’ (Scott, 1985) and ‘upward ethical leadership’ (Uhl-Bien & Carsten, 2007) for improved governance more generally are recommended.


Robyn Bartel is a legal geographer interested in all aspects of environmental law, regulatory theory, governance and the interactions between humans and landscape.

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