Essence and Decision. The Case of Coronation Hill


Ian Hamilton Holland. 1999. Essence and Decision. The Case of Coronation Hill.Thesis (Masters), Griffith University, Brisbane.


The rise of environmental issues has presented a challenge to decision-making in the area of natural resources policy. This challenge has met with diverse responses, ranging from neo-liberal attempts to incorporate environmental values into economic calculus, through 'ecological rationalist' arguments for the special nature of environmental issues, to radical theories of the state's role in controlling the impact of environmental concerns on capitalist profitability. From this plethora of ideas about how to address environmental concern should emerge some directions that are more promising than others. But which? The Coronation Hill mine case, presented in this thesis, exemplified the complexities of natural resources decision-making in an environmental era. By analysis of the Resource Assessment Commission's Inquiry into the Coronation Hill proposal, this thesis examines the strengths and weaknesses of the claims of different theoretical approaches. Such use of the single case to explore theory is exemplified by Allison's work Essence of Decision. The RAC, as a neo-liberal institution, attempted to utilise both Pigouvian and Coasian strategies to address environmental issues. Both types of strategy emerge in the application of contingent valuation to preservation values. Private property rights allocation strategies, derived by public choice theorists from Coase's work, are also in evidence in debate about Aboriginal rights in the Kakadu Conservation Zone (site of the proposed mine). The problems that beset the RAC both in its use of contingent valuation and its attempts to resolve Aboriginal issues exemplify why neo-liberal approaches are of limited use for dealing with the class of policy problem that Coronation Hill represented. Dryzek, Walker and others argue that ecological problems have a distinctive nature, which necessitates a distinctive policy response. However the evidence from the Coronation Hill case demonstrates the falsity of this premise. Ecological problems are in general similar to other policy problems. Radical analysis of environmental issues has treated them as potential sources of disruption to capital accumulation. According to the structural dependence thesis as formulated by Block and Przeworski and Wallerstein, the role of the state is to prevent damage to investor confidence. Data from the Coronation Hill case, however, suggests that the 'anti-capital' recommendations of the RAC adopted by the government had none of the detrimental effects predicted by radical theories (and by business actors). This is probably because it is not in fact clear that environmental protection is a goal hostile to capitalism. Environmental issues have also acted as an impetus to institutional innovation: innovation which the Resource Assessment Commission to some extent exemplified. The Commission's apparent failure (it was shut down two years after the Coronation Hill episode) superficially lends credence to criticism of proposals for institutional reform. Comparative analysis of the Resource Assessment Commission and its established twin the Industry Commission, however, highlights the importance of institutional analysis for revealing that the type of institutional reform must match the type of problem being confronted. The Resource Assessment Commission is shown to be in several ways an inappropriate organisation to deal with issues like Coronation Hill. Thus the fate of the Resource Assessment Commission was largely inevitable, and was determined largely by its nature rather than by political events of the early 1990s. Theoretically, the Coronation Hill case highlights the limitations of both neo-liberal and ecological approaches to dealing with environmental concerns in the natural resources policy field. It also, however, leads to the conclusion that there is no coherent policy category of 'environmental policy'. Rather, environmental policy issues are similar to other policy issues, and are themselves divided into other more important categories. These categories are defined by the divisions between first, issues in which conflict originates in distributive issues versus those in which that conflict originates in value clashes; and second, those issues in which interests are divided along capital / labour lines, versus those in which they divide in other ways.

Subject Keywords
Coronation Hill, environmental policy, natural resources policy, comparative policy theory, mining, land rights, institutionalism, Resource Assessment Commission, aboriginal
Thesis Type
Thesis (Masters)
Degree Program
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Australian School of Environmental Studies
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Copyright © 1999 Ian Hamilton Holland.


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