This clarion call is not only coming from scientists. In 2018, a Senate inquiry into the extinction of Australian animals found native fauna was declining and there was a need for an independent regulator. Last year the federal auditor-general found the Environment Department, which has had a 40 per cent cut to its budget since 2013, was not achieving “desired outcomes” in the monitoring and reporting of endangered species.
Last year, a landmark review of Australia’s environment laws by former competition watchdog Professor Graeme Samuel found urgent reforms were needed to prevent further extinctions, including appointing an independent environment commissioner. Legally enforceable national environmental standards were the centrepiece of the recommendations.
“To shy away from the fundamental reforms recommended by this review is to accept the continued decline of our iconic places and the extinction of our most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems,” Samuel wrote.
University of Melbourne ecologist Professor Brendan Wintle gives the Morrison government a “zero out of 10” for its limited response to the Samuel review. “The review had strong support – all the key stakeholders were at the table and there was about 85 per cent in agreement in the ways the reforms should take place. But the government just failed to deliver, which is really disappointing,” he says.
Australia’s environmental protection is chronically underfunded. In 2019, research from Wintle and his colleagues found Australia spent about $122 million a year on endangered wildlife, about 10 per cent of what was being spent in the United States, and about 15 per cent of what was needed to prevent extinctions and recover threatened species.
Wintle estimates the cost of rescuing Australia’s listed threatened species would be about $1.7 billion a year (by way of comparison, Australians spend about $12 billion a year on pet care). Just two days of Coalition election promises (estimated at $833 million a day) would fund recovery for Australia’s entire threatened species list for a year.
In the lead-up to the election, environmentalists have repeatedly called on Environment Minister Sussan Ley to release the State of the Environment report – a five-yearly scorecard on the state of Australia’s natural world – saying voters have a right to know more about the scale of the damage. But nothing was made public before the government caretaker period began.
People love nature
There is ample evidence people care about Australia’s unique plants and animals. Recent polling from the Australian Conservation Foundation on the electorate’s commitment to nature found 95 per cent of those surveyed agreed it was important to protect nature for future generations, 90 per cent agreed it was critical to the Australian economy and 80 per cent said they cared about the extinction of plants and animals.
And it’s not as if ending extinctions or wildlife revival is an impossible dream. Research from the Invasive Species Council and other conservation groups shows there are good news stories: in the 2000s the deaths of thousands of albatrosses were avoided when the government recognised the danger of long-line fishing and worked with the fishing industry to improve practices. By 2018, Australia had completed 243 successful eliminations of feral species such as black rats, cats and foxes on islands.
Wintle believes the Coalition government has been hamstrung because of the Nationals’ interest in making sure farmers retain control over land management, including native vegetation clearing, though he notes many farmers are doing great environmental recovery work.
The enmeshed relationship between the union movement and the forestry industry has also limited Labor when it comes to acting on biodiversity issues, particularly logging, Wintle says.
“The first party that liberates itself from the ideological associations of biodiversity conservation will come up with policies that will transform the way we do it.”
What’s on offer
Labor has not released an overarching environmental policy. Terri Butler, the shadow minister for the environment and water since 2019, said the timing of its launch was a matter for Labor leader Anthony Albanese. The party has already pledged $80 million for projects linked to the Great Barrier Reef and $200 million for urban rivers and catchments, and has said it would double the number of Indigenous rangers and Indigenous Protected Areas.
One of the first actions of a Labor-led government would be to provide a full response to the Samuel review, Butler says. It would also release the State of the Environment report. She describes the environment protection and biodiversity conservation review’s recommendation for an independent environmental commissioner as “close to her heart”.
“We have a real problem in this country with the lack of compliance in environment law,” she says
A spokesperson for Environment Minister Ley says the Coalition government has committed an additional $6 billion in environmental spending since 2019, including $53 million for koala recovery. It would continue to tackle feral pests and weeds, and partner with local communities for practical, on-the-ground action.
A further Coalition government would also reform national environment laws to protect the environment and provide greater certainty, spending $52 million on a national rollout of digital environment assessments with states and territories to cut “green tape”, the spokesperson said.
The Greens have a comprehensive policy that includes a goal of zero extinction by 2030 and investment in mass greening and restoration programs.
The business sector has realised there is a cost to ignoring the biodiversity crisis, says University of NSW researcher Megan Evans. Just as climate change is now understood as a risk, there is growing awareness biodiversity loss will also affect the bottom line.
These losses could include physical risks (for example, natural disasters exacerbated by loss of coastal protection from nature), reputational or legal risks, the risks of ecosystem collapse (through the loss of pollinators, for example), or diseases that affect global supply chains and availability of materials.
“We’ve had increasing threats to biodiversity over the last decade and reduced funding,” says Evans. “A bit of revegetation isn’t going to change that – it’s like sprinkling glitter on a big pile of poo.”
What to do?
The solutions to Australia’s biodiversity crisis already exist and will also benefit the nation’s human inhabitants, says Deakin University’s Professor Euan Ritchie. The next government must strengthen and enforce environmental policy and laws, look to First Peoples’ leadership and their longstanding cultural practices and increase environmental investment, Ritchie says.
A strong economy and happy, healthy people are fundamentally dependent on the environment, he says: “Taking care of the environment and investing in it are a public good.”
Dr Holly Parsons, urban bird program manager at BirdLife Australia, says it was a desperately sad day when the gang-gang cockatoo was added to the threatened species list. A cold climate species that breeds at higher altitudes, the gang-gang will be under growing pressure because of global warming.
But the listing also meant BirdLife was granted about $140,000 in federal funding to gather basic information on this little-studied bird, such as migratory patterns.
“It’s not going to be easy but the fact they are a publicly loved species means they can be an icon,” says Parsons. “They can fly the flag for other species.”
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