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Not enough: The Government's neglect of our "devastated" koalas

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Annastacia Palaszczuk's Government has not been doing enough to protect Queensland's koalas (screenshot via YouTube).

The Government appears to have no interest in ensuring the longevity of one of our national treasures: the koala.

IN ITS FURTHER pursuit of talkfests without resolution, the Queensland Government invited a bunch of koala conservation organisations, carers and wildlife hospital representatives to a workshop in mid-February.

The purpose of the workshop was styled as: 'to ensure a targeted and transparent threat reduction program' which encompassed the recommendations of the South East Queensland Koala Strategy, the Government’s response to the Koala Expert Panel.

Participants were invited to:

'Provide input based on your local knowledge and experience in threat mitigation for koala conservation at a roundtable event. It is envisaged that as a result of information provided at the roundtable, locations will be identified that can focus Government action to where the greatest gains for koala threat mitigation can be achieved.'

Further, they stated that 'the roundtable will focus on targeting threat mitigation measures and locations in the South East Queensland Koala Strategy.' 

Participants were directed to the following:

'In particular your input is sought for:

  • Knowledge of key hot spots and the threats for koala mortality and injury;
  • Appropriate threat mitigation for those hot spots; and
  • Identification of threat abatement treatments that have and have not worked in the past.'

Given the sheer extent of planning policies, reports, strategies, a somewhat weary and disillusioned audience of koala activists sat at their respective tables in the "Tower of Power" (1 William Street’s nickname) to listen to Leeanne Enoch, Minister for the Environment, declare her intention to protect koalas.

A near riot followed her speech as everyone in the room was aware that the only legitimate threat mitigation measure is habitat protection through legislation. Complaints about the focus of the roundtable came from all corners.

Activists and carers spoke as one rejecting the focus of the roundtable.  

As one activist pointed out, Minister Enoch’s Department of Environment & Science (DES) website states under Koala threats:

The biggest threat to koalas is habitat loss. Much of the koalas’ habitat in Queensland overlaps with areas where significant clearing has occurred and continues to occur, for urban, industrial and rural development.

 

Disease also threatens koalas. Loss of habitat, including loss of food and shelter, is a major stress for koalas. During times of stress, koalas are prone to outbreaks of the disease Chlamydia. This disease weakens the immune system and causes various problems, including blindness and infertility. Chlamydia is a contributing factor to the current decline in koala numbers.

In November 2018, the Queensland Government appointed a Koala Advisory Council basically made up of developers, the timber industry and zoos chaired by Mark Townend, CEO of RSPCA Queensland.

In a press release, Mark Townend said 'controlling the destruction of koala habitat is the key issue for Queensland’s new Koala Advisory Council.'

'There is no doubt habitat destruction is the number one problem we are going to face', he said standing beside Minister Leeanne Enoch.

The Koala Expert Panel which resulted in the Government setting up the SEQ Koala Strategy and the Koala Advisory Council second recommendation was protecting koala habitat.

Nevertheless, between November and February, the Government’s focus changed.

In yet another effort to allow continuation of the catastrophic destruction of habitat, the roundtable was set up to specifically ignore habitat loss, fragmentation and the failures by the Government.

One of the attendees asked the Department of Environment and Science (DES) representatives present at the roundtable why they were asking for knowledge of hot spots’ when these hot spots should be known by the Department.

Wayne Cameron from the Bulimba Creek Catchment Coordinating Committee was present at the roundtable. He asked the Departmental representatives whether Sports Minister Mick de Brenni was setting a precedent in using his Ministerial designation to overrule any legal barriers to destroying 5.4 hectares of koala bushland near a south-east Brisbane shooting range. This is a key area for koalas.

In a press interview subsequent to the roundtable, Mr de Brenni claimed, “I think it's possible we may not need to clear much more land at all"The Premier, standing by his side, said she was happy with Mr de Brenni’s response to the debate between conserving koala bushland or allowing the land to be cleared for additional shooting facilities.  

So far, there’s been no change announced.

“I think the Minister’s comments are fine, she said. No word on the Minister’s extraordinary use of Ministerial designation or the precedent set by overruling the local Council, planning regulations and community opposition.  

The roundtable ground on for over four hours with the facilitator and Departmental advisors refusing to acknowledge habitat loss was the priority problem.

Attendees were instructed to sit at tables with a Departmental person and discuss whether current mitigation strategies were appropriate. Strategies included the usual problems: dogs, mobile signs, exclusion fences. 

I cornered one of the Departmental head honchos to ask why the planning laws and regulations were not discussed as these are the drivers of habitat destruction.

I was informed that the department had “met with a planning lawyer".

Yet the planning issues are an absolute priority. Currently, councils can get away with murder if a development is designated Code Assessable development, which ensures no obligation for public notices, no submissions, no legal challenges.  

The list of various policies, Acts, guidelines, policies relevant to planning processes are so complex that the best way to describe the mountain of paper is as 'obfuscatory gibberish’ according to evidence given by Australians for Animals Inc. at the Senate Inquiry into Faunal Extinction hearing held in Brisbane on February 1, 2019.

There’s zero consistency in how Queensland councils operate in terms of koalas.

SEQ Council websites demonstrate no links to compliance, enforcement or monitoring.

In one instance at Mt Gravatt East, a Chinese developer cleared an area of forested land which was home to a healthy colony of koalas, gliders and many species. 

The Brisbane City Council Lord Mayor advised a member of the community that:

“I acknowledge your concerns relating to the local of local wildlife. As you may be aware, native fauna is protected under the Nature Conservation Act 1992 which is administered by the Queensland government’s Department of Environment & Science.  Therefore, I regret to advise that the Council does not have any jurisdiction in this matter”.

 

If any member of the public wants to report illegal clearing, which happens regularly on weekends as well as during working hours, the only way is via a wildlife complaint form on the DES website. Finding the form requires good research abilities.

At the roundtable, there was strong support for legislation to protect remaining koala habitat and for a moratorium to be declared until legislation could be passed by Parliament.

Requests for a 24-hour hotline to the DES, so that illegal clearing could be reported and acted upon, were ignored. A request for a workshop focused on the planning nightmares was similarly rejected.

Given that the Queensland Government’s approvals for clearing of koala habitat for development continues unabated, the only conclusion most attendees could come to was that we were invited to yet another "tick the box" exercise.

Meantime, koalas continue to die and the Palaszczuk Government is cementing its reputation as an environmental vandal.

It’s more than ironic that the koala is the State’s faunal emblem.   

You can follow Sue Arnold on Twitter @koalacrisis and Koala Crisis on Facebook here.

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