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Labor needs to lift its game to ensure koala survival

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New Labor Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has her work cut out for her rectifying the destruction caused by the Coalition to Australia's koalas (Image by Dan Jensen)

Australia's koalas may be doomed unless the new Labor Government implements strong policies to save them, writes Sue Arnold.

A WAVE OF RELIEF swept over the environmental movement with the Labor Party's victory. The appointment of Tanya Plibersek as Environmental Minister gives cause for hope.

Many distressingly urgent environmental crises are the legacy of the Morrison Government and his inept Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, now Deputy Liberal Leader.

Koala survival remains a key issue, with the species now downgraded to endangered status federally and in NSW and Queensland. Given the overwhelming evidence of Ley’s koala conservation failures, Plibersek needs to request the Auditor-General undertake an audit of taxpayer-funded grants for koalas by the Morrison Government.

Millions have been allocated with no visible results ensuring ongoing survival. Little if any information informs the success or otherwise of grants given. 

In November 2020, Sussan Ley announced an $18 million koala package to include a “landmark census”:

‘A national audit of koala populations will be a key component of an $18 million package to help protect Australia’s iconic species.

 

Annual reporting on koala populations and conservation strategies will become a mandatory agenda item at meetings of national environment ministers [known as EMM].’

No details were provided on the national audit or census.

By April 2021, no visible progress had been made demonstrated by a Meeting of Environment Ministers’ communiqué:

Annual reporting on koala population and conservation strategies

 

Ministers agreed to support and collaborate on the National Koala Monitoring Program, providing data and other information to establish a national-level monitoring framework.


As part of an $18 million Commonwealth koala conservation package, the monitoring program will help states better understand the trends in koala populations across the country and more effectively target conservation efforts.


Building upon the outcomes of a national koala monitoring workshop in February 2021, the design of the program is underway, with implementation to commence in mid-2021.

No further EMM meeting has been held.

In January 2022, the Morrison Government announced an additional $50 million over four years to ‘maintain and support the recovery and conservation of the koala through monitoring, the protection of koala habitats and improvements of koala health and care in response to natural disasters such as bushfires and diseases such as chlamydia’.

Only $2 million was allocated to a national koala monitoring program to ‘produce a robust estimate of the national koala population and fill key data gaps identified through the koala re-assessment and recovery plan development process’.

The CSIRO has been funded to co-design and facilitate the rollout of the program but the website only details three studies that have no relationship to a national census.

There’s no semblance of an accurate or current population estimate in NSW, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia. Desktop studies have taken priority over any attempt to undertake field studies.

Given the lack of data, any government spokesperson, mainstream media, political parties and conservation organisations claiming 2050 as a goal to “double the population” is, in reality, supporting the ongoing failures to provide this rapidly disappearing species with any protection.

The time is now. 

However, in the political framework of major parties, it would appear the koala is useful for promotion and propaganda purposes but a significant barrier to urban development and the ongoing wipe-out of native forests and coastal forest ecosystems to supply the timber, building and woodchip industries.

Taking drastic steps to halt the collapse of the species in the wild is the only possible response. Emergency actions including protection of key habitats, inserting provisions in forestry acts allowing legal challenges over breaches of approvals and removing the quarantining of wildlife protection under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 which gives the forestry industry open slather are critical to the species survival.

NSW’s L-NP Government is a prime example of the policies of death by a thousand cuts.

The recent failure of legislation to create a great koala national park in NSW’s mid-north coast, in spite of the State and Federal Governments’ downgrading of koalas to endangered status, may well be an indication of what the koala conservation-conscious public can expect under a Labor government.

The creation of the park would potentially ensure the survival of koalas in NSW with a 315,000 hectare protected area providing shelter and a future for approximately 20 per cent of the state’s koala population.

Both the L-NP and Labor voted against the creation of the park. The vote was 30-7. A complete reversal of Labor’s policy. In 2015, NSW Labor Leader Luke Foley promised to establish the park,  saying his party had a clear plan to protect koalas.

The only Liberal to support the park was Catherine Cusack MLC. She has consistently supported koalas and spoken out over the failure of the Government to protect the species.

Critically important koala hubs are being systematically destroyed with no attempt by governments to ensure habitat remaining after the Black Summer bushfires is protected. Koalas lost at least 25 per cent of their primary habitat in NSW according to the Government’s own record.   

Industrial logging of remaining native forests in the state is the death knell for primary koala hubs. Communities in the south and north coast forests have exhaustively campaigned in an Olympic effort to stop the slaughter.

Legal action over industrial logging is extraordinarily difficult as the governments involved in the timber industry have ensured no public interest challenges.

Mainstream media, politicians and conservation groups continue to repeat the same old mantra focused on “numbers to be doubled by 2050”.

No one asks the essential question — doubled from what figure? No one knows. 

According to the state’s EPA in 2007:

‘...the species has a poor recovery potential (low breeding rate) and is subject to many on-going threats.’

In 2020, a review commissioned by the EPA on timber harvesting in burnt landscapes estimated koala recovery could take up to 45 years, making a mockery of any 2050 prediction.

Growth and greed are killing this iconic species. 

Labor’s saving native species program does not give much cause for hope.

Its policy promises an investment of $224.5 million over forward estimates to:

  • work with states and territories on a national koala conservation strategy;
  • expand koala hospitals and services and invest in koala chlamydia vaccines and fertility projects; and
  • boost protection for native species and combat invasive species including by investing:
    • $24.8 million to fight Yellow Crazy Ants in Cairns and Townsville; and
    • $24.5 million for koala conservation programs.

Given the millions of dollars in grants by the previous Federal Government and Labor’s policy proposals, not only is an audit of taxpayer funds overdue, but specific details of what Labor’s “koala conservation programs” actually mean are critical.

Without emergency intervention and real policies, the koala is doomed. 

Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.

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