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Morrison Government koala extinction policies exposed

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The Morrison Government is continuing its ignorance towards the plight of koalas (Image by Dan Jensen)

The Morrison Government’s koala policies of extinction have finally been exposed by its own bureaucracy with the release of two major koala conservation policy documents.

Entitled as a National Recovery Plan for the Koala and a Consultation on Species Listing Eligibility and Conservation Actions (Koala), both documents were produced by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.  

A national koala recovery plan should have been developed in 2012 when NSW, Queensland and A.C.T. koalas were listed as vulnerable under the provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). Successive governments have consistently delayed the plan, no doubt waiting for their extinction policies to kick in.

The consultation document is part of the extraordinarily long process involved in upgrading a species under the provisions of the EPBC Act. After a submission is received, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee undertake research to establish whether the Committee will recommend upgrading, downgrading or no change in line with a raft of requirements that must be fulfilled.

There is no emergency listing process for any listed wildlife.

Complete censorship of the failures of state and federal government policies and guidelines, together with no mention of the ongoing weakening of environmental protection laws is evident. Major threats to koala survival are not recognised, including the industrial logging of NSW and Victorian state forests and plantations, the impacts and failure to address the ramifications of the 2019-2020 bushfires and the lack of any state or federal legislation that deals with climate change impacts.

The consultation requests:

‘...views and supporting reasons related to:

 

  1. the eligibility of Phascolarctos cinereus (koala) for inclusion on the EPBC Act threatened species list in the Endangered category; and
  2. the necessary conservation actions for the above species.’

A series of questions are posed, questions more appropriately addressed to governments. Bureaucrats must have spent months poring over the right weasel words to convey the impression that the Federal Government is concerned about the status of koalas whilst skirting around the reality.

For example: “Are you aware of trends in the overall population of the species/subspecies? Does the current and predicted rate of decline used in the assessment seem reasonable? Do you consider that the way this estimate has been derived is appropriate? If not, please provide justification of your response.”

The assessment gives the submitter an estimate of decline ranging from 1-30 per cent to 90-100 per cent.

Given that no state government with major bushfires has undertaken any population survey and continues to reject any suggestion of a survey, how would any scientist provide an acceptable number?

What about the cumulative impacts from industrial logging, major urbanisation, infrastructure, mining and tourism developments? How long before this level of destruction exterminates the species? What level of decline is acceptable to the Morrison Government?

A further question on population size asks the submitter to estimate the number of mature individuals in the range of 1-10,000 to <300,000. No government has any idea of the number of mature individuals, so why ask the question?

This one really takes the cake:

‘Do you consider that the way the historic distribution has been estimated is appropriate? Please provide justification for your response.’

Or:

‘What planning, management and recovery actions are currently in place supporting protection and recovery of the species/subspecies? To what extent have they been effective?’ 

Surely one for governments.

A tediously long document of 59 pages, the public is assured that ‘koala populations in the southern part of their range, in Victoria and South Australia, are robust’. Nothing could be further from the truth. In spite of almost a year of IA attempting to negotiate Victoria’s freedom of information legislation to get the most current koala population estimate, the only firm fact is that there is no population estimate and there hasn’t been one for potentially decades. South Australia’s last survey was in the early 2000s.

Both states had catastrophic losses of koalas and wildlife during the bushfires.

The crises and solutions for retaining the species don’t require more than a few lines:  

  • a moratorium on industrial logging of forests containing primary koala hubs, forests that need time to recover from the fires;
  • legislate for emergency listing in the case of natural disasters;
  • state government legislation to protect remaining habitat;
  • repealing the common assessment method which only allows for a national listing of species;
  • no self-referrals by developers with major projects impacting habitat;
  • strengthening the EPBC Act and ensuring the forestry industry is required to abide by the biodiversity provisions of the Act;
  • create the Great Koala National Park on the mid-north coast of NSW; and
  • create climate refugia.

Moving on to the national koala recovery plan, draft June 2021.

In this tome, some 105 pages, we are told that:

Human-induced land-use change continues to impact the habitat of koalas, resulting in population declines which will only be exacerbated by climate change.

 

The purpose of this plan is to stop the decline of, and support the recovery of, the listed koala, so that chances of its long term survival in nature are maximised. It is the road map to recovery.

 

Three objectives for the listed koala are that by 2031:

 

Objective 1: The area of occupancy and size of populations that are declining, suspected to be declining and predicted to decline are increased.

Objective 2: Metapopulation processes are maintained or improved.

Objective 3: Communities and individuals have a greater role and capability in koala conservation and management.

Just in case the plan interferes with any habitat destroying projects, the following statement gives relief:

‘Implementing this recovery plan is subject to budgetary and other resource opportunities and constraints affecting partners. The cost of implementing this recovery plan should, where possible, be incorporated into the core business expenditure of partner organisations and through additional funds obtained for the explicit purpose of implementation.’

Thus far, we have had a National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy 2009–2014, with its primary finding:

‘Loss of habitat is the major threat to the koala in Queensland and New South Wales and is the primary factor responsible for declining populations in those states. This continuing problem, which results mainly from clearing or fragmentation of forest and woodland, must be aJanddressed.

 

Habitat loss is the most significant cause of koala population declines and reductions in long-term population viability.’

Plus a 2011 Senate Environment and Communications Reference Committee Inquiry into status, health and sustainability of Australia’s koala population, which recommended that:

‘The Australian Government fund a properly designed, funded and implemented national koala monitoring and evaluation program across the full range of the koala.’

Add the National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy: First Implementation reports in 2010 and 2013, the same Senate Reference Committee Inquiry into fauna in 2018 — all focused on the exponential failings of legislation and governments to protect koalas and Australia’s iconic wildlife.

In an IA exclusive interview with Senator Janet Rice, she said:

‘The most important issue raised by the Inquiry is how totally inadequate our current legislation is. We’re dealing with the drivers of extinction. The EPBC Act is totally inadequate to deal with it, with inadequate actions to minimise impacts, there’s a lack of monitoring, compliance and offsets that don’t work.’

Nothing has changed. No independent audit of the various programs set up by the Federal Government has been undertaken. However, an analysis of the recommendations of the reports demonstrates virtually none have been actioned.

What we do know is that these two policy documents are in conflict with government green lights for industrial logging which is quarantined from the biodiversity provisions of the EPBC Act. The common assessment method approved by all states allowing one national listing of a species with no regional listings is a disaster for koalas and many populations are facing regional extinction. These latest policies ignore bilateral agreements between the state and commonwealth governments which put powers of approval and/or environmental assessments in state governments’ hands. All combine to make a mockery of any pretence of koala conservation by the Morrison Government.

There are significant grounds for a royal commission into the relevant state and federal governments’ policies designed to exacerbate extinction processes and accountability for the funds, recommendations and implementation of action plans and their effectiveness is long overdue.

The extinction of the koala will be the legacy of governments hell-bent on growth at any cost. A truly shocking situation.

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

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