Words are cheap, but conservation is expensive

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The new Threatened Species Strategy is big on rhetoric and small on resources.

By Peter Burnett

What is it the Government is trying to achieve with its new Threatened Species Strategy? It’s stated aim, as its title suggests, is saving threatened species. However, if you consider the evidence it’s hard not to conclude its real aim is something very different.

Saving species

Several years ago, Professor Brendan Wintle of the University of Melbourne and his colleagues published a study, Spending to save: What will it cost to halt Australia’s extinction crisis?, which found that, based on US expenditure, Australia would need to spend something between $910 million and $1.7 billion per year to avoid extinctions and recover threatened species.

This was roughly 7 to 14 times the $122 million that federal and state governments were spending each year between them on threatened species recovery. In other words, on a median figure, we’re spending around 10% of what is needed.

If you think that’s a lot, argued the authors, Australians spend twice as much on pet care. In fact, as Professor Wintle explained recently to a Senate Committee, it’s about the same as Australians spend on pet trinkets – diamanté collars and the like. [

What price the new threatened species strategy?

Last week, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley released the Australian Government’s new 10 year Threatened Species Strategy. According to the minister, this new strategy builds on the momentum of the first strategy, which was launched in 2015.

It’s not easy to tie actions under these strategies to expenditure, as successive governments have worked hard to make evaluation and thus accountability difficult. However, in the recent 2021-22 Budget the Government announced $18 million to protect ‘iconic’ threatened marine species such as turtles and seabirds, and $29.1 million to protect native species from invasive pests.

The Budget papers don’t break these particular figures down over the four year period that is generally used for budget funding, but on average that’s an extra $11.8m per year, roughly a 10% increase on the $122 million figure from the Wintle et al study or an extra 1% of what is needed. That’s very small beer.

The strategy will be underpinned by consecutive five year action plans, which are intended to identify priority spaces and places, along with ‘concrete actions and practical, measurable targets to assess progress’. The first action plan is in preparation.

A little history

Before releasing the new strategy, the Government released a discussion paper, in October 2020. The discussion paper described the previous strategy, which had concluded four months earlier, but gave no information on how successful the completed strategy had been.

It simply stated that the Threatened Species Commissioner was ‘working on a final report which will present a robust, evidence-based analysis of progress against these 2020 targets’.

Now, some seven months later, we have a new strategy, but still no evaluation on the previous one. So we don’t know if the new strategy addresses the failings of the old.

Unfortunately I’ve seen this happen before, with Australia’s overarching national biodiversity strategy as well: roll out the new strategy without evaluating the old. This conveniently avoids unnecessary embarrassment about poor performance, or, perhaps worse, the inability even to measure performance.

Anyone who contributed to developing the strategy would have had to make do with the Threatened Species Commissioner’s annual progress reports, which include extremely general statements such as the Year 3 report that ‘eleven of these targets were met, four were partially met and six were unmet’ and the Year 4 headline that ‘we continued work to support all targets, with a sharpened focus on those the year 3 report identified as needing greater effort’.

A little strategy

So now we have new strategy, but it’s all high level stuff, broad descriptions on problems and approaches that few could disagree with, such as the vision that ‘Australia’s threatened species are valued, protected and on the path to recovery’.

We do know that, responding to stakeholder comments, the new strategy has been broadened to add reptiles, frogs, insects and fish to the priority birds, mammals and plants identified in the first Strategy. And that it will include marine and freshwater species, as well as terrestrials.

The strategy also includes a new focus on ‘priority places’ to ‘expand the new Strategy’s influence across our land and seascapes’. These priority places will include sites where threat mitigation and habitat protection efforts will benefit multiple species and ecological communities.

The strategy will also expand the number of key action areas to focus Australian Government efforts to landscape-scale actions, including major threats like weeds and diseases.

The devil’s in the detail

As to the detail, well that’s coming in the first action plan, development of which will commence in June; ie, 12 months after the last plan expired. This delay in dealing with such an urgent problem doesn’t fill one with confidence.

But we know that the action plan will cover at least 100 priority species and 20 priority places. There will be a continued focus on feral cats and a new focus on invasive pests and weeds.

We also know that the action plan will attempt to foster greater community engagement through citizen science and partnerships between First Nations people, business and non-government organisations.

Forgive my cynicism, but references to partnerships with business and the like are often code for Government attempts to avoid responsibility and share blame. It reminds me of the statement in our national biodiversity strategy that ‘caring for nature is the shared responsibility of all Australians’.

But one problem is already apparent: the broader the plan the more thinly the meagre available resources are likely to be spread, because I can’t see the government suddenly turning on the money taps. (At least not in a properly targeted way. As I discussed in an earlier blog, the government announced a $100m Environmental Restoration Fund just before the last election, and then promptly committed most of it through election announcements, without any expert advice as to how this money might best be spent.)

What’s the real strategy?

From a policy point of view, there is a complete disconnect between the size of the problem (enormous) and the approach to the solution (narrow focus, tiny resources). Governments are not irrational; when they do something that seems irrational it’s usually because they are actually solving a different problem.

In this case, I think the problem they are solving is the political problem of being seen to be doing something credible about a problem that they either don’t acknowledge or don’t want to engage with.

On that logic, the recipe of conferring the title of Threatened Species Commissioner on a public servant; engaging stakeholders in lots of consultation; producing a glossy strategy and sprinkling a little money around looks quite good to me.

Unfortunately, unless and until there’s a real groundswell of concern among voters about biodiversity loss, that’s the way it’s likely to stay.

Banner image: The Endangered cassowary is threatened by a loss of habitat, vehicle strikes, dog attacks and disease. Recovering just this species alone requires serious resources. (Image by Jessica Rockeman from Pixabay)

From Babel to babble and back again

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Information without trust is just dangerous hot air

By David Salt

Once upon a time the humans of Earth thought it would be a good idea to build a tower that reached high into the sky; so high that we could gaze across all the land, so high that they would be able to reach heaven and humans would be on the same level as God.

God saw the tower, the tower of Babel, going up and thought this was a very dumb idea, positively blasphemous.

He also noted that putting together such a large scale piece of infrastructure took a lot planning, coordination and cooperation. So, rather than smiting the tower, which some might label as an overreaction and would no doubt just cause them to build another, he instead invoked the curse of babble on the tower builders. The curse meant they could no longer understand what each other were saying. Sure enough, work on the tower came to an abrupt halt.

That should stop them talking up more stupid ideas, the Divine One probably thought.

And so it was that humans went off in their little tribes and developed separate cultures and civilizations. They knew about each other (the tribe on the other side of the divide) but direct communication was always a hassle because everyone used a different language.

Going to be a revolution

But you can’t keep a good (or a bad) human down. We figured out how to grow vast quantities of food (the Agricultural Revolution) and harness the energy of fossil fuels (the Industrial Revolution) and our numbers grew and grew.

More recently, we built clever machines called computers that could process vast quantities of information very quickly. And then we enabled those clever machines to talk to each other, and they became so portable that we could carry them around meaning that everyone could swap information with everyone else all the time (the Information Revolution).

And language became a trifling technicality solved with the push of a button.

The curse of babble was lifted, and who needed God anyway, because now our beautiful internet had given each of us access to the world’s information. Once again, we were elevating ourselves to the status of an omnipotent deity.

We had all of human knowledge at our finger tips. And that knowledge base was pretty impressive. Our technology, for example, had allowed us to understand more about the Earth and its component systems with greater precision than at any time in history.

Ironically, the technology that underpinned ‘the Great Acceleration’ of our ‘progress’ was also revealing that our activity was totally unsustainable.

Rising babble

But then bizarre things began happening as our infrastructure of information was again raising us up to God-like heights.

Many of our leaders (political and social) began declaring any news or information coming from other tribes was wrong or false.

And because there was so much information flowing through our media feeds, set to our specific profiles, it became possible to be completely inundated by the views and passions of just our own tribe (amplified in our own personal echo chambers) to the point that we began losing the capacity to listen to (or trust) information coming from other sources.

Somehow the curse of babble has descended on us again. We can understand the words being used by the other tribes, but we are losing the ability to actually hear what is being said. We don’t trust the source of the words and information being shared so we attack it or ignore it.

The cost of babble

Okay, all of the above is written in allegorical parable speak but you get my general thrust. Knowledge is power but without trust it’s as useless (and dangerous) as babble.

Writ large we see this modern babble weaponized by leaders and malicious actors all around the world. These days our many information sources all contain some degree of fake news, conspiracy thinking and fear mongering. It’s used to polarize, obfuscate and delegitimize the people outside of the tribe.

It’s a game played by the powerful to consolidate their power while weakening their enemy, those in the other tribe – be that another country or the opposing political party. But it’s a game with a horrible and enduring cost – the loss of trust and the erosion of social capital. And that sets up a vicious cycle in which the avalanche of information we all experience simply confirms our biases – that our tribe speaks ‘truth’ while the other tribe spreads falsehood, and should not be listened to.

A clear example of this is the Republican Party’s prosecution of the BIG LIE, that President Trump was robbed of election victory by the total corruption of the US democratic system. The Republican position has nothing to do with truth or evidence, and everything to do with power, polarisation and division. Trust lies bleeding and drowning under an avalanche of babble.

The consequences of this new curse of babble are profound and far reaching. In the short term we can expect it to manifest as rising levels of vaccine hesitancy (something already evident) as people stop trusting governments.

In the medium to longer term it delays and derails effective responses to climate change and environmental degradation (something we see at the moment in Australia) as people stop trusting science.

Nations with poor democratic safeguards like Russia and China are using weaponized forms of babble to interfere with the running of the other countries be it undermining trust in electoral processes (think Trump’s rise in 2016) through to directly degrading infrastructure and markets.

Indeed, if we can’t see the signal (information) from the noise (babble), we’re all one step closer to the shouting turning to real world fighting. Armed conflict, with the horrible price it brings, is not far behind any descent into babble.

Investing in trust

Trust is the only sure inoculation to the malaise of babble.

We need to trust our governments and the information they base their decisions on. That trust is based on a strong institutional framework that ensures the integrity and transparency surrounding government and corporate processes. And that institutional framework must constantly be tested, queried and scrutinized (through audits, corruption watchdogs, fair elections and a vital free independent press).

In the age of babble, none of this is guaranteed.

Mighty vested interests are attacking the foundations of our trust every day. If those foundations give way, all that we hold precious could tumble down.

Image: Hubris goes before a fall: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).

The Fraser Government 1975-1982, greener than you might think

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By Peter Burnett

Another in our series on environmental policy under Australian governments of the past.

I lived through the Fraser years. Because he was controversial, I have strong memories of how he was regarded, but on matters environmental my only immediate memory was that one of the reasons Fraser lost government was because he would not match Labor’s promise to stop the Franklin Dam in Tasmania. And yet, if you actually dig into his record, his government did get things done for the environment.

Dogged at the outset

Malcom Fraser was Prime Minister from 1975 till 1982. He was dogged by the controversy of how he came to the Prime Ministership, having collaborated with Governor-General Sir John Kerr in the sacking of the Whitlam Government in 1975.

This was especially true during his early years. People used to turn up wherever Fraser was, yelling ‘Shame, Fraser, Shame!’ After all, Whitlam had urged his followers to ‘Maintain Your Rage!’

Yet everything mellowed with time. Whitlam and Fraser even became firm friends, something that would have appeared inconceivable during the ‘maintain-your-rage’ period.

Fraser went on to develop a strong personal record on human rights, especially on Apartheid, and late in his life, he even endorsed Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young for re-election, with the comment that she had been a ‘reasonable and fair-minded voice’!

And when I started researching Fraser’s environmental policies, I was more impressed than I expected to be.

Growing federal power on the environment

The Fraser Government came to power on a relatively bland platform of striking a balance between conservation and economic growth. It also made the specific commitment, which it did not deliver, to develop national pollution standards with the States. (These eventually came under the Keating government in the early 1990s.)

Its most prominent decisions were connected with major developments: the banning of sand mining on Fraser Island at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef; allowing the Ranger uranium mine while establishing Kakadu National Park to surround it; and failing to stop the proposed Franklin dam in Tasmania.

Yet Fraser was also active in ratifying and implementing international conventions, including the Ramsar Convention on internationally significant wetlands, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species; and the Japan Australia Migratory Bird Agreement.

On World Heritage, Fraser secured the listing of Australia’s first five properties: Wilandra Lakes in western NSW, Kakadu, the Great Barrier Reef, Lord Howe Island and the Tasmanian Wilderness.

Fraser also carried through on several major Whitlam Government reforms, despite the rancour of the Dismissal. He developed the Register of the National Estate and signed the Emerald Agreement with Queensland to provide for cooperative management of the Great Barrier Reef.

But back to development projects. In 1976, following an Inquiry, the Government decided to block sand mining on Fraser Island and to list the island on the Register of the National Estate. Lacking the constitutional power to block mining directly, it did so by refusing to grant an export permit, a decision which it then defended successfully in the High Court.

Constitutionally, this was a very significant decision, as it would confirm the Commonwealth’s ability to insert itself into many areas of traditional state responsibility, including the environment.

In 1977, this time following two Inquiries, the Fraser Government decided to allow uranium mining in the Northern Territory, but subject to extensive safeguards, including a dedicated statutory monitoring regime, due to the sensitive location of the Ranger mine within an area subsequently established as the Kakadu National Park. (Despite being located in the middle of the area concerned, the mine and its access road were excised from the area declared as national park. Over 40 years later, the Ranger uranium mine is only now closing.)

This might be regarded as an example of the ‘striking a balance’ platform on which the government was elected; mining was permitted but the National Park was created and the potential impacts of the mine on the park were regulated by special regime.

A dam in Tasmania

In the dying days of the Fraser Government, one environmental issue, the Tasmanian Government’s decision to build the Gordon below Franklin dam, would come to dominate the political discourse.

The Federal Government opposed the dam, but, despite the precedent of Fraser Island, regarded legislative intervention as a bridge too far. So, instead, Fraser offered Tasmania $500 million not to proceed with the dam, but the offer was rejected.

Despite acknowledging that it may have the legal power to stop the dam, the government argued that its World Heritage obligations did not require it to override responsibilities that it thought properly resided with the States. It would thus fall to the new Hawke government to stop the dam (something I’ll discuss in a future instalment).

The World Conservation Strategy

The Fraser Government also deserves to be remembered for its work on conservation policy.

The United Nations had adopted the World Conservation Strategy (WCS) in 1980. Fraser later announced that all Australian governments had adopted one of its principal recommendations, that every country should prepare its own National Conservation Strategy.

This was a significant initiative, not only because it initiated Australia’s first national statement on environmental policy objectives, but also because the government’s intention was that the national policy conform to the principal objectives of the WCS, which were visionary: maintaining essential ecological processes and life support systems; preserving genetic diversity, and ensuring ‘sustainable utilisation’ of species and ecosystems.

In fact, this concept of sustainable utilisation anticipated the concept of ‘sustainable development’ by seven years.

With the Fraser government losing office before the strategy, the strategy passed to the incoming Hawke government as unfinished business (again, more on this in my next instalment).

How green was the Fraser Government?

Although they couldn’t bring themselves to stop the Franklin Dam by legislation, the Fraser government presided over an active environment agenda and a significant expansion of the federal environmental role. They were particularly strong on World Heritage and got the ball rolling on a coherent national conservation policy.

And the ban on sand mining on Fraser Island is a landmark in our constitutional and environmental history.

Fraser would later write in his memoirs that if he had his time again he would have used the federal power to stop the Franklin Dam.

I once heard Fraser say of his exit from the Liberal Party, ‘I didn’t leave the Liberal Party, they left me.’ I’m not entirely sure that’s right.

Image: Malcolm Fraser emerges from Parliament House on 11 November 1975, after announcing that Governor-General Sir John Kerr had appointed him caretaker Prime Minister. Fraser’s pathway to the prime ministership now dominates our memory of his time. (NAA: A6180, 13/11/75/31; Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence, Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) 2019).