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Has Tanya Plibersek watered down Scott Morrison’s already weak koala protection policy?

by Suzanne Arnold | Jun 7, 2023 | Energy & Environment, Latest Posts

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has removed the Koala Referral Guidelines, replacing them with a weaker and far more complex system, again dependent on self-referral. Suzanne Arnold reports on the ‘Nature Repair Market Bill’ to establish a voluntary market for “biodiversity credits”.

Increasingly, the likelihood of koalas surviving on Australia’s east coast is grim.

The most significant threats to koalas are state and federal government’s policies of extinction. Put simply, koalas are in the way of growth, the driver of Australia’s economy. Their habitats, coastal forest ecosystems, are destined to be bulldozed and logged to accommodate the anticipated Big Australia growth.

As the Green Institute says:

the [Nature Repair Market] Bill is a plan for distraction, displacement and rorts that will do nothing to protect, let alone repair, the natural world.

Many of the actions taken by recent governments are ineffective, yet marketed heavily as aiding protection.

Over half a billion dollars has been invested by the NSW and federal governments in attempts to persuade domestic and international concern that action is being taken to ensure koalas’ survival. Recovery plans, research projects, grants to wildlife hospitals, disease research, buying bits and pieces of habitat, all ignore the primary reasons for the species’ looming demise.

Habitat loss and climate change. Massive urbanisation projects to accommodate exponential increases in the human population, industrial logging in native forests which have had no adequate time to recover from the catastrophic bushfires of 2019-2020, mining and infrastructure combine to eradicate habitat. Without habitat, koalas are doomed.

Koalas need a place to live

More than a decade ago, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) identified the koala as one of ten species globally likely to be severely impacted by climate change. A status mostly ignored by governments.

In February 2022, the koala was down-listed to an endangered species under the provisions of the Environmental Protection & Biodiversity Act (EPBC) threatened species list.

The down-listing only applied to NSW, Queensland and the ACT Victorian and South Australian koala populations continued to be ignored. Whilst a concerned public breathed a sigh of relief over the down-listing, neither the state or federal governments carried out any action likely to result in upgraded protection. No legislation was introduced to protect habitat.

Major threats to koala survival remained.

At the federal level, listed threatened species are matters of national environmental significance under the EPBC Act’s assessment and approval conditions.

In the past, an endangered listing provided a certain level of protection. Projects destined to destroy the habitat of listed species were required to undertake environmental impact studies, management plans, and proposed mitigation.

Under the Morrison government, the proponent of any project involving koala habitat could refer to a set of questions set out in the non-mandatory Koala Referral Guidelines, resulting in a score. The score indicated whether the project was required to obtain approval by the Environment Minister. With the whole process based on self-referral, there were no guarantees of koala habitat protection.

National Recovery Plan

Tanya Plibersek, now Environment Minister, has removed the Koala Referral Guidelines, replacing it with a much weaker and far more complex system, again dependent on self-referral.

A National Recovery Plan has been published, containing pages and pages of information already available in published research and government records.

“The purpose of this plan is to provide for the research and management of actions necessary to stop the decline of, and support the recovery of, the listed koala so that the chances of long-term survival in nature are maximised. It is the road map to recovery.”

This statement has been the mantra of governments made since last century, promises with no undertakings made, no implementation of desperately needed legislation to protect habitat ensuring koalas long term survival.

By far the most serious threat to koala survival is industrial logging of native forests. The Victorian government has announced it will end native forest logging by the end of the year, while NSW remains dedicated to ongoing destruction of remaining forests.

Scientists slam NSW Government for high-risk logging since Black Summer bushfires

The federal government is responsible for the Regional Forest Agreements between NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia. The provisions of these agreements allow the timber industry to ignore environmental protection provisions under the EPBC Act. Nor can the public make legal challenges over deliberate destruction of endangered and critically endangered species by the industry.

Missing population estimates

There are no current koala population estimates. Post the Black Summer bushfires, no state or federal government has been willing to undertake estimates of remaining populations. An astonishing rejection given that an estimated 60,000 koalas were incinerated or died of starvation after the fires.

Even more curious is the deletion of previous government estimates of koala populations in NSW, Queensland and nationally by the Albanese government. These estimates were available under the Species Profile and Threats database (SPRAT) identifying significant losses. The most recent estimate in the old database, (now only available in conservation advice to former Environment Minister Sussan Ley), demonstrated the NSW koala population was down 33% to 21,000 in 2010.

No identifiable recovery of NSW koala populations since 2010 has been confirmed with on-ground population estimates. A three-year drought preceding the Black Summer bushfires caused major losses, as koalas died of thirst and starvation. No records were kept by governments.

The new SPRAT contains no population numbers.

According to reports, some 8000 koalas died on the mid north coast of NSW in the 2019-2020 bushfires – 25% of koala habitat was burnt according to a report by the Department of Planning & Environment.

Results of conservation actions

In 2020, the Morrison Government granted $18 million to a number of on-ground conservation actions, including the CSIRO, for the design and implementation of a National Koala Monitoring Program.

In October 2022, the Labor Government made a grant of $10 million over four years to CSIRO for a “new phase of a National Koala Monitoring Program.” Breaking down the grant to the four koala states, NSW, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, results in 2.5 million for each state, and $625,000 annually.

Undertaking scientifically acceptable estimates which include on-ground verification would cost considerably more. CSIRO response to questions by MWM as to how the “robust estimate of the national koala population” would be undertaken failed to provide any detail.

The same questions emailed to Plibersek’s office were ignored.

No audit of the previous millions granted by the Morrison government has been undertaken, including of a $50 million grant in January, 2022.

The Great Koala National Park

The new Labor government in NSW promised the establishment of the Great Koala national park on the state’s mid north coast. A park which would almost certainly ensure the survival of koalas at a time when local and regional extinctions were happening on a regular basis.

The NSW Nature Conservation Council revealed that the Forestry Corporation intends to log almost 20% of the proposed park in the next 12 months.

No action has been taken by Penny Sharpe, NSW environment minister, to declare a moratorium on logging in the park’s proposed area nor is there any evidence the Minns’ government will act to prevent Forestry Corporation’s plans.

Koalas appears to have few real friends left within the major political parties.

All Fossils Go? Tanya Plibersek new coal mine approval due Friday

Sue Arnold is a former Fairfax investigative journalist. Her speciality is environmental issues and she is a regular contributor to Australian and international publications. Sue heads up Australians for Animals Inc., a 32-year-old wildlife charity and is Founder and CEO of the California Gray Whale Coalition based in San Francisco.

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