BOB DEBUS. Restoring integrity in nature conservation Part 1 of 2

Jan 29, 2018

The Australian Government’s short and pointless document, published just before Xmas and entitled Strategy For Nature 2018-2030, has been accurately described as a ‘global embarrassment’. It is useful only insofar as it reminds us that Australian government policies for nature conservation have, in the last five years, easily matched the destructive irrationality of polices directed toward climate change.  

Australia is one of the world’s seventeen “mega-diverse” nations and one of the few with the capacity to marshal the resources of a developed world economy for the protection of its environment. It is home to 10 per cent of all the species on earth. A high proportion of our plant and animal species, evolved during eons of isolation, are unique to our continent.

Nature conservation innovations like Landcare, Indigenous Protected Areas and the National Water Initiative have led the world. The beauty of much of our landscape is there to see. But the fact is that our natural environment is degenerating slowly: twenty per cent of our species are now classified as threatened, habitat continues to be destroyed, the health of water systems declines and many ecosystems continue to deteriorate.

A great national commitment of effort and resources can reverse this collapse but Coalition Governments at Federal and State level have in the last half dozen years defiantly withdrawn both.

Analysis by the ACF and WWF shows that, against a background of general budget expansion, the Turnbull Government intends to cut environment spending to less than sixty per cent of Tony Abbott’s calamitous 2013/14 budget by the end of this decade. Many of the non-environmental program cuts of that notorious Abbott budget have been gradually eliminated. But his already severe cuts to programs for the conservation and restoration of nature are being made worse by his successor.

Abbott’s cuts were not conceived in merely budgetary terms. In Opposition he had already initiated a damaging culture war, part ideological and part tribal, which took many ideas and attitudes from the right wing of American politics to deny climate change science, to provide uncritical support to the fossil fuel industry and to identify nature conservation in partisan fashion as the province of the “green-left” enemy. And he thereby set about undermining a previous and long-standing policy consensus about nature conservation in Australia, which Barnaby Joyce and those around him have since exploited and Malcolm Turnbull has since done almost nothing to redress.

One of the Abbott Government’s early actions in 2013 was to suspend the Australia’s new network of marine parks – then the world’s largest. The system was initiated by the Howard Government, finalised by the Gillard Government in 2012, highly popular domestically and admired internationally. The Turnbull Government is still to respond to a review that proposes for instance, scrapping much of the ambitious sanctuary declared over the pristine Coral Sea, in favour of commercial fishing.

The public document called Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010-2030, prepared by the Ministerial Council for Natural Resource Management, was uncontroversial at the time. Written in accessible and bipartisan language, it acknowledges the great body of knowledge and organisation established to support conservation and natural resource management in Australia over the previous forty years. It sets out a framework for a future in which “the importance of biodiversity to our existence is recognised and, as a consequence, consumption patterns are balanced against the imperatives of the environment; [in which] all Australians including Indigenous people, farmers, land managers, industry and community groups such as Landcare are working together to conserve biodiversity; we have reduced the impacts of existing threats such as invasive species so that their impact on biodiversity is negligible; and we have managed emerging threats such as changing fire regimes, reduction of water availability and the impacts of climate change to the extent that the threat to the environment is minimised and any damage is reversed.”

Since that publication in 2010 the Indigenous Protected Area estate has grown significantly and there has been some modest increase in the funding of Indigenous rangers. That change is to be welcomed but in almost all other respects measures to protect the natural environment have been deliberately neglected and undermined.

The Federal cuts have devastated the country-wide networks of “community groups such as Landcare”; successful land stewardship programs for farmers have been abolished. Federal plans for restoring the connectivity of fragmented landscapes and establishing continental scale connectivity linkages have been abandoned.

The permanent, voluntary work needed at local and regional level to control weeds and invasive animals, to restore habitat, is drastically reduced when it should have been very greatly expanded, and the results will be felt for years to come.

Our National Reserve System (NRS) of public and private land has historically been recognised as a “cornerstone” of nature conservation. Another accessible public document, a Strategy for Australia’s National Reserve System 2009-2030, shows why NRS has been a great achievement but not yet by any means comprehensive. More lately the world’s leading conservation biologists and conservationists have begun to demonstrate that species decline cannot be prevented unless something approaching half the world is protected in an interconnected way.[i]

So, at a time when we might reasonably be thinking about doubling the size of our protected area and reinforcing the historical role of National Parks and Wildlife Services, the NRS is under siege. There is no possibility of a restoration of federal funding (suspended under Labor in 2013), and recent State Governments have, particularly under the influence of the National Party, attacked and seriously undermined the administration of Parks Services.

Outside the protected area estate, the effective management of natural resources is beset by problems of poor law enforcement and apparent ‘regulatory capture’. Nowhere is this more shockingly plain than in the apparent failures in the administration of the hard fought $13 billion plan to re-establish healthy river flows in the Murray Darling Basin.

Much weakened land clearing laws have been introduced in Queensland and New South Wales, without Commonwealth intervention. Weaker environmental controls on logging are proposed in New South Wales and Victoria. In any event eastern Australia is experiencing rates of deforestation higher than anywhere else in the developed world.

The consequent increase in carbon emissions will continue to confound emissions reduction policy in other areas. Drastic decline in the local and regional populations of species and possible total extinctions follow.

So, the unpalatable truth is that priorities set out in the Biodiversity Strategy plan for 2010-30 are now so far from achievement that the Federal Government has had to risk (and duly receive) ridicule by publishing a replacement biodiversity ‘strategy’ for 2018/30 that contains little coherent argument and no measurable goals at all.

If Australia is to protect and effectively restore our natural environment it will need to increase expenditure for nature conservation by orders of magnitude across the community. New kinds of finance for natural resource management will need to come from the private business sector but sustained change is hardly conceivable without substantially increased government expenditure and policy commitment in the future.

However, it is not only that we need to restore previously successful but now neglected policy measures such as investment in the National Reserve System and Integrated Landscape Conservation. More generally, it is demonstrated that the complicated system of environmental law that has grown up over fifty years often provides no effective guarantee of accountability or transparency. It must be fundamentally reformed to improve its integrity. And that will be the subject of another posting.

Bob Debus AM was a member of the NSW Parliament and Attorney General, Minister for the Arts and Minister for the Environment in the Carr Government. He was also a member of the House of Representatives and Minister for Home Affairs in the Rudd Government.


[i] For instance Half –Earth: Our planet’s fight for life, Edward O. Wilson, Norton 2016 and Harvey Locke, “Nature needs Half: A necessary and hopeful new agenda for protected areas”, Parks 2013,Volume 19.2


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