Will they be renamed ‘koala tears’?

Possible koala extinction in New South Wales is a symptom of a deeper malaise. The inability of this cherished herbivore to bounce back following the summer’s inferno shows that many species are threatened by cynical human activity.

Until recently there was a dead gum tree at the end of our road. The tree was huge and had large hollows. Each spring, Dollar Birds would arrive to nest in there. At twilight on summer evenings, these colourful birds would swoop and dive around squawking happily and feasting on moths and beetles. One winter the tree blew over in a severe wind storm. For the next few years, the Dollar Birds did not come here. As a direct result my grape vines were devastated by caterpillars. The delicate balance had been lost.

A recent report of the New South Wales Legislative Council revealed the shocking prediction that koalas would be extinct in this state within a couple of decades. Koalas are universally valued. The report revealing that koalas are critically endangered made numerous news bulletins overseas. It is a source of worldwide dismay that we permitted the situation to become so catastrophic. But no Australian needs to have the reason explained. Land clearing is responsible.

It is widely accepted that ecosystems support dependent species of flora and fauna. You cannot remove trees without affecting the environment but we have ignored this principle for cynical political purposes. Those carrying out the land clearing and those authorising it know this very well but prefer short-term political advantage. The recent boast by the state government that they had established a koala sanctuary shows that the plight of the koalas is well known. This ‘ark’ approach however is impractical and denies the wider question of why any species of fauna is endangered.

It has become a matter of deliberate Coalition policy to ignore environmental concerns. The Berejiklian Government panders to every demand of miners and the rapacious minority of landholders who clear land irresponsibly. It has destroyed the National Parks service and made it impossible to find clear lines of responsibility within the environment bureaucracy. The substitution of consultants for career experts means that the Government can ensure that it can commission favourable or inconclusive reports. It fails to respond to scientific advice. The Government has made a mockery of environmental impact statements.

National Party leaders demonstrate a lack of understanding of the importance of National Parks. They advocate opening Parks for grazing despite knowing that cattle would introduce weeds. They assume that graziers have special rights and that they deserve access to public lands. Together with the crisis in Ranger numbers, weed infestations would be used to argue for privatisation – for profit of course – of environmental services.

Following the summer of bushfires, the National Party demanded access for farmers to burn areas of Parks to reduce fuel loads. They did not deem it necessary to explain the overall impact. Meanwhile, they largely ignore the advice from Indigenous leaders about the role that controlled cold burning could play. What a pity that the current Liberal leadership allows its Coalition partner to set policy in these areas.

The federal government’s cavalier plans to spend billions on destructive weapons suggests that they would like us to fear external threats more than internal ones. This is sheer folly when the agents of destruction are within. When the government feared that overseas terrorism could take root here, it called upon moderate Islamic leaders to stop radicalism spreading. It is time that the moderates in the national farmers’ organisations took steps to curb the fanatics within their ranks before their cynical attitudes cause irreparable damage to the environment. Farmers need healthy ecosystems, healthy rivers and water and healthy soils. They need balance.

The Dollar Birds have returned. They must have found another hollow suitable for their purposes. The grape vines will never thrive as they did a decade ago, but they will recover somewhat. Whether the general environment including the koalas will have that resilience depends on us finding the political will to act. The most immediate need is to stop land clearing.

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Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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