‘Worst it’s ever been’: a threatened species alarm sounds during the election campaign – and is ignored | Endangered species
Gregory Andrews was Australia’s first threatened species commissioner, appointed in 2013 by the then incoming Coalition environment minister Greg Hunt. He recently returned to the country, after serving as high commissioner to Ghana, and was disheartened by what he found.
Andrews believes the state of the country’s natural wildlife and biodiversity is the “worst it’s ever been” and calls the ongoing destruction of forests and other habitat “crazy”.
After a political term marked by consecutive summer disasters and multiple official reports highlighting government failure, he sees it as a major issue. But, as far as the first two weeks of the election campaign are concerned, the environment may as well not exist.
“Biodiversity and nature have been completely absent from this campaign so far,” he says.
“That makes me really sad because Australians define ourselves through our wildlife. We’ve got them on our money, our sports teams, our coat of arms, the tail of Qantas. We can’t keep defining ourselves by our wildlife when we’re losing it to extinction.”
Given so much of Australia’s landscape had already been cleared, he believes the time has come for a conversation about sharing what remains with the country’s unique, and increasingly struggling, wildlife.
“If we’re serious about what it means to be Australian … we are a rich enough country with enough habitat and enough cleared area to dedicate the remaining land to protection,” he says. “The trouble is the Greens are the only party that says that, and it is seen as a fringe or extremist position.”
Andrews spent three years as threatened species commissioner. He says while he was proud of some of the things that were achieved under Hunt, he felt restricted due to climate denialism within the Coalition and the refusal to deal with habitat degradation.
He is not alone in raising concerns about the environment missing from the campaign. Others are also trying to raise its profile.
A new report from a coalition of conservation groups says if Australia was serious about nature protection, it would increase its spending ten-fold. It highlights 100 animals and plants – including the orange-bellied parrot and the grassland earless dragon – that are at imminent risk of extinction.
The South Australian independent senator Rex Patrick this week called for a change in the way the environment is treated in the next parliament, including requiring the prime minister to make an annual extinction statement, listing the species newly declared as either extinct or critically endangered.
The question is: is anyone listening?
That Australia is not doing enough to protect its environment is well known.
In the past term alone, three official reports, two from the Australian National Audit Office plus the independent review of Australia’s environmental laws by the former competition watchdog head Graeme Samuel, highlighted a litany of environmental failures.
A fourth, the five-yearly State of the Environment report, is also expected to highlight the ongoing decline. That report could have been tabled by the Morrison government before the campaign began but has been withheld.
The rate of land-clearing in states such as Queensland and New South Wales has been increasing and the addition of new species to Australia’s national list of threatened wildlife was accelerated by the country’s worst bushfire disaster.
The Australian Capital Territory’s faunal emblem, the gang-gang cockatoo, entered the list as endangered, with the expert scientific committee highlighting the climate crisis as the major driver of reductions to populations of the bird.
And a week before the election was called, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change again sounded the alarm that the world was rapidly running out of time to limit warming to 1.5C.
That the climate and nature crises are intertwined is acknowledged globally.
But the conversation about either of these issues in the campaign so far has been characterised by commentary on power bills, based on unsourced modelling, and a $220m pledge by the prime minister, Scott Morrison, for native forestry in Tasmania.
Before the election was called, the Morrison government also promised $50m for a single species, the koala, which had its conservation status upgraded in February from vulnerable to endangered.
Carol Booth, the principal policy analyst at the Invasive Species Council, says the silence from the major parties on what the next government will do to change the trajectory reveals a lot.
“They’re obviously making a judgment that it’s not going to turn the election for them,” she says.
“They pay attention to individual crises, like the fires. But because it’s a long term, insidious problem and there are so many threats coalescing and interacting … it’s hard to get your head around.
“You’re not going to see results in one term of government.”
The council – backed by BirdLife Australia, Bush Heritage, the Humane Society International and the Australian Land Conservation Alliance – has released a new report that notes extinctions are expected to dramatically escalate in Australia over the next two decades due to Australia’s failure to deal with the major threats of invasive species, habitat destruction and climate change.
It identifies 100 species that have a high risk of extinction in that time, including 20 freshwater fish, nine birds, eight frogs, six reptiles, one mammal and one butterfly with a greater than 50% risk of extinction within 20 years, and 55 plants at high risk of extinction within 10.
It argues an overhaul of Australia’s threat abatement system is necessary after years of neglect, evidenced by overdue and outdated species recovery plans and the near decade-long failure by the Coalition to formally list major threats.
That streak was finally broken this week after fire regimes that cause wildlife decline was officially listed as a key threat to Australia’s environment, 14 years after it was first proposed.
The environment minister, Sussan Ley, signed off on the decision shortly before the election was called.
The Invasive Species Council’s report puts forward solutions, including that governments simply apply the laws and protections they have neglected for so long. That is, systematically listing major threats and developing and implementing plans to tackle them as well as recover species.
And it reiterates earlier work by a group of scientists led by the conservation ecologist Brendan Wintle that found Australia needed a ten-fold increase in nature spending to recover endangered wildlife.
Booth says this would require expenditure of about $1.5bn to $2bn annually.
“That’s not much in terms of the whole budget but it’s a lot more than they’ve committed to date,” she says.
Samantha Vine, the head of conservation and science at BirdLife Australia, says most voters care about nature, but that passion is not always visible to politicians.
She says when governments do make the effort to tackle threats, the trajectory of species facing extinction can be turned around.
On Macquarie Island, for example, breeding populations of grey-headed albatross are recovering after governments prioritised the eradication of rodents and rabbits on the island.
“It shows what can happen if you just invest in the work that needs to be done,” she says.
Guardian Australia asked the Coalition, Labor and the Greens about their priorities for nature.
Much of the Morrison government’s term has focused on its environmental deregulation agenda and a bid to transfer environmental approval powers to the states and territories.
But Ley says it has also “delivered more than $6bn in environmental spending since 2019” and points to budget announcements of $1bn for the Great Barrier Reef and $100m for the Environment Restoration Fund.
As minister, she established a new 10-year threatened species strategy and delivered a long-awaited recovery plan for the koala.
“The Morrison government is committed to practical action and to working with communities, land managers, traditional owners and scientists to protect the environment, from our heritage places to the health of our oceans and native species,” she says.
Labor’s environment spokesperson, Terri Butler, says the party will have more to say about the environment closer to the election, but has already committed to increased funding for Indigenous rangers and Indigenous Protected Areas as well as $200m for urban rivers and catchments.
She says the Australia State of the Environment Report, which Ley was sitting on, should be made public.
“Protecting and restoring the environment has never been more important after bushfires and floods,” Butler says.
“The environment cannot afford to have the Morrison-Joyce government mismanage [it] for another term.”
The Greens environment spokesperson, Sarah Hanson-Young, says the party has been “fighting against the Liberal-Nationals attacks on our environment since they came to power”.
“Our environment is in crisis and the Greens are crucial to protecting it in the parliament,” she says.
She says the Greens have the most comprehensive policy of the parties for protecting the environment, which includes a zero extinction target and a commitment to end habitat destruction.
This week Rex Patrick, who is fighting to keep his seat, said if reelected he would move for the prime minister to be “personally accountable for Australia’s irrevocable environmental failures”.
Patrick wants to create a requirement in Australia’s environmental laws stating the prime minister must table an annual extinction and endangered species statement to parliament listing the species newly declared as either extinct or critically endangered.
“No prime minister is going to be very keen to stand up in the parliament and sound the death knell for unique Australian species,” he said.
“But that is what’s likely to be required to focus the minds of governments to take action before the irrevocable point of extinction is reached.”