There is much that resonates in the broad sweep of Tim Flannery’s essay on the parlous state of Australia’s native species. For those who work in the field, or follow environmental issues closely, it is not a “new” extinction crisis. Australia has many unique endemic species, but we have a poor track record of species conservation. The accumulating impact of various alterations to the land and seascapes of this continent, not to mention the changing climate, mean new approaches and increased effort are necessary if we are to secure a future many scientists, policy-makers and informed members of the public despair about. So this contribution – part scholarship, part polemic – comes at a crucial time.
There are two aspects of After the Future that I want to address. The first concerns Flannery’s personal reflections on my role as environment minister. He frames the essay by referring to the extinction of a tiny bat, the notoriously shy Christmas Island pipistrelle, that took place late in 2009. Flannery says that “in an attempt to avert” its extinction he met with me to warn of the impending loss and offer assistance from the Australian Mammal Society, which was confident the bat could be saved at a minimal cost. He asserts that the message I gave him was that nothing could be done, and concludes that politicians and bureaucrats did not act to stop the extinction of the pipistrelle. Later in the essay he links the fate of the pipistrelle to our national reputation in our region, “a people so uncaring about their own environment that they can’t lift a finger even to protect a small bat.” Here, according to Flannery, “Our inaction on such matters is swiftly destroying Australia’s reputation as a leader in environmental protection.” While this incident might serve as a convenient leitmotif for the essay, it departs a long way from the facts of what was a highly distressing event for everyone concerned.
The pipistrelle had been listed as critically endangered when Flannery and I spoke. Its rapidly dwindling numbers were already known to me and a range of other people, including bat experts and the park managers of Christmas Island. I was more than willing to do whatever was needed, on the basis of expert advice, to arrest the bat’s decline. And while it took longer than I would have wished to travel to Christmas Island to view the situation on the ground – including the existing bat-monitoring measures – and to convene an expert working group to advise on possible measures to save the pipistrelle, it is simply wrong to say that I was of the view that nothing could be done.
Incidentally, what purpose is served by (falsely) attributing the ultimate failure of the efforts to save the pipistrelle to a lack of commitment on environment issues, by way of a spurious comparison with the government’s actions in relation to asylum seekers housed on Christmas Island?
The expert scientists’ advice to me was unambiguous. It wasn’t just the health of the pipistrelle that was dire, but that of the entire Christmas Island ecosystem, already under siege from crazy ants and with vegetation cover diminished from superphosphate mining. I ordered a captive breeding program for a closely related species of bat – the first of its kind – to see if possible solutions emerged from that exercise.
Following receipt of advice from the expert scientists, I committed $1.5 million to better preserve the island’s ecosystem and to fund capture of the last remaining bats – to no avail. Subsequently I rejected a proposal to expand phosphate mining on Christmas Island on the basis that it would have an unacceptable impact on threatened and migratory species.
The working group was clear about one aspect of this tragic episode and that was the need for a long-term, whole-of-landscape approach to secure the survival of vulnerable, threatened and endangered species. As noted in the government’s 2011 State of the Environment report, it is drivers such as population and economic growth, and now climate change, that pose a threat to biodiversity. It had long been clear to me that a change was required in policy thinking – one which would see us aim to erect a fence at the top of the cliff rather than send an ambulance, in an often fruitless and expensive quest, to the bottom of the cliff. Nothing in Flannery’s essay convinces me this approach is wrong.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t directly address imminent species loss, however. My response to the threat to the endangered Mary River turtle from the proposed construction of the Traveston Dam in south-east Queensland, which Flannery also mentions, mirrored my response to the impending fate of the pipistrelle. Here, on the basis of considered scientific advice, I refused to approve the dam construction, at significant financial cost to both the proponent and the Queensland government, and in the face of extreme pressure from both sides.
But in the long term, healthier, better-protected ecosystems will give both common species and rare ones, such as the Mary River turtle and the Christmas Island pipistrelle, a greater prospect of survival. This means aiming for landscape-scale protection additional to that offered by parks and reserves, by specifically targeting investment; continuing to build partnerships with private landowners, Aboriginal people and NGOs; considering innovative approaches; and drawing on comprehensive data – all with the aim of conserving our precious biodiversity.
My second objection to Flannery’s essay notes the contradiction between his suggestions that, on the one hand, governments should be held to account for their efforts in arresting the decline of native species Australia-wide; and, on the other, that the task should be contracted out to specialist conservation bodies because governments lack the capacity and motivation to do the job properly. Flannery argues that an independent Biodiversity Authority ought to be established and made answerable to meet targets for halting species decline.
I agree governments should be held to account and should do more. The truth is they are often the only actor on the stage with the clout and the resources to get big things done. But to argue at the same time that, with the daunting challenges facing the natural environment, this role should be eviscerated is illogical.
In government I committed Australia to a world-class system of marine reserves, again referred to in the essay, and my successor Tony Burke delivered them. Yes, the campaigning efforts of the community, including conservation NGOs, were substantial and crucial in this outcome. But it is ultimately the action of governments, their political will and accompanying budget decisions, that enable such a significant environmental reform. And like our terrestrial national parks, it is only through the offices of governments, working with the different sectors of the community, often with differing interests and aspirations, that these reserves can be well managed in the future.
Yes, the need for comprehensive and representative conservation is great, and governments should do more. That is the community’s legitimate expectation and the times demand nothing less. But in examining how this might happen, and what lessons we can learn from the past, clear thinking and accurate recollection is needed. Sadly, these qualities were not in evidence in some aspects of After the Future.
Peter Garrett is the federal Minister for Education, and served as Minister for the Environment from 2007 to 2010. He is the former president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and an activist and former member of the band Midnight Oil.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 49, Not Dead Yet.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY