After attending the second Senate Inquiry hearing on the 19th, I am still feeling very confident that things are going well. I can see the Committee are really listening, and they seem very concerned about the plight of the koala. That has to be a good start.
As the day went by I could see that the Senators, with fresh eyes, were unpicking some of the real issues and better still, articulating them. One Senator seemed to understand very clearly that the Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) has not been able to recommend listing the koala because the confines of the EPBC Act are too narrow. He made the point that "the Minister cannot just wake up and protect the koalas without the proper advice".
I am taking some legal advice, but I am pretty confident the Minister does have power under the “precautionary approach” of the Act to protect the koala right now, and given the TSSC in their recent advice did admit to a 30% decline, I just do not understand what is stopping it. Well yes, actually I do of course, because industry has now come out squarely saying “Costs are hard to bear”, and one developer said the industry faced “losing competitive advantage” if koalas were protected.
In the Financial Review (similar to the Wall Street Journal) on Friday 20th May 2011 (read the story here), the AKF was able to counter some of these arguments with the fact that the koala is worth at least $1billion in tourism dollars for Australia. The AKF has repeatedly made it clear that good developers with a social conscience should not fear the listing of the koala.
The Property Council also said in this article “There hasn’t been any rigorous scientific work to understand the issues around the koala population”. Hmmm...
I have offered to give a briefing to the Property Council, and I would be very happy to advise them of the science to date. I am hoping they can provide the equivalent in return. Interestingly enough, the developer of Koala Beach Mr Brian Ray and I gave a talk on sustainable development at a Property Council breakfast in 1995. I do not understand why, when asked by the Senators, the current regime have no knowledge of a "best practice development".
Of course "no science" is all nonsense and predictable, but what was not predictable was the evidence given by Queensland and Federal agencies. I think it would be unfair to print some of the one-liners about their evidence, but I have to write about one in particular that explained “offsets”. This is where the development industry can offset one piece of habitat for another. "So", explains a reasonably high bureaucrat, "we let a developer give us some money and we then allow them to knock over a habitat. Then we buy a piece of pineapple growing land, and then we rebuild the koala habitat". "How long has this been going on?" says one Senator. "Oh, only one year, so we haven’t really done it yet" was the reply. It was music to the koala people’s ears because we have all been saying this is complete and utter nonsense. In the hallowed halls of the most amazing building, Parliament House, it seemed even more ridiculous.
Parliament House Canberra
I have never heard of some of these witnesses before and, like the Senators, I was so impressed with their knowledge and interest in the koala. They are the very quiet and unsung heroes. I could hear and see more and more that the Committee really understand the level of interest that everyday Australians, and people worldwide, have in protecting the koala. The public gallery was filled with everyday Australians by the way – thank you.
One witness described 400 man days of field work for the protection of a small population of koalas in the South East forests of New South Wales (this population has been repeatedly nominated for protection and to date has not received it from either Scientific Committees or Government). Two witnesses really called it like it is - "what Government says they are doing and what they are actually doing are two different things".
Many times I wanted to stand up and explain, and explain again, and again, but I have to have faith in these people. I am going to have faith in their goodness and I am going to have faith that on two different occasions the Committee have made it clear that the plight of the koala is now firmly at the feet of the Australian Government, which is where it should be.
Many of the witnesses from industry and Government are now on notice to explain why they think they way they do. I do not envy them. It will mean a lot of work, and they will need to defend their complete lack of interest in protecting the koala in the past. This is joyous for me to see and I look forward to the next sitting in Victoria in July, where more people will have to defend their lack of vigilance.
If the Senators are reading this, please accept our thanks and also know that without the AKF and our supporters, the nominations would never have been on the table. The Queensland Government only protected the koala after an AKF nomination and a moment of political opportunism at the time in 2003. The States fear a federal listing of the koala because they want business as usual, so I am hoping you will continue to write to both Minister Burke and the Senators (Senator Doug Cameron, Senator Bob Brown and Senator Mary Jo Fisher) with your clear thoughts that a federal listing has to occur.
I am about head off overseas to accept the IABC EXCEL Award. I am looking forward to telling the audience a few of the one liners from the inquiry - for example one witness was told that he was “clearly a fan of Yes Minister” (a TV program where bureaucrats fawn over the Minister), and from another witness - “the gallery are distracting me" with the response from a Senator - “but chains cutting trees down doesn’t?”.
As always thank you.