Published today on ABC Environment.
Greg Hunt, the Coalition Government’s Minister for the Environment, today announced what appears to be one of the only environmental promises kept from their election campaign in 2013: to appoint a Threatened Species Commissioner.
The appointment is unprecedented for Australia – we have never had anything remotely like it in the past. However, I am also confident that this novelty will turn out to be one of the position’s only positives.
My scepticism is not based on my personal political or philosophical perspectives; rather, it arises from Coalition Government’s other unprecedented policies to destroy Australia’s environment. No other government in the last 50 years has mounted such a breath-taking War on the Environment. In the nine month’s since the Abbott Government took control, there has been a litany of backward and dangerous policies, from the well-known axing of the Climate Commission and their push to dump of 3 million tonnes of dredge on the World Heritage Great Barrier Reef, to their lesser-publicised proposals to remove the non-profit tax status of green organisations and kill the Environmental Defenders Office. The Government’s list of destructive, right-wing, anti-environmental policies is growing weekly, with no signs of abatement.
With this background, it should come as no surprise that considerable cynicism is emerging following the Minister’s announcement. Fears that another powerless pawn of the current government appear to have been realised with the appointment of Gregory Andrews as the Commissioner. Mr Andrews is a public servant (ironically from the now-defunct Department of Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency) and former diplomat who has some minor infamy regarding contentious comments he made in 2006 when acting as a senior bureaucrat in Mal Brough’s Department of Indigenous Affairs. Apart from Mr Gregory’s general lack of specific expertise in species recovery, the choice appears to be neutral at best.
More importantly, the major limitation of the Commissioner to realise real benefits for Australian biodiversity is the position’s total lack of political power. Greg Hunt himself confirmed that Mr Andrews will not be able to affect government policy other than ‘encourage’ cooperation between states and environmental groups. The position also comes with a (undisclosed) funding guarantee of only one year, which makes it sound more like an experiment in public relations than effective environmental policy.
The appointment also comes with the establishment of a Ministerial Council on the Environment that will provide advice to the Commissioner. There are promising signs with the first members, who include Professor Helene Marsh of James Cook University (a long-time advisor to Commonwealth environmental policy), Rachel Lowry of Zoos Victoria, Atticus Fleming of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (another experienced government advisor), and Samantha Vine of BirdLife Australia.
Notwithstanding its lack of political teeth, the Council’s advice is likely at least to be evidence-based. My major concern is, however, that the Commissioner and his Council’s mandate is merely more of the same, single-species recovery-plan dogma. The bigger picture of planning for a vastly different future, wholesale changes in our approach to landscape management, carbon-based conservation, dealing with the ‘relaxing’ of environmental laws, and an ecosystem approach to threatened biodiversity does not, at least at this stage, appear anywhere in their vision. This should ring alarm bells.
In principle, the appointment of a Threatened Species Commissioner should represent a move forward in dealing with Australia’s appalling environmental record. However, I fear that it merely acts to distract Australians more from the real environmental crises unfolding around us. I also predict that it will be impossible to determine if the Commissioner will instigate any benefits for Australia’s biodiversity. We’ll see, but I remain sceptical.