Thursday 17/10/13 Felicity Millner, New Matilda
The Victorian government won't keep to its own legal guidelines for the protection of endangered species, so an environmental group took them to court – with good results, writes Felicity Millner
Over half of all threatened species in Victoria – 374 in total – have no action plan in place for their recovery. Many continue to have their populations and habitat devastated despite being listed as threatened.
The Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act demands that once a species is listed, the Department of Environment and Primary Industries must prepare an action statement as soon as possible, detailing the actions needed to conserve and recover a species.
Environment East Gippsland Inc (EEG), a small local Victorian community group, took the department to court in May this year, seeking orders that the department do its job and prepare action plans for four representative threatened species. It argued that the government department responsible for protecting threatened wildlife had breached the government’s own law.
Five months on, we have reached the outcome we were after.
The four representative species were the glossy black cockatoo, the long-nosed potoroo, the large brown tree frog and the eastern she-oak skink. The species have all been listed as threatened for between 10 and 18 years but do not have action statements.
We believe this is a serious breach of the law. The department’s failure to prepare action statements means that the majority of threatened species in Victoria are not protected at all under the regulations that govern native forest logging.
To add to this neglect of duty, the process of listing new species thought to be in serious decline is also not working. Back in 2009, the Auditor-General found that the department had not allocated sufficient staff and resources to maintain the integrity of the list. It was out of date and not underpinned by quality research, new information or effective measures to ensure our rare and endangered plants and animals would survive.
It’s the same with logging. Another report by the Auditor-General found that the department was not effectively fulfilling its responsibilities in relation to laws governing logging in public forests. Despite well-evidenced breaches of logging codes and laws designed to identify and protect our rare and vulnerable wildlife, the government refused to act until EEG took it to court on two occasions.
We would hope things might now start to improve, but there is no evidence that this is happening. In fact the Napthine government’s main policy document on the environment, Environmental Partnerships, makes almost no mention of threatened species protection.
It does mention streamlining the administration of the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, which could in effect weaken its intention and function. This government has also sacked hundreds of land management and biodiversity staff, worsening the already serious under-resourcing of threatened species protection.
This week, the proceedings brought by EEG against the department have settled. The department has agreed to prepare action statements for the four test case species by the end of June 2014.
The department also tells us that it will prepare a plan to deal with the massive backlog of threatened species without protection plans. We don’t know if this document will contain anything of substance, or even if it will be made publicly available. It remains to be seen if each of the other 370 species will also require the threat of legal action before they are granted the privilege of having their own action plan written to aid their survival “as soon as possible”.
We are happy with the settlement, at least for these four rare and beautiful East Gippsland residents. But they are the tip of the iceberg; Victoria’s government agencies are thoroughly failing threatened species.
It is deeply worrying that that Abbott government is proposing to hand responsibility for environmental protection to the states. Groups that care about biodiversity and threatened species will likely have no choice but to continue taking state governments to court in order to force them to fulfil their obligations under the law.