Warnings of dramatically escalating extinctions in Australia over the next two decades seem to be falling on deaf ears
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.