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Submission to the Threatened Species Strategy Consultation

Opening Statement
The Campaign for a National Memorial and Museum to Extinct and Endangered Australian Species was set up in the wake of the pronouncement on the 18th of February 2019 that the Bramble Cays melomys had been driven to extinction. This was the 100th species to be driven to extinction since European colonisation of Australia and the first Australian species to go extinct as a direct result of climate change, as its habitat, the Bramble Cays islands of the Torres Strait, had been overwhelmed by rising sea levels caused by global warming.

We have previously petitioned Parliament for a National Memorial and Museum to Extinct and Endangered Australian Species to be established in Canberra, where it would complement places such as the National Museum of Australia, the Australian War Memorial and Reconciliation Place, in enabling us to remember the losses of the past, reflect on the present crisis, and resolve to grow a better future in which no more of our endangered species become extinct. In order to ensure the ongoing commitment of the Australian government to the cause of preventing further extinctions, we have also petitioned that the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (The EPBC Act) be amended so that whenever a new species is declared critically endangered or extinct, the Minister responsible for administering the Act is required to commission, fund and personally open a new exhibit in the Memorial.

The Bramble Cays Melomys was not on the current Threatened Species Strategy's list of 70 priority species. A small brown marsupial hopping mouse-like animal, it was not especially photogenic, did not (before its extinction) have huge significance to the Australian community, nor was it considered the lynchpin of an ecosystem, except inasmuch as all animals within an ecosystem are a vital part of that ecosystem. Preventing its extinction in-situ would have required widespread systematic action against climate change, an area in which Australia is widely assessed to be a global laggard. Even preventing its extinction through removal to a captive breeding program or less-inundated island was apparently not considered worthwhile by the Commonwealth or Queensland state governments. While it was listed under the EPBC Act, its recovery plan was apparently not adequately funded or acted upon.

It is precisely because the Bramble Cays Melomys fits poorly within the proposed criteria for a Threatened Species Strategy – yet caused Australia to be singled out in a UN report on the world's extinction crisis, and mobilised our own community campaign – that we suggest that the proposed strategy is insufficient. The loss of even a small, unprepossessing brown island marsupial is a tragedy both in and of itself, and because it is a symbol of the widespread loss of species which together make up Australia's extinction crisis.

Professor Graeme Samuels' draft review of the EPBC Act indicated that the current legislative and protection framework is not protecting Australia's environment or species, which are in an overall state of degradation and decline which can only accelerate extinction. Without strategies that both acknowledge our existing losses and aim not just to preserve a few icons of our ecosystems, but the entire ecosystems, these losses will continue. Future generations will not even realise what exactly they have lost, only be haunted by the awareness that their lives are poorer in ways they cannot measure.

Principles for a Threatened Species Strategy

Accordingly, our suggested general principles for a Threatened Species Strategy are:

  • The strategy must not just be a “feel good exercise”, which only looks forward to targeting photogenic species as a bandaid preservation solution. It should soberly acknowledge the depths of Australia's extinction crisis and the extent of our losses. Only with such an upfront acknowledgement can the urgency of action be appreciated.
  • The strategy should target the overall threats to Australia's threatened species: the twin and interrelated processes of habitat destruction and degradation and climate change.
  • While highlighting ecologically significant and iconic species is important in raising community and government awareness of the need for action, this should be done in order to highlight the importance of preserving the species' habitats and ecosystems, not to prioritise zoo-centric “rescue” and “lifeboat” programs which leave behind these ecosystems and the many other plants, animals, insects, and other living things which make up and live within them.
  • The First Nations of the Australian continent should be considered as just another partner but as the key leaders in directing the repair of the environmental damage that European settlement has recklessly inflicted upon Australia's environment and species. Like the species themselves, their knowledge of our environment and ecosystems is irreplaceable and endangered.
  • Our Campaign supports Professor Samuels' proposal for an independent environmental regulator and the strengthening and enforcement of environmental laws with teeth that will discourage habitat destruction, as the current legislative framework has failed to do. If the recommendation for an independent regulator is rejected by the current government, we suggest that the Threatened Species Commissioner should have a defined role in receiving community reports of environmental damage and “naming and shaming” the individuals, businesses, and governments whose actions cause or contribute to species extinction, habitat loss and climate change.

Answers to discussion paper questions

1 What has been the most valuable contribution or outcome of the Australian Government’s current Threatened Species Strategy, and why?

Raising awareness of the extent to which Australian species are threatened, and giving hope that their extinction is not inevitable if sufficient action and investment is taken.

2 What are the three most important changes you would like to see in a new Threatened Species Strategy, and why?

Acknowledge the extent of existing losses and the current trajectory towards further losses, in order to truly and accurately realise the extent of action required.

Prioritise preserving entire ecosystems, not just individual species within them. Species may be icons of ecosystems, but this does not mean that preserving individual species can substitute for the ecosystem as a whole.

Orient actions towards combating habitat destruction and degradation and climate change. This includes addressing the “upstream” factors of, for example, unsustainable agricultural practices, land clearing, and carbon and other pollution, rather than simply acting “downstream” to “rescue” species from a situation which is not inevitable but human-caused, in many cases by factors well within the scope of the Commonwealth government to act upon.

3a. Do you think the proposed elements of the new Threatened Species Strategy provide a sound foundation for increasing security and supporting recovery of Australia’s threatened species? (Yes, no, unsure).

No.

3b. Why do you think this?

See our opening statement and statement of principles above. Specifically, it is evident from the ongoing and accelerating rate of extinction that the existing strategy has not been broadly effective at protecting “threatened species” as a whole, rather than the favoured few, and the proposed strategy does not represent any fundamental shift in approach.

4 Have we missed an important element? Please tell us about it.

See answers to Question 2. In addition, strategies to overcome the extinction crisis must be led by First Nations people and knowledge if they are to be truly effective.

5 How important do you think each of the prioritisation principles in the current Threatened Species Strategy is for identifying priority species in the new Strategy? (Extremely important, very important, moderately important, slightly important, not at all important)

As explained above, prioritising particular species above preserving their ecosystems is misconceived.

6. Could you suggest improvements to these prioritisation principles in a new Threatened Species Strategy? Why do think these improvements are important?

The principle of dovetailing with “Australian government programs and priorities” is particularly misconceived and suggests circular reasoning, or the tail wagging the dog. If a species or ecosystem is considered valuable and worth preserving according to more objective criteria such as ecosystem or cultural importance, then Australian government programs and priorities should be designed to reflect that, rather than the other way around.

7. Please rate each of the proposed action areas by their level of importance for inclusion in a Threatened Species Strategy (extremely important, very important, moderately important, slightly important, not at all important)

We consider Mitigating Priority Threats (climate change, environmental degradation) and Preserving Habitats to be the most important of the priorities listed. Suggesting that the Commonwealth's role is limited to “partnerships”, “investment guidance” and “inspiring change”, while reasonable actions in and of themselves, deliberately understates the Commonwealth's critical role in making effective environmental laws, enforcing the laws and funding necessary action.

7b. Why did you rate the action areas this way?

See above.

8 Have we missed an important action area? Please tell us about why it should be included.

As well as overlooking the key governmental roles of making the law, enforcing the law, and funding effective actions, the First Nations of the Australian continent should be considered as not just another “partner” but as the key leaders in directing the repair of the environmental damage that European settlement has recklessly inflicted upon Australia's environment and species. Like the species themselves, their knowledge of our environment and ecosystems is irreplaceable and endangered.

As suggested above, the Threatened Species Commissioner should have the power to “name and shame” environmental laggards and malefactors.

9 What are the action areas where Commonwealth leadership would create the most value through a new Strategy? How could the Commonwealth best create value in that action area?

Without disparaging the work done by Dr Box and her colleagues, it is obvious that thorough reform of the environmental legal framework, enforcement of the environmental laws, and an increase of several orders of magnitude of funding for environmental protection is needed if Australia's species are truly to be no longer threatened.

10 What work are you or your organisation undertaking that aligns with the Threatened Species Strategy?

Our campaign will continue to remind Australians of the extent of our losses and press for effective action to prevent further species and habitat loss.

11 What are the opportunities to partner with the Australian Government on a new Threatened Species Strategy?

We are citizens of Australia who desire our government to recognise and act upon the magnitude of the environmental threats of climate change and land and habitat degradation which are driving our extinction crisis.

We also believe that creating a national memorial and museum to our endangered and extinct species would be one way to keep our losses in the forefront of policy makers’ minds, ensuring that there is a consequence and a memory, if only symbolic, of each and every species rendered extinct on their watch.

12 Do you have any other comments on what you would like to see in a new Threatened Species Strategy?

See the opening statement above.

Sincerely,

James Haughton (james.k.haughton AT gmail DOT com)

Lev Lafayette (lev.lafayette AT isocracy DOT org)

Campaign coordinators, on behalf of the Campaign for a National Memorial and Museum to Extinct and Endangered Australian Species.

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