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Tuesday, 16 November 2004
Page: 46

Senator ALLISON (5:50 PM) —I want to make a plea for the 1,695 plants and animals recognised under Australian environment laws as facing the threat of extinction. Many more than this are in fact either in decline or understood to be in decline but have not yet been adequately assessed. The 2003 red list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources documents the shocking reality for species that are on the brink of extinction around the globe. The number of animals and plants listed as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable by global experts has again increased by a frightening degree and now exceeds 12,000.

It is a statement of the obvious of course to say that, once a species is lost, it is irretrievable. It is also obvious that governments, including ours, are not paying enough attention to the problem. As one of the few developed countries with comparatively large and biodiverse reserves, Australia has a responsibility to play a much more decisive role in the conservation of global biodiversity. As a wealthy country we have the resources, the technology and the potential to arrest the loss of species and to work to improve the prospects for species' recovery in the long term, both in Australia and elsewhere. All it takes is political will and a lesser attachment to a big budget surplus.

The Democrats tonight call on the Minister for the Environment and Heritage to make threatened species protection and recovery a top priority for his ministry in the new government. I note today that the minister is still apparently the Manager of Government Business in the Senate and I hope that this is not some indication that there are low expectations of what the environment minister will do in this new government.

We call on the government to give biodiversity conservation and critical habitat protection a much higher budgetary priority. The Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Audit, released in April last year, identified almost 3,000 ecological communities to be under threat of extinction. These are all vital habitats for the survival of our plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. Australia has one of the longest lists of extinct endemic mammals in the world.

The overview of Australia's threatened bird species is not much better, with 23 species already extinct and 99 federally listed as threatened. The Action Plan for Australian Birds identifies many more birds whose survival is precarious. It is critical that work continues to identify and protect Australian biodiversity hotspots, and to develop a national biodiversity action plan and a national biodiversity initiative. We must have in place effective management for invasive species and measures to address the threat of broadscale land clearing.

We need on the ground results in the shortest possible time frame. In planning the recovery of our threatened species we have to be thorough and effective if we are going to avoid further extinctions in the near future. Questions I put to the minister for the environment asking just how effective recovery efforts have been for critically endangered species, such as the east coast's grey nurse shark, went unanswered prior to the election, but I will be putting them up again. We need to know that the money that is spent on recovery plans is money well spent—spent on evidence based programs with demonstrable outcomes. A recent federal government report from the biodiversity advisory committee shows clear evidence of the emerging threat to Australian iconic species through climate change. The mountain pygmy possum, the numbat and the tree kangaroo are among some of Australia's most well-known animals in danger of extinction in a drastically warming world.

Australia is most at risk with even small changes in temperature. A 0.7 degree of global warming has resulted in our worst drought on record. Australia's wet tropical mountain rainforests will decrease by 50 per cent with only a one-degree rise in global temperature. The Democrats urge the government to give full support to global initiatives to address climate change, and to move swiftly to ensure that Australia achieves a 60 per cent cut in our greenhouse emissions by 2050. We must do this to protect our biodiversity and to ensure a survivable environment for Australians in the future. Our own Productivity Commission has expressed concerns about the effects of climate change on biodiversity. It says 23 per cent of mammals, 16 per cent of amphibians, nine per cent of fish, nine per cent of birds, seven per cent of reptiles and five per cent of plants are listed either as extinct or at risk of becoming so.

Despite overwhelming evidence that Australia's biodiversity is deeply in danger of the risk of irreversible extinction from a range of threats, Senator Ian Campbell on taking on his new ministry claimed the Howard government has:

... implemented an Australia-wide approach to biodiversity conservation, tracking our biodiversity, measuring it, understanding it, saving it.

This is clearly nonsense. To claim that Australia's biodiversity has been saved shows a dangerous and very sad misunderstanding of the state of our threatened species and ecological communities and the key threats which continue to diminish their chances of survival.

The Democrats warn the new government most strongly against complacency on this complex and increasingly worrying problem. Investigations by the World Wide Fund for Nature show that more than half of the national conservation targets agreed to by federal, state and territory governments have not been met. In their report entitled Small steps for nature, the group found that Australian governments are failing to address the fundamental drivers of biodiversity loss in Australia and that we are still falling far short of what it will take to avert the wave of extinctions into the foreseeable future. They estimate that up to 20 per cent of Australia's half a million or so plants and animals could be threatened with extinction as a result of the failure to act in the immediate future.

We need a quantum leap in our nation's efforts to deal with key threats, such as declining water quality and wetland health, weeds and pest animals, broadscale land clearing and climate change. Australian governments have failed to put in place recovery plans for the vast majority of Australia's native vegetation types, which have less than 10 per cent of their original extant left. The target to complete implementation of environmental flows for Australia's most heavily impacted river systems by 2001 has not been met by any Australian government. Australia still permits the legal importation of more than 120,000 plant species, of which 4,000 are known weeds not yet present in Australia, with no weed risk assessment. To put this in a fiscal context, weed abatement already costs the Australian economy $4 billion every year. The target to prevent and manage introduced marine pests by 2003 has not been met. As indicated by the Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment 2002, there are 2,859 threatened ecosystems in Australia, all of which contain many unique species. The report noted that protection for endangered ecosystems and ecological communities under the Commonwealth EPBC Act is much too slow.

I remind the government of its failure to establish an adequate, representative and well-funded national reserve system, which as a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity we have an international commitment to establish. The Democrats will continue to call for adequate reserve representation of ecological communities in both marine and terrestrial environments. Biodiversity management must be a key issue within natural resource management throughout the landscape. Too little, too late is being done to halt Australia's accelerating extinction wave that was set in train from the time of European settlement. Tonight the Democrats call on the parliament and the government to ensure that much more is done in the shortest possible time frame.