PARK WATCH March 2019 |

With a federal election looming, what is the role of the Australian government in the management of our prime natural areas – national parks? By VNPA Director Matt Ruchel.

We know national parks and conservation areas are popular. Statewide polling commissioned by VNPA in November 2018 showed that around 73 per cent of the community supported a comprehensive network of national parks and conservation areas across land and sea. (Of these, 37 per cent ‘strongly supported’ and 36 per cent ‘supported’. A further 14 per cent were ‘undecided’, 13 per cent ‘opposed’, and five per cent ‘strongly opposed’.) Interestingly, the opposition is similar to the levels of support for native forest logging. Not surprisingly, the support figures jump in the inner city. Support for marine national parks and sanctuaries is even higher at 81.5 per cent.

So you would think with these high levels of support it should be an opportunity for politicians of any party or jurisdiction to talk about something different and positive to a fairly jaded electorate. While there was a package of parks funding announced in the Victorian state election campaign, we did not see any announcement of major new parks, and we haven’t had a new marine park or sanctuary in Victoria for more than 15 years.

The Australian Government manages and provides funding for national parks in territories and offshore – so places like Kakadu, Uluru, and the Great Barrier Reef are responsibilities of the Commonwealth, though some parts may be joint managed with territories, adjoining states and Traditional Owners.

National parks in the states are state responsibilities, though areas with World Heritage or National Heritage status may get financial support, and some national oversight in limited cases. Roughly 70 per cent of national parks and other publicly-owned protected areas (IUCN Category I-IV) in Australia are in the states.

So while called national parks, they are really creatures and creations of state government. This is not uncommon in the history of the Australia federation – most train lines didn’t match up at state borders until recently.

However the federal government has signed up to the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which does give it a legal role in oversight and support for management of national parks and conservation areas. We are not talking about some sort of ‘take over’ from the Federal Government of state territory here, because that is unrealistic and likely counterproductive; but rather the legitimate role of the Australian Government to help manage, or at least incentivise the states to better manage, our unique natural heritage on behalf of all of us.

On the back of the ALP National Conference late last year, the federal ALP announced that if elected, a “Shorten Labor Government will ensure the federal government returns to taking leadership role in protecting our natural environment by creating an Australian Environment Act, and establishing a Federal Environmental Protection Agency”.

This commitment was welcomed by many in the conservation world. A long-running campaign by the Places You Love Alliance (a national alliance of 54 environment groups, including VNPA) wanted this commitment to go further, but it is a start.

In the detail of the ALP National Platform 2018, there are suggestions that progress could be made in at least setting some oversight of state management of our prime natural areas.

It set out priorities to create new climate, land clearing and water triggers in the reform of our national environmental laws, shown in the wording that “Labor will also consider a National Parks trigger to protect Australia’s system of National Parks”, and “Labor will protect Australia’s biological diversity through a national system of comprehensive adequate and representative parks and reserves, while using education, regulation and incentives to achieve ecologically sustainable use elsewhere in the landscape”.

Some positive sounding noises – but what should they be looking at in concrete terms? The idea for our national environment laws (the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999) to have a ‘trigger’ for the federal environment minister to assess and put conditions on inappropriate actions in national parks first came up following the last round of the alpine cattle grazing dispute between 2010-2014. The then federal environment minister Tony Burke intervened in the dispute after the state government tried to introduce cattle back into the Alpine National Park under the guise of a flawed scientific trial. The ALP had made commitments to look at the idea of an EPBC Act trigger in 2013 election, which they lost. Essentially, the logic goes, the Australian Government has international obligations to protect the integrity of national parks – but what can it do if a state government goes feral and wants to damage,
develop or destroy national parks? To date, not much.

VNPA and other national parks associations around the country, as well as community conservation groups, have developed a package of policy proposals through the National Parks Australia Council (NPAC) which explore the options and opportunities for the Australian government to ensure our national natural heritage estate is protected.

NPAC has produced a series of background briefings and discussion papers on some of these key areas. They include:

  • National parks – a matter of national significance
  • Maintain the values of the national reserve system
  • Completing Australia’s national reserve system
  • Enhancing landscape connectivity
  • Marine protected areas

They can be viewed on our website here.

We are also advocating for improved federal funding through programs such as the National Reserves System Program (NRSP), or similar. This program is currently not funded nationally. Programs such as this need renewed long-term funding, to both fill gaps in the reserve system, and to incentivise better management.

There is also merit in improving connectivity and developing an expanded wildlife corridor network, ideally utilising both the public and private reserve system.

 


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