PARK WATCH December 2017 |

Why has national parks creation stalled under the Andrews Labor Government? By Matt Ruchel and Sarah Rees.

Just a couple of weeks before the 2014 state election, Labor’s the environment spokeswoman Lisa Neville complained that the former Napthine government had the worst record on national park creation since Henry Bolte was premier.

“The Napthine government is the first government since Bolte which failed to open a new national park, while loosening protection that prevented mining, development and cattle grazing in national parks,” Neville said at the time.

Shortly after that Labor released its pre-election environment pitch – Our Environment, Our Future. After four years of inaction, Labor was promising to put protection of the environment “back on the agenda”. It also claimed it had “a long history of extending our national parks and reserves”.

At least part of that was correct. Labor does – or did – have a “long history” of creating parks and reserves. The Cain-Kirner government, in particular, did more in terms of park creation than any other government in the state’s history.

Almost three years later, how is the Andrews Government fairing? Far from putting new national parks back on the agenda, far from being part of that “long history”, Labor could be set to claim an ignominious title.

By our calculations, no Victorian government over the past 60 years has a worse record when it comes to park creation than the Andrews Government. Not the Kennett government, not the Bolte government. Not even the Baillieu-Napthine government, so criticised for its inaction.

At its third year anniversary, Daniel Andrews will have been in office 1095 days as premier, but Labor has so far created just 7170 hectares of parks under the national parks act, and that’s being generous. It’s an average of just 6.55 hectares per day, even after taking into account additions currently before the parliament.

To put that in the context of Labor’s “long history”, the Cain-Kirner government (1982-92) created more than 1.96 million hectares of parks, including the Grampians, Alpine, and Dandenong Ranges national parks. That’s equivalent to 511.1 hectares for each of the 3,837 days it was in office – a staggering 86 times more than the current Labor Government.

The Bracks-Brumby government (1999-2010) can also hold its head up. It added 364,473 hectares of new parks, including the ChilternMount Pilot, Greater Bendigo, and Great Otway national parks. That is equivalent to 89.77 hectares for each of the 4,060 days it was in power.

Or there was the Hamer-Thompson Liberal government (1972-82). It too has a proud history, creating the Snowy River, Baw Baw and Croajingalong national parks, among others. In total, it added 781,932 hectares, or an average of 222.9 hectares for each of the 3,508 days it was in power.

Even the Kennett government (1992- 99) created 127,864 hectares of parks over its 2,570 days, or an average of 49.75 hectares per day, some eight times more than the current Labor Government.

And, dismal though its record was, the Baillieu-Napthine government still performed better on park creation than the current Labor Government, creating a daily average of 6.77 hectares of parks over 1,464 days.

You might think that Labor’s poor record on park creation partly reflects the idea that most of the low hanging fruit has now been picked. This, however, is not the case. The ash forests of the Central Highlands have been listed globally as critically endangered, remaining under threat from logging, fire and fragmentation. And the recently released statewide biodiversity strategy flags at least a 2.1 million hectare gap in the state’s reserve system.

Renowned filmmaker and naturalist Sir David Attenborough has backed the idea of a Great Forest National Park to ensure the continued existence of biodiversity, safeguard water supplies, provide spiritual nourishment for ourselves and future generations, and of course, to protect the state’s critically endangered faunal emblem, the Leadbeater’s possum.

Yet the state government seems to have fallen silent on the idea.

As well as the need to protect the Yarra Ranges and Central Highlands and parts of East Gippsland to help ensure the survival of up to 75 forest dependent species, there are ecologically significant tracts of public land in south western and central western Victoria that need to be preserved.

After winning the November 2014 state election, Labor promised a collaborative approach to new parks, announcing a taskforce of representatives from environmental groups, forestry unions and the logging industry to work towards a consensus on the creation of a Great Forest National Park.

Sadly, after two years of intensive meetings, the taskforce has been unable to move beyond a broad statement of intent which agreed on the need for the development of new parks and reserves. It has not met at all in 2017.

Despite Labor’s pre-election promise to put the environment back on the agenda, there is currently no sign of any tangible plan to protect dozens of threatened species dependent of Victoria’s wet forests.

Instead, the Andrews Government has committed at least $165 million dollars of taxpayers’ money to bailout and purchase a native timber sawmill in Heyfield, grow new plantations, and fund a feasibility study for Nippon Paper to build an incinerator to burn trees and Melbourne’s rubbish in Gippsland.

Parks take time to create, sometimes years. But it is not too late for Labor. A year out from the next state election, the Andrews Government now has a clear choice. It can continue to trash Labor’s proud legacy of national park creation, or take some tangible steps to change course. A commitment to establish a Great Forest National Park would be a great place to start.

First published in The Age, 11 November 2017

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It’s time for new national parks – and a commitment to establish a Great Forest National Park would be great place to start.

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