Scientists in this space talk about not just actual extinction but the extinction of experience. Unfortunately, many Australians will go for a walk in the bush and see virtually no animals and think, ‘Well, this is Australia. It is a harsh landscape. There are just not that many animals around or perhaps they are hiding.’ That isn’t true. Our country used to be full of animals. They used to be everywhere until we destroyed it. We have an opportunity to stop that destruction, but the government needs to get the report, pay attention to it and respond with the kinds of measures that it calls for.
Mr Wilson (11:40am) – I agree with the member for Warringah and also with the member for North Sydney, who spoke earlier. This is an important report. The committee has taken on a piece of critical work here because cats represent an enormous threat to Australia’s environment. They are the cause of some of the most acute and widespread damage that has already occurred. They are, in the words of one of the experts who appeared before the committee, often the final nail in the coffin as Australian species continue to go extinct.
I’ll start by just pointing out that we have to see this report in that larger context; the starting point of the picture is the extraordinary environmental damage which has occurred in Australia, particularly over the last couple of hundred years. Cats have been a big part of that and they continue to be a massive part of it. Then the next part of the picture, sadly, is that our environmental protection framework and the measures which we have been taking to try, on the one hand, to arrest harm, and on the other hand, perhaps in some cases, to restore the environments or see populations come back to their former health. Those measures aren’t working. Above all, we must stop kidding ourselves about that fact; it is undeniable.
On that point: you can’t get a better statement than what the government-appointed EPBC reviewer himself, Graeme Samuel, has said in his review of the EPBC Act:
The evidence received by the Review is compelling. Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. The pressures on the environment are significant—including land-use change, habitat loss and degradation, and feral animal and invasive plant species. The impact of climate change on the environment is building, and will exacerbate pressures, contributing to further decline. In its current state, the environment is not sufficiently resilient to withstand these threats. The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.
That’s the reality as it is now. We’ve done enormous harm to our environment. We’ve seen some 30-plus species go extinct already. We are sadly a world leader when it comes to mammal extinctions. If we compare Australia with North America as a comparator, we’ve had 30-plus mammal species go extinct; North America has seen one.
Cats, unfortunately, are a big part of that. They are unparalleled slaughter machines when it comes to Australian mammals, birds, lizards and amphibians. 1.6 billion animals each year, a single feral cat kills 1,200 Australian animals on average. Even pet cats across Australia, taken altogether, collectively are responsible for killing a million Australian native animals a day. So the largest impact is from feral cats but, unfortunately, pet cats make a contribution as well. They are, in many cases, the greatest immediate threat to Australia’s most endangered species. We have a number of species that are on the brink—that are down to the last few hundred of their number—and it will be the combination of climate change and bushfires, coupled with cat predation, that will see the end of some of those species if we don’t do something. And we must do something different, because what we’re doing right now isn’t working.
I give the government credit: a few years ago they created the Office of the Threatened Species Commissioner. That was a new initiative that was intended to have some beneficial effect on behalf of the most threatened species in Australia, of which, sadly, there are many.
But we have to acknowledge now, three years on, that it’s not working. It’s not working on its own terms. It set some very clear targets. Those targets are not being met. It chose, for example, 20 particularly threatened mammal species, with a target by the end of the first three-year period to see an improvement in population numbers for 10 of those 20 species. That has not occurred. So far, over three years, we’ve seen a population increase for only four of those 20 mammal species, while for another four an improvement is claimed to the extent that the rate of decline has slowed. That cannot be good enough. If we set these targets, if we create these bodies, we must expect that they deliver the outcomes that they’ve have been set up to deliver. Along the way, when that doesn’t occur we need to ask why and we need to be prepared to add programs and resources to get what we need. If we don’t, then, of those 20 mammal species and the threatened bird species and the amphibian species, we will simply see more extinctions.
You cannot take what is happening in terms of the impact of cats outside of the broader environmental picture. As the member for Warringah just pointed out, the government’s actions in this space, in protecting the environment, are nothing to be proud about. You cannot cut 40 per cent of funding from the Department of the Environment when the environment has been smashed and the trajectory is one of decline, you take away 40 per cent of funding from the department responsible for that, and you expect things to get better, you are operating according to a different logic than the one I understand should be applied in this space.
You can’t have a situation where 79 per cent of decisions made under the EPBC involve failures of compliance and failures to meet basic conditions, as the Auditor-General’s report found. You can’t have, as Graeme Samuel has found, an environmental protection framework at the Commonwealth level that doesn’t have effective national standards, that is allowing the net loss of habitat for critically endangered species, that is allowing—as we have seen reported today by The Guardian—double-dipping when it comes to the use of offsets. The destruction of habitat which is supposed to be balanced out by the acquisition of some offset territory that includes equivalent habitat; that is being used multiple times to allow destruction of habitat for multiple projects. That simply cannot be the case.
This report, on a collegiate bipartisan basis, looks very clearly at what the reality will be if we don’t act. The reality will be further environmental degradation and the loss of more species, and, therefore, the irreversible loss of biodiversity in Australia. We can’t accept that. We just cannot accept that. I do hope that the government pays close attention to the report and the recommendations, which are the basis of a lot of expert testimony and wide engagement with stakeholders around Australia.
We have urged the government to prioritise the problem of feral cat control, in proper balance with other programs. There are issues like wild dogs, for instance, in rural and regional Australia; we know that that is a problem particularly for primary producers. But it’s hard to understand why the funding that goes to wild dog control is so far in excess of the funding that goes to feral cat control. That kind of question has to be answered.
The Threatened Species Strategy needs to be seriously revised. The government has responded to the failure of the strategy so far by doing what governments often do and what makes people in the community extremely cynical; it has said: ‘Rather than operating over five years, why don’t you operate over 10 years? We will kick the can down the road and expand out the scope of your work, and we won’t give you any additional resources.’ Clearly, there needs to be better collaboration with the states and territories. There needs to be greater investment in scientific research and technology.
We don’t have a broadscale method for handling cats, as other speakers have mentioned. At the moment we don’t have a way of eliminating cats in the way that we have been able to do to some degree with other invasive species. Until we do, we have to ensure that feral cats in particular don’t push the most threatened animals, birds, lizards and amphibians over the brink, over the edge. The best way we can do that, as the member for North Sydney pointed out, is by significantly expanding the network of ‘exclosures’ and offshore islands.
It’s sad, it is very, very sad that Australia is in a position where the best that we can do is put fences around species, eradicate cats within those species, as a sort of life raft to get them through the next decade or so while we search for something like gene drive technology. But if we don’t do that to a greater degree than we are doing now more mammals will go extinct and other animal species as well.
I was part of the committee’s trip to Mulligan’s Flat and that was a real eye-opener. Scientists in this space talk about not just actual extinction but the extinction of experience. Unfortunately, many Australians will go for a walk in the bush and see virtually no animals and think, ‘Well, this is Australia. It is a harsh landscape. There are just not that many animals around or perhaps they are hiding.’ That isn’t true. Our country used to be full of animals. They used to be everywhere until we destroyed it. We have an opportunity to stop that destruction, but the government needs to get the report, pay attention to it and respond with the kinds of measures that it calls for.