Where is the gain?

Published 02/01/13

The State Government’s review of vegetation protection policies is an attempt to undermine current laws. Analysis by Karl Just

When the first European ships pulled up on the shores of Australia, the land that is now the State of Victoria had several characteristics that were to cause it a great deal of trouble over the coming centuries.

One of these was the vast extent of grasslands and grassy woodlands that graced its landscapes, from the volcanic and coastal plains to the riverine plains of the north. These lands, after ‘discovery’ by early explorers such as Major Thomas Mitchell, were to be heavily targeted for grazing and later cropping, leading to drastic decline and replacement of the indigenous landscape.

Another characteristic was the presence of some of the richest goldfields in the world, later causing gold rushes of epic proportions that would lead to devastation across central Victoria.

The legacy of these times is that Victoria now holds the dismal title of being the most heavily cleared state in Australia, a fact of which many Victorians appear to be surprisingly unaware.

You would therefore like to think that protection and management of the remaining vegetation would be very high on the government agenda. However, with the apparent aim of pleasing developers, the State Government has just released a series of proposed reforms that will greatly undermine existing vegetation protection laws. But before we look into these reforms, let’s take a step back and review current vegetation protection policy.

Since the 1990s, vegetation protection in Victoria has been largely controlled by the Native Vegetation Framework, a rather complex set of policies that has its aim to achieve a ‘Net Gain’ in vegetation cover across the State. This is supposed to be achieved by reducing vegetation clearance and offsetting any clearance that does occur through revegetation or protection and management of existing patches.

The current laws

The basis of the existing Framework is the three step approach: avoid, minimise and offset.

  • If someone proposes the clearance of vegetation, first try to avoid vegetation clearance.
  • If this is not possible then minimise the clearance.
  • Thirdly, offset any clearance that takes place.

So how affective has the Framework been in achieving its goal? Despite being one of the most complex vegetation protection policies in the world, it appears the Framework has failed miserably. Earlier this year the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) released a damming report that assessed the track record of the Framework. Its key findings included:

The goal of Net Gain in vegetation cover is not being met and the first two steps of the process – avoid and minimise – are largely being passed over in favour of offsetting.

It was found only some 3.5% of applications to remove native vegetation were refused altogether, despite the fact the vegetation proposed to be removed was often of ‘high’ or ‘very high’ conservation significance. According to the Framework these should only be removed in exceptional circumstances.

The system for tracking and measuring Net Gain is poorly documented and it is unclear if gains are secured in the long term.

There has been a failure to effectively monitor vegetation offsets.

A good example of this, which I have seen many times myself, are revegetation plantings established to offset for vegetation clearance that fail due to lack of weed control, watering and other maintenance. The review found there is limited auditing of these offset sites being undertaken and that there is a great lack of enforcement for when breaches do occur. There are therefore grand promises made to offset when clearing is proposed but once the vegetation has been destroyed nothing really happens.

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) has not been an ally of the Framework since the Framework’s inception. Where a responsible authority has refused to grant a permit to clear native vegetation and that decision has been challenged in VCAT, VCAT has overturned the original decision in some 70% of cases. This suggests a disconnection between policy and implementation.

Enter the Liberal State Government

So vegetation protection policy is not achieving its aim and we are still experiencing a ‘net loss’ in vegetation cover in the most heavily cleared State of the continent. It would therefore appear timely that the policy is subject to review. But the review currently being undertaken by the State Liberal Government appears to be disastrous, clearly being aimed at further weakening these vegetation protection laws.

The State Government’s review has culminated in a series of proposed reforms outlined in the DSE document Future Directions for Native Vegetation in Victoria – review of Victoria’s native vegetation permitted clearance regulations.’

This was supposed to be a community consultation paper, but the DSE allowed a measly five weeks for submissions. The release of the paper was also poorly advertised, with many key stakeholders not hearing about it for several weeks, allowing a very short time to make a submission. It is pretty clear the government wasn’t interested in real consultation at all, trying to sneak the consultation paper through as quietly as possible.

The document is very slippery and attempts to disguise its real purpose with tacky language and moronic statements such as “Native vegetation is important for Victoria’s biodiversity” and ”Managing native vegetation effectively and sustainably is important.” But a quick read of the government wasn’t interested in real consultation at all, trying to sneak the consultation paper through as quietly as possible. The document is very slippery and attempts to disguise its real purpose with tacky language and moronic statements such as “Native vegetation is important for Victoria’s biodiversity” and ”Managing native vegetation effectively and sustainably is important.” But a quick read of the document makes very clear the government’s real intention.