Victoria’s auditor-general has criticised the department of environment, land, water and planning (DELWP) for its failure to protect the state’s threatened species, citing lacklustre data for any compelling evidence that its decisions are justified or that its work is making a difference.
Andrew Greaves’ report, which included nine recommendations for change, was tabled in the state parliament on Thursday. In the independent assurance report, Greaves noted that the department was unable to demonstrate how well, if at all, it had been able to stop the further decline of threatened species populations in Victoria. He also characterised the department’s biodiversity protection as lacking accountability and comprehensiveness.
Part of this shortcoming was a consequence of there being no transparent, risk-based process to prioritise threatened species in Victoria management, Greaves said, but in his view the department had also failed to make the most of legislative tools to protect threatened species that were available.
“[DELWP] also lacks performance indicators and reporting to demonstrate the impact of its management interventions on halting the decline of threatened species,” the VAGO report read.
A DWELP spokesperson told The Mandarin that the department had accepted all recommendations in the VAGO report, adding that many of the recommended changes were underway in a department forward plan.
“DELWP’s management action plan in response to the recommendations will make our biodiversity protection even stronger,” a department spokesperson said.
“VAGO’s report did not acknowledge that DELWP’s programs benefit more than 80% of Victoria’s nearly 2,000 threatened species including vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered species.”
Of the changes currently being implemented at DELWP include reviewing biodiversity monitoring and reporting arrangements; applying risk-based criteria to target investment to support critically endangered species; developing action statements for listed threatened species; and engaging with stakeholders to provide comprehensive scientific and evidence-based advice to government on the resources required to improve the outlook for threatened species.
According to the department, the report acknowledged its work to develop ‘better practice tools’ to identify and prioritise actions to protect threatened species.
But the auditor-general’s report also pointed to the tools the department used to monitor and report on its performance, criticising them for relying on old and outdated data, which the auditor-general said ‘raised questions’ about the reliability of the outputs the department’s tools modelled for.
Greaves also took aim at the department’s approach to ‘benefit the greatest number of threatened species’, saying this pragmatic mission statement risked the possibility of overlooking the fact that a number of endangered threatened species were at ‘extreme risk of extinction’
While the state government’s biodiversity 2037 strategy, a guiding document for DELWP that was released in 2017, had the clear goal of ensuring Victoria’s environment remained healthy and aimed for a net improvement in the outlook across all species, the auditor-general noted this contradicted the department’s so-called best-practice tools.
The tools, which DWELP developed as the basis of a ‘cost-effective’ decision-making framework, weighs protecting individual species against what can be ‘achieved for the greatest number of species’ — Greaves said this approach ran contrary to the objectives of state environmental protection laws.
“The objectives [of the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 (FFG Act)] include ‘to guarantee that all of Victoria’s flora and fauna’ ‘can persist and improve in the wild’, and ‘prevent’ ‘flora and fauna from becoming threatened and to recover threatened’ species so that ‘their conservation status improves’,” the VAGO report said.
The department had previously recommended that changes to the FFG Act be made in 2016, in recognition of the fact some objectives were either not achievable or measurable, but the legislated guarantee to prevent all flora and fauna from becoming threatened was not changed by the government in a suite of law reforms that came into effect four years later in 2020.
Some reasons the department gave the auditor-general in favour of a more pragmatic approach included limited funding, scientific constraints during a time of climate change, and the cumulative impact of waiting 200 years since colonisation to remediate long-term damage.
The auditor-general accepted these reasons as reasonable impediments to blanket environmental protection and the preservation of Victoria’s native biodiversity but said the department had failed to convey this to the government, leading to the ‘misalignment of expectations’, community concern and lack of confidence in government.
“The Act creates an expectation among stakeholders that all species will be protected and there will be no further decline in threatened species status,” the VAGO report read.
Greaves also found that the funding made available to the department fell ‘significantly short’ of what it had predicted was needed to discharge its duties under the FFG Act. But, remarkably, he said the department had also failed to share with the government detailed, evidence-based information about the cost and benefits of protecting and monitoring threatened species to justify spending public money.
Since the 2037 strategy was released, the Victorian government has committed an extra $400 million to deliver environmental initiatives. It has also delivered $270 million in the previous two state budgets for the protection of key waterways and catchments in Victoria.
“DELWP will continue to deliver on the Victorian government’s priorities under Biodiversity 2037 and build on the substantial progress that has been made to protect Victoria’s biodiversity and the natural environment,” a spokesperson said.