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'Don't know, don't tell': WA species dying out as department fails to do its job

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 The day before the proposed State budget grabbed news headlines on September 7, a seemingly routine 26-page report by the WA Auditor General on threatened species management was tabled in Parliament.

The report was a follow-up performance audit from one undertaken in 2009, under the former Liberal Government, on whether the Department of Parks and Wildlife (now Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions) had implemented changes to address previous concerns.

The 2009 audit "concluded that in many areas threatened species were not being effectively protected and recovered and that the number of threatened species was rising with only a few species improving".

Eight years later, the auditor's new report is rife with criticisms about the department, inferring poor management practices and a failure to adopt necessary changes.

The overarching message from the report is stark – DBCA cannot show Parliament and the public how its programs and activities are making a difference to conserve WA's unique and world renowned biodiversity, and there are considerable future risks for governments.

"…we found no coordinated approach to evaluation of outcomes, weaknesses in species-level reporting, little output reporting…", the report says.


According to Treasury budget papers, parks and wildlife management has received around $2.4 billion since the last Auditor General report in 2009. In the recent state budget, DBCA is slated to get more than a quarter of a billion dollars this year.

This is a lot of money, and people have a right to know how well their government, and the agency responsible for conservation, is doing to care for this irreplaceable natural asset that so many industries, and ultimately all of us, depend upon.

Mr Colin Murphy, Auditor General, has called progress by DBCA in the 2017 audit report "disappointing"; inaction between audits by the department is inexcusable given indicators suggest much of biodiversity is rapidly declining towards extinction.

Since 2009, there has been a 12 per cent increase in the number of threatened species in WA to 672 and a 29 per cent increase in the number of species to 3,352 that are possibly threatened.

The number of ecological communities that may be threatened had increased over 50 per cent during this period – from 255 to 389. But these disturbing trends are only the tip of the iceberg.

In May, it was reported by Watoday that DBCA had buried a 10-year assessment of the state's biodiversity, showing that many species and ecological communities were plunging into extinction.

…we found no coordinated approach to evaluation of outcomes, weaknesses in species-level reporting, little output reporting…

Some plants still listed as threatened had become extinct in the wild, and among a raft of other negative trends, only 3 per cent of threatened plants had improved due to conservation activities. It also pointed to inaccurate and out of date listings of threatened species and ecological communities.

The Auditor's 2017 assessment also found that DBCA had reduced resources for managing threatened species and conservation activities.

"Because DBCA has not documented its prioritisation process, it cannot demonstrate that it is being applied or that resources are directed to highest priorities"

Auditor General's follow-up audit

The Auditor General's 2017 and 2009 reports indicate archaic departmental systems and processes, poor corporate leadership, no explicit decision making framework for setting priorities and allocation of resources, inaccurate accounting of expenditure and a department presiding over disparate and inaccessible datasets not fit for purpose.

In 2017, 45 per cent of threatened species and ecological communities remain without recovery plans, and 18 of the 32 active recovery teams hadn't met in the last 12 months.

Above all, the report's findings point to a complacent and insular departmental executive seemingly incapable of adopting contemporary practices; bereft in the necessary conservation leadership. If it was a privately-run business, it would have gone under a long time ago.

A department in denial

In its brief and nonchalant response to the Auditor's findings, DBCA claimed the passing in 2016 of the Biodiversity Conservation Act under the Barnett Government as a key 'outcome'.

This legislation was slammed by Labor, while in opposition, the Greens, Leeuwin Group of concerned scientists, WWF-Australia and the broader conservation sector as being deeply flawed and in need of major amendments to improve accountability and transparency.

In deliberations of the Bill, proposed amendments were rejected by the then Liberal Government, including periodic and publicly available reviews of biodiversity that would determine trends in state and condition, and whether public investment was making a difference. The Act, as passed, still has major shortcomings, and is out of step with expectations found in other Australian states and countries.

It is clear that a paradigm cultural shift at DBCA is needed, along with long term political commitment to support change and bring in sound practices. Showing value for money of services and making a difference, puts a minister inevitably in a stronger position to argue for more scarce funding and resources.

The big picture might be confronting, but must be known to inform decision making.

It's been 10 years since the last WA State of Environment report was published that analysed trends in the environment when Labor was in office.
The lack of natural resource evaluation and transparency in environmental management over the course of the past two Liberal governments has helped foster an ostrich syndrome culture, with a 'don't want to know, don't (need to) tell' approach - and therefore don't need to do anything of substance about the runaway species 'extinction express'.

This ultimately helps no one, certainly not future generations or biodiversity in the immediate future.

The McGowan government in its first budget year has a timely opportunity to bring about a major cultural shift to ensure a legacy of good business practices and decision making in conservation, rather than following what has become mediocre, and disappointing.

WA's biodiversity is far too precious to allow business as usual to continue. In another eight years – two government terms henceforth – will biodiversity be improving, or not, and will the return from a large public investment for conservation be worth it?

Keith Claymore is a former senior officer with the Western Australia government and has 30 years experience in biodiversity conservation.