Deakin University / Enhancing Biodiversity Conservation Policy

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Associate Professor Geoff Wescott
School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science and Technology
Deakin University, Melbourne Campus
221 Burwood Highway, Burwood, Victoria
Australia 3125
61 3 92517623

Initiative Description and Primary Objectives 

The State of Victoria is responsible under the Australian Constitution for land planning and management including natural resources management and nature conservation.

Whilst the State possessed quite advanced biodiversity conservation policies through the 1980s and 1990s (including a Native Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1987) and possess a comprehensive and substantial national park and conservation reserve system on public land, there had been little attention paid to nature conservation in the new century and little attention to conservation on private land (60 % of the State) in particular since the 1990s.

This led to a group of nine, mainly not for profit NGO conservation groups, forming the “Victoria Naturally Alliance” in the mid 2000s with its motto: “Connecting People and Nature” with the express aim of raising the political profile of biodiversity conservation in Victoria.

The group’s first success was to have the Victorian Government commit itself in its budget / policy statement (“Our Environment, Our Future”) in 2006 to the preparation of a “White (Policy) Paper on Biodiversity Conservation” - a process which commenced after the State election in late 2006, with the publication of a “call for submissions” on “Land and Biodiversity at a Time of Climate Change” in April 2007.

It was at this stage that Deakin University was brought into the picture by the Alliance. The Alliance had obtained some limited funding from philanthropic sources and engaged the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at Deakin University to facilitate a two stage independent scientifically based process to aid the Alliance’s response to the White Paper submission process.

Stage 1 was facilitated by Professor Andrew Bennett – a “whole of landscape” ecologist specialising in fragmented landscapes. Bennett chaired a series of workshops of prominent government, non-government, NGO/ conservation groups and research scientists to analyse what the major threats to biodiversity conservation were in Victoria. The group also thought through what might  be the major ecological objectives required if we were to achieve biodiversity conservation across whole landscapes (irrespective of public/ private ownership).

His group’s findings have been published as Bennett et al (see final section). In essence their conclusion was that Victoria needed to move beyond a species and habitat based protection approach (as State legislation then focussed on it) and to a focus on the protection of the ecological processes that drive healthy ecosystems. This could be done by addressing threats to these ecological processes (e.g. introduced pest plant and animal invasions, excessive fires, etc.) and by enhancing the operation of these ecological processes (e.g. by increasing connectivity in the landscape).

These findings were fed back to the Alliance who then proceeded to use these independent credible scientific findings to lobby the Government, with some considerable success, in the submission process for inclusion of these points in the final White Paper.

Yet this first stage still only produced ecological recommendations – the applied ecologists assembled recommended what needed to be done ecologically but did not suggest (because it was outside their expertise) on how, in a policy sense, this could be carried through.

Hence the second stage of Deakin University’s role was to facilitate – this time through the Professor Geoff Wescott – a work shop, interview and survey based process to determine how ecological processes could be protected in a policy sense. A similar series of workshops and discussions and this time independent interviews of policy experts was carried out resulting in a Victoria Naturally Alliance comprehensive report (McGregor at al, 2008) and eventually a peer reviewed paper (McGregor et al, 2011). The report was necessary for timeliness as by now (early 2009) the Government process was nearing completion and the use of the material in the Deakin sourced report was needed before any final peer reviewed publication would be available.

In both the ecological processes paper and the policy responses report cases all the material and drafts of reports were made available to the Alliance and from the Alliance to the Government’s working / writing group as they came to hand in a timely manner.

In the end, a considerable number (although very difficult to quantify) of the recommendations and approaches proposed in the two University sourced reports were incorporated into the final Government White Paper (Department of Sustainability and Environment, 2009), as well as the  independent paper on the new Biodiversity White Paper (see Coffey and Wescott, 2010).

Key Academic Disciplines 

Disciplines: Environmental policy, applied ecology, environmental science and management
Approach: workshop, seminars and joint publishing of information

Key Partner Organizations and Individuals 

• Deakin University

• State of Victoria’s Department of Sustainability and Environment

• Members of the Victoria Naturally Alliance: Victorian National Parks Association, The Wilderness Society, Australian Conservation Foundation, Environment Victoria, Greening Australia, Bird Observation and Conservation  Australia, Invasive Species Council, Trust for Nature , Bush Heritage Australia

Initiative History and Champions 

• The formation of such a range of groups into an alliance – championed by Karen Alexander – the person who ran the Wilderness Society’s mainland campaign to “Save the Franklin River.”

• The inclusion in the Alliance of a Government statutory body – the Trust for Nature – responsible for conservation covenants on private land amongst the other NGOs lent significant credibility to the exercise.

• Getting the government to include in its 2006 statement a commitment to preparation of a White Paper. Once this process was established then there was Governmental department momentum to follow it through.

• The concept of using an independent University to carry out the research and prepare peer reviewed reports and papers separated out the technical aspects of the work from the advocacy and campaign sections of the work.

• Finally the early recognition that not only did you need to analyses the issue technically and scientifically but that you need to provide policy solutions was critical to the project’s success.

Distinctiveness and Strategic Significance of the Initiative 

The initiative was distinctive in its use and interplay between University – State Government – Conservation Groups. Disparate, and at times antagonistic, sectors were able to interact positively using this mechanism as it separated out evidence and data from opinion and beliefs.

The strategic significant outcome was a White Paper with a long term (50 year plus) vision for biodiversity conservation in Victoria and specific proposals for ‘biolinks’ across the State to achieve this outcome.

Despite any political changes and fashions (which have occurred) the State now has a vision and direction that all sectors can use as a ‘blueprint’ for the future.

Measurable Effectiveness of the Initiative 

 The proof of success is dependent on how well connectivity across the landscape will be enhanced in coming years. Victoria is the most cleared State in Australia with the least percentage of its area in public land (approx. 40 %). Hence private land conservation work will be fundamental to achieving connectivity and biodiversity conservation improvement.

The federal government’s clean energy future has substantial elements for potential connectivity (under its ‘carbon in the landscape’ proposals including a $1 billion Biodiversity Grant scheme).
 One would expect these funds to be channelled towards the private land biolinks proposed in the White Paper, in Victoria.

Transferability of the Initiative 

The most interesting and transferable lessons in the initiative surround the interplay between the conservation advocacy alliance (Victoria Naturally) and Deakin University.

The Alliance on giving a brief to the University to carry out specified research and form independent recommendations allowed the University to do so without interference. This allowed a facilitation of technically supported credible recommendations back to the Alliance without any implication of political bias, vested interest or advocacy being directed at the University.

The Alliance then was free to use the independent reports (both published in peer reviewed international journals) as they saw fit. i.e. in essence the politics was separated from the science / research and hence was made all the more powerful in advocacy work.

The second point is that because close links were formed between the Alliance , the Government process and the University findings information was able to be made available to the government process continuously and in a timely fashion as well as formally at stated submission / consultation times. This allowed for continuous enhancement of the review process and outcomes.

The Initiative’s Ability to Endure 

The Government’s final White Paper was released late in 2009. In 2010 that Government was defeated in an election after 11 years in power.

The new Government has not accepted the White Paper but it is still guiding overall thinking ‘behind the scenes.’ Because of its long term vision and acceptance of the overall directions in the document, it is likely to be sustained in an unofficial capacity until the main features are either incorporated in the new Government’s replacement document / policy, or until it is resurrected by the defeated government.

Engagement Strategies 

Victoria Naturally uses its web page and a regular Newsletter (electronic) to keep people informed, as do all the Alliance individual members.

In addition, the White Paper process included all forms of public participation (for example, regional workshops, seminars, regular updates and Newsletters).

The process and the findings of the process have been incorporated into University seminars and into materials circulated in the two Environmental Science degree programs at the University. In a variety of ways, students have witnessed a ‘live’ process occurring. The presence of “their lecturers” at the centre of an unfolding story in the “real world” was very powerful for the students.