The Polly Woodside, a three-masted historic cargo ship built in 1885, is a prominent feature of Melbourne’s south wharf. It’s a site for tour groups, birthday parties, and an event known as pirate day held on the first Sunday of every month.
According to the federal government, the vessel has also been the location for some of its $255m worth of work protecting threatened species since the appointment of Australia’s first threatened species commissioner in 2014.
A document produced by the Department of the Environment and Energy lists heritage works including timber deck conservation at the Polly Woodside; garden and building maintenance at Como House in South Yarra; and stone conservation at Old Melbourne Gaol in Melbourne’s CBD, among more than 1,000 projects nationwide which the government says it is funding to benefit threatened animal and plant species.
The 236-page table (see pdf below) states that the beneficiaries of the Melbourne works include the grey-headed flying fox, the powerful owl and the eastern-barred bandicoot.
Conservationists describe the heritage activities as a worthy community project. The problem, they say, is that there is little chance any of those species occur at those sites.
One of the animals – the eastern-barred bandicoot – is considered extinct in the wild in Victoria. A captive-bred population has been released at three locations, only one of which is in Melbourne and out near the airport, nowhere near the CBD.
“I grew up in Melbourne. The Polly Woodside is on the Yarra river in the CBD and the Old Melbourne Gaol is in the CBD. The chance any of those species is there is at best highly unlikely,” said Dr Bruce Lindsay, a Melbourne-based lawyer with Environmental Justice Australia.
“It appears to at least be incongruous.”
The Melbourne work is just one example of projects that raise questions about the value to threatened species of some of the work the government says it is funding for their preservation.
Other examples include weed removal and construction of a bike wash-down station in Tasmanian bushland; the planting of native garden projects at 40 primary schools in western Sydney; and heritage conservation works and graffiti removal for second world war military remnants at Cape Pallarenda conservation park in Townsville, Queensland.
In Penrith, in Sydney’s western suburbs, $583,750 for the planting of trees as part of a project to cool down heavily concreted urban areas is listed as having benefits for critically endangered Cumberland Plain Shale Woodlands and Shale-Gravel Transition Forest.
“It is an absolute scandal some of these projects are being passed off as threatened species recovery projects,” said Australian Conservation Foundation policy analyst James Trezise.
“Some may be good local environment projects, but they shouldn’t be called a threatened species project.”
The Coalition has made much of its threatened species credentials. In launching Australia’s first threatened species strategy in 2015, the then environment minister Greg Hunt said the government had directly committed more than $80m to projects with threatened species outcomes.
That figure later grew to $110m, then to $237m when the current environment and energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, announced Dr Sally Box as the new threatened species commissioner at the end of 2017, replacing former commissioner Gregory Andrews.
In response to detailed questions from the Guardian, Frydenberg said the government had now “mobilised $255m for more than 1,200 projects with threatened species outcomes”.
“The $255m for more than 1,200 projects builds on Coalition government funding provided to natural resource management organisations to protect and improve our nationally and internationally important natural assets and values through action at a local level,” Frydenberg said.
But much of the government’s threatened species figures are drawn from other programs, namely 20 Million Trees and the now defunct Green Army program.
A separate table, produced in response to a Senate question on notice in late 2017 – when the government said it was providing $237m for threatened species – shows about $156m of that money was from Green Army and 20 Million Trees funding.
The table shows $60m was targeted threatened species money, including $29.9m for the government’s threatened species recovery hub, $3.3m for Tasmanian devil conservation and $9.2m for various marine projects.
And within the Green Army projects, there is funding for some programs aimed at conservation work, such as Victoria’s Mount Rothwell conservation and research centre.
The government has also targeted millions for the eradication of predators such as feral cats.
Conservationists agree there are some good projects outlined in the government’s documents, but the funding is insufficient for the amount of work required to save Australia’s wildlife in jeopardy and it is undermined by the inclusion of activities that will not benefit threatened species.
“There are some worthy threatened species projects being implemented by the government, but trust in the system is completely undermined by the government pushing these bogus figures,” Trezise said.
Bob Debus, a former NSW environment minister under Labor, said projects such as 20 Million Trees would also have limited impact while massive land-clearing rates continued in states such as Queensland and New South Wales. He added that the Green Army was “a job creation program”.
“Some organisations like Greening Australia and Australian Conservation Volunteers have worked out ways to put the Green Army to significant conservation use, but these are just very minor pieces in a very large jigsaw. You can stick any language you like on them but the impact they have is very little,” Debus said.
Also unclear is the extent to which the department is auditing its list of projects for threatened species outcomes.
Guardian Australia submitted a freedom of information request for documents relating to internal audits for five of the Green Army and 20 Million Trees projects: the heritage works at Polly Woodside and other Melbourne sites; a river walk project at Gayndah in Queensland; weed dispersal and construction of a bike wash-down station at the Cradle Coast Mountain Bike Club base in Tasmania; and urban tree planting programs in both Penrith and Emu Plains in New South Wales.
Documents were supplied for just one project – the Tasmanian bike club project – but the audit related to worker health and safety issues and not threatened species.
An external audit of funding models for threatened species management is under way by the Australian national audit office and is due to report in February.
In a separate FoI request, Guardian Australia sought any internal environment and energy department correspondence that discussed the insertion of the government’s original $80m figure into its 2015 threatened species strategy. A list of projects was supplied, but department officials said there was no correspondence discussing how the funding figure for the major announcement was reached because all of the conversations had been verbal.
Guardian Australia also submitted detailed questions to Frydenberg, the environment and energy department, and Dr Box asking how some of the government’s stated projects benefited threatened species, what audit work and accountability measures were in place, whether all of the stated species were known to occur at specific sites, and why there was no correspondence for the initial figure in the threatened species strategy.
No answers to any of these questions were supplied.
In a statement, Frydenberg said: “The (threatened species) commissioner role was created to help address the number of native plants and animals facing the threat of extinction, to bring new national focus on threatened species issues and to mobilise support for conservation efforts for Australia’s endangered native flora and fauna.
“The (threatened species) strategy sets out our approach of science, action and partnership and establishes ambitious targets to recover threatened species. These targets include: tackling feral cats, improving the futures of 20 bird, 20 mammal and 30 plant species and improving recovery practices.”
Dr Lindsay said some of the government’s threatened species work, including $5m for “greening” of suburbs in west Melbourne, was also symptomatic of a longer-running problem within threatened species management that spanned multiple governments. He said too much work was focused on assisting species after major development and habitat clearance, which adversely affects threatened species, had been permitted.
“Urban sprawl is what we’re talking about out there and then there’s an attempt to try to manage the threatened species issues but it’s all about shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted,” he said.