Nature’s Gifts and Politicians

Dr Graeme L. Worboys AM is an Honorary Associate Professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University. Bruce Gall is a former Director of the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service and is a member of the World Commission on Protected Areas.   

This is the seventh article in an 8-part series discussing our nature’s gifts

One of the greatest threats to nature’s gifts is not climate change or habitat destruction but the actions of our politicians. Our future leaders are generally attracted to a political career for reasons other than saving the planet. But there have been outstanding exceptions; some remarkable Labor, Liberal, Greens and even National Party politicians have made visionary contributions to protecting our nature’s gifts. With no disrespect to others who battled heroically to have parks created, we pay tribute to some of our political champions. 

The grand concept of national parks in Australia began on April 26, 1879, when 7,284 ha on the southern fringes of Sydney was dedicated, quite simply, as The National Park; it gained the Royal moniker in 1955, following the first visit to Australia by a young Queen Elizabeth II the previous year.  It was the world’s second national park after America’s Yellowstone.  

Our first champion, NSW premier Sir John Robertson, was the driving force behind the creation of The National Park.  He responded to calls for healthy environments, fresh air, parks for children’s play and bushland for acclimatisation activities, issues we might not recognise today as being relevant to park establishment. In 1880, The National Park was enlarged by 6,880 ha and Robertson later became chairman of the park trust. 

In 1943, NSW Labor premier William McKell took part in a horseback tour of the Snowy Mountains with a bevy of politicians, government officials and soil scientists. The inspection was in response to growing concerns about massive erosion caused by stock grazing and unregulated burning in the alpine area. McKell was shocked by the extensive sheet erosion and catchment damage he saw, and immediately set in train the creation of the 526,000 ha Kosciusko State Park, proclaimed on April 19, 1944. It became a national park with the formation of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. 

NSW Liberal Minister for Lands, Tom Lewis, achieved his goal of creating the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, in 1967. The innovative legislation was a catalyst for other state and territory governments to also develop professional park management agencies. Lewis’s love of the outback and his family connection to Charles Sturt’s 1844 expedition, culminated in the formation of the now 325,000 ha Sturt National Park, a magnificent arid zone reserve in the state’s northwest corner. 

Victoria gazetted its first national parks in 1898 at Mount Buffalo and Wilsons Promontory. 

By 1979 however, just 41 parks, covering less than 300,000 ha, had been added. Under Liberal premier Rupert Hamer, Victoria celebrated the centenary of Australia’s first national park, by expanding existing areas and creating 13 new ones, increasing the state’s protected estate to 775,000 ha, a staggering 160% increase in just 12 months. 

In 1983, NSW Labor premier Neville Wran, taking the advice of legendary rainforest authority Peter Hitchcock AM, stopped the logging of the state’s rainforests and approved conversion of several state forests to national parks. In 1986, these areas became part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Site. Following his retirement, Wran stated that saving the rainforests was his greatest achievement.  

Meanwhile, in Queensland, Ivan Gibbs, the National Party minister for national parks from 1979 into the 1980’s and Pat Comben, Labor’s environment minister (1989-1992) were standout performers in our most conservative state. Gibbs expanded the sandstone Carnarvon National Park, created Cape Tribulation National Park, and developed a national parks strategy for the central Queensland coast which Comben later implemented when he became environment minister. Comben had an electoral mandate to double the national park estate. With Department of Environment officer, Paul Sattler OAM, identifying priority areas, Comben provided the political support – and a big cheque! 

Doctor Bob Brown fought to save Tasmania’s nature’s gifts as the leader of the NO DAMS campaign to prevent the Franklin River being flooded in the 1970s-80s. Brown then entered state politics in 1983, achieving more wilderness areas before becoming a Greens federal senator in 1996.  

The NO DAMS blockade delayed dam construction and federal Labor’s Bob Hawke went to the 1983 election with a plan to dump the project. The electorate backed Hawke and the Franklin continues to flow. As prime minister, Hawke also sided with the Jawoyn traditional owners of Kakadu National Park, in their battle to save the spiritual integrity of the Coronation Hill ‘sickness country’ from desecration by mining companies. Hawke’s intervention stopped the mining.

Bob Carr was NSW premier from 1995 to 2005, with Bob Debus his environment minister for much of that time. The two Bob’s made an extraordinary contribution to protecting nature’s gifts, increasing the number of NSW protected areas by over one-third, including the South East Forests National Park, NSW’s 100th national park, which ended the forest wars between loggers and conservationists. 

A late addition to our list is former NSW Liberal environment minister Matt Kean. After years of inaction by the NSW government, Kean has given the poorly-conserved habitats of the western division a green tinge, adding some 450,000 ha west of the Darling to the NPWS estate – a new champion! 

Other pollies also deserve an honourable mention for taking actions to protect our nature’s gifts. Paul Landa (NSW Labor) helped establish Wollemi National Park; Tim Moore (NSW Liberal) introduced karst protection legislation and legislation enabling Aboriginal ownership of national parks; Frank Walker (NSW Labor) stopped logging at Terania Creek; Joan Kirner (Victoria Labor) facilitated creation of the Victorian Alpine National Park; Robert Hill (Federal Liberal) supported funding for National Reserve System and John Thwaites (Victoria Labor) created the Great Otway National Park.  

Federal environment minister Tanya Plibersek now has a wonderful opportunity to also become an environment champion. The decade biodiversity targets in the Kunming-Montreal Global Environmental Framework (KMGEF), finalised in December 2022 under the Convention on Biological Diversity, are crucial to sustaining life on Earth. As the federal government is signatory to the convention, it falls to Minister Plibersek to implement these targets.  

In our next – and final – article, we investigate the KMGEF goals and discuss the challenges facing Tanya Plibersek.  

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