9 February 2012
In the week when we find out the world population of Orange-bellied Parrots (OBPs) has dropped to 21 birds , The Australian has come out OBP-bashing. Talk about kicking an animal when it’s down!
Following on from a well-researched piece about OBPs by ABC News Tasmania last week, the latest article by Sid Maher in The Australian is titled “Return of the nearly dead parrot: orange-belly holds up marina” (for the search engines, the URL cleverly includes the statement “rare-parrot-holds-up-marina”).
Maher cites opposition climate change minister Greg Hunt as saying “the minister must make it absolutely clear whether he believes a system which stops a project of critical state importance for an imaginary parrot is acceptable” and goes on to compare the situation to the infamous wind farm cases in 2006.
Readers without an existing knowledge of environmental legislation would be forgiven for thinking that this is a travesty of natural justice. Yet the environmental assessment process doesn’t focus specifically or entirely on OBP. Let’s not forget that protection of the environment is about maintaining healthy functioning ecosystems (“biodiversity”). It’s not just about extinction of rare birds and animals.
The fact that Orange-bellied Parrots were seen at this site as recently as 1987 indicates a significant quality and extent of saltmarsh habitat. Protected species legislation is more than just ‘saving a bird’. Species play other vital roles in environmental protection and human survival.When journalists and politicians blame an animal for halting progress, they avoid the stickier subject of how to deal with the significant loss of economically-important habitat.
The development in question, is in Western Port, which is afforded one of Australia’s highest levels of environmental protection. Western Port has already suffered such significant coastal and marine vegetation loss that some coastal communities are under threat from being washed into the sea. It just so happens that OBPs live in some of the most valuable habitat for coastal sea defence. If we lose this habitat, Australian tax-payers may have to spend millions of dollars building and maintaining sea walls. Maybe we should ask the residents of Louisiana whether they would have been better off today, if they’d protected the saltmarsh habitat of birds like Seaside Sparrow, Clapper Rail and Least Bittern?
Maher’s article leaves me wondering whether he attempted to find out more. Does the lack of counter-argument mean we assume he hasn’t sought other opinions or evidence? Does he understand the extent to which the Australian public believe environmental protection is important, or the wider consequences of loss of OBPs and OBP habitat?
Investigating these stories in depth takes time and whilst we don’t expect the media to caveat everything, it does sour one’s appreciation of national press, when journalists use playground-bully tactics to pick on defenseless subjects. Whether I agree with the sentiment in Maher’s article is not the point. It lacks any empathy for the tragic and imminent extinction of one of our most iconic national birds and provokes little more than an incoherent and polarised view of this current affair.
Maher had an opportunity to enlighten readers on the colour and diversity of our culture, to reflect on the complexity of the situation and perhaps attract a more appreciative audience.
Instead, what I see, is a few hundred words of whinging about having to do environmental protection … where the blame for all the problems are unfairly pinned on a small bird.
1. http://www.thebirdsnest.net.au/update-on-the-orange-bellied-parrot-recovery-program/. This is the best available minimum population estimate, of birds returning to the only known breeding ground at Melaleuca in south west Tasmania.