While environmentally as important as a luscious rainforest, Victoria’s grasslands are treated like dirt.
As temperamental as a mood ring, catch them in the wrong season and they can look like a yellow vacant block. In fact, if you are a Melburnian like me, or live anywhere from Craigieburn to Fernbank, you would have almost certainly passed by these grasslands without knowing you were in the fleeting presence of an ancient and rare ecosystem found only in Victoria.
Grasslands are our version of the more celebrated African savannas or European wildflower meadows.
When I talk to my daughter about these grasslands, I call them fairy gardens. Upfront, you see the rustic reds, oranges, yellows and greens of native grass tufts. Quietly hiding in-between those tufts are tiny native flowers: orchids, lilies (some of which are chocolate-scented), sundews, beauty-heads, everlastings and daisies, among many more. If collected, they would make a petite bouquet, perfect for fairies.
Living with the wildflowers and grasses are near-mythical creatures. In the cracks of the mossy lichen clad soil, lives a pencil-thin snakelike creature called the striped legless lizard. In the clumps of grass, sit the eggs of the golden sun moth which (unlike many moths) loves a sunny day. Between the clumps, a palm-sized toothed amphibian called the growling grass frog hunts for its prey and growls like a two-stroke engine. All are threatened with extinction.
Today just 1 per cent of this 20,000-year-old ecosystem on the Victorian volcanic plain is left.
Over 200 years the Victorian grasslands have been almost entirely replaced with weedy pastures for grazing and housing estates.
In a way it makes sense. The population of Melbourne has burgeoned and people need places to work and to live. But could Melbourne have grown smarter?
That is likely what the Victorian politicians and public servants who embarked on the Melbourne Strategic Assessment in 2008 wanted to achieve. The assessment was an agreement with the Commonwealth government to set aside world-class nature reserves in exchange for a streamlined process that did not need individual federal approvals. It was a plan for Melbourne’s growth that saw the coming urban sprawl and said this does not need to be a zero-sum game between us and our environment.
As part of the arrangement with the Commonwealth, the Victorian government promised to create the largest grassland reserve in the world by 2020: the Western Grassland Reserve.
The Commonwealth government endorsed the Melbourne Strategic Assessment in 2010 under our national environmental law, then left it to Victoria to implement. Things went pear-shaped.
The Victorian government reduced its original estimate of state investment from $190 million to $10 million. The responsible department has not been paid a cent from the Victorian government since 2009-10. Independent audits stopped after 2014-15.
Many landholders in the proposed reserve stopped managing for weeds. Some applied to dig quarries and build pools, tennis courts and houses. Land prices in the proposed reserve increased beyond inflation.
Some landholders proposing quarries and other commercial projects in the reserve are the same property developers that benefit from the streamlined destruction of Victoria’s grasslands. They were also well-represented in the stakeholder group that helped design a policy to slow down habitat compensation payments. This policy was not approved by any independent environmental experts or the Commonwealth government.
Hello fox, welcome to the chook yard.
Now, in 2020, only around 10 per cent of the Western Grasslands Reserve has been acquired and most of what has been bought is of low quality. When asked about some of these issues at Senate estimates in 2019, the Commonwealth department simply said, “It is the Victorian government's responsibility to meet its commitments under the Melbourne Strategic Assessment Program, including in relation to the Western Grasslands Reserve.”
If you hand in only 10 per cent of your work by your deadline, your boss will manage you for underperformance, or fire you. If you only acquire 10 per cent of your Western Grassland Reserve by 2020, you will get an irreplaceable ecosystem teetering on the edge of extinction and, apparently, an apathetic Commonwealth government that thinks it is not its problem.
This week a review of the national environment law concluded the law needs an “independent cop on the beat”. When you look at the demise of our beautiful grasslands, it is easy to see why. Sadly, the Morrison government quickly ruled out an independent watchdog. Instead, it wants to hand over environmental responsibility to the states, which generate more than a quarter of their revenue from stamp duty on land sales.
If that happens without effective safeguards, I doubt my daughter will have any fairy gardens to show her children.
Jess Abrahams is nature campaigner at the Australian Conservation Foundation.
This piece was first published by The Age.