It is 100 years since iconic Australian artist Frederick McCubbin set his easel at Mt Macedon to paint the masterpiece The Pioneer, 1904.
The famous triptych captures the quintessential progress of white settlement from bush camp to embryonic city: in the first panel a free selector sits with his wife in the bush, which is dense and with no sign of civilisation; by the third panel cleared land shows a youth by a tombstone and the growth of the city in the background.
With an artists’ clarity McCubbin envisaged the rise of a nation and the fall of nature.
However even McCubbin could surely not have predicted how sift and destructive that rise and fall would be – not just around his home town of Mt Macedon but across the whole of the state.
Victoria now rates as the most cleared state in the country, with only 5 per cent of original vegetation left on private land. Those woodlands and grasslands that were prolific in McCubbin’s time have now been shriveled to tiny fragments and scattered trees.
Each year we lose more than 3000 hectares of this flora because of poorly-planned urban sprawl, the proliferation of rural development, badly-designed road works and unsustainable agricultural practices.
Now the Victorian Government looks set to give a green light for further clearing of many of these precious few remaining fragments of original vegetation.
Just as Kenneth Davidson highlighted (The Age 15/4) how the policy for protecting Melbourne’s green wedges was under threat, so too the Bracks Government could well undermine the policy for protecting Victoria’s native vegetation.
The guidelines for assessing clearing applications are currently being written and, judging by the Government’s work so far, it would appear that much of Victoria’s private land is at risk of becoming a barren, sterile landscape – starved of the native plants and animals that were prolific in McCubbin’s time.
The Operational Guidelines for the state’s Native Vegetation Framework theoretically are designed to assist local and state planning authorities to protect native vegetation from clearing – in reality this may not happen.
Unless the Government strengthens the guidelines, the ramifications will not just be seen in our landscape, but will involve serious decline and possible extinctions of native birds and other animals that rely on native vegetation for their survival.
It is ironic, for instance, that the State Government named the red-tailed black cockatoo as the mascot of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in the form of the loveable larrikin, Karak. With fewer than 1000 of these gregarious creatures left in pockets of native woodland, ineffective and weak guidelines will push them further to the brink of extinction. We could be lucky to have a few hundred mating pairs left by the time of the Games.
Victoria already has more threatened species than any other state for its size. We cannot afford to extend this shameful record.
If it is serious about protecting our environmental heritage, the Government must not bow to pressure from industry and a conservative section of the farming lobby to dilute the guidelines. It must instead effectively implement and strengthen them.
Firstly, the draft guidelines allow valuable vegetation to be cleared by incorrectly classifying it as either low conservation significance or by excluding it from a conservation audit before development approval. This must not be allowed.
Secondly, the draft guidelines do not set out specific rules as to how development can best be planned to avoid clearing and protect vegetation. All too often this leads to a lowest common denominator approach to planning with permits approved because of development pressures. Therefore the guidelines need to be more prescriptive.
Thirdly, the guidelines need to provide legal, long-term security for protected areas, rather than short-term transitory protection.
The State Government must also ensure the guidelines are effectively implemented.
Illegal clearing needs to be deterred through strict policing; damaging activities such as clearing for rural lifestyle properties – now exempt from controls – need to be tightly defined; and a far-reaching package of financial assistance is needed to help effected landholders protect vegetation. Local and State Government planning authorities also need to be adequately resourced to assess clearing applications.
Victoria’s environmental groups are deeply troubled by the guideline’s potential to destroy our state’s last precious areas of native flora and its associated fauna habitat – much of which is already in a dire state.
From McCubbin’s The Pioneer, 1904 to Peter Weir’s movie Picnic At Hanging Rock, our landscape forms an indelible part of our national psyche, a landscape Dorothea Mackellar celebrated when she wrote of a sunburnt country with its sweeping plains, thirsty paddocks and sapphire-misted mountains.
The Victorian Government must ensure our landscape stays a reality rather than merely the stuff of canvas, poetry and film reel.