‘We know our community better than they do’: why local knowledge is key to disaster recovery in Gippsland


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Celeste Young, Victoria University and Roger Jones, Victoria UniversityOvercoming the odds is second nature to the Gippsland community. The people in this region have seen it all — fires, floods, droughts and extreme weather. And every time, these capable, resourceful and independent communities bounce back.

However, recovery from bushfires of the 2019/2020 Black Summer followed by the COVID-19 pandemic has been different.

Even before these events, we were researching vulnerability to natural hazards, risk ownership and diversity and inclusion nationally as part of our work with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.

Through a mix of interviews, focus groups and surveys, we sought insights about communities, how they recover after disaster and what factors have the greatest impact. We focused on community strengths and how to build on them.

Our recently released report, Growing the seeds: recovery, strength and capability in Gippsland communities, highlights that recovery is often non-linear. It’s not just the damage to infrastructure, houses, environment and farmland that makes recovery difficult; the emotional and physical toll is often gruelling as well.

The report identifies several opportunities for change, including the need for a long-term plan (five years minimum) for building community emergency management capability in the region — well before the next disaster strikes.

Our research highlights recovery is often non-linear, an observation well supported by other research in this field.
Growing the seeds report.

A brutal time

The 2019–20 fires damaged over half of the East Gippsland Shire, an area of over
1.16 million hectares. Over 400 dwellings and businesses were lost and four people lost their lives. Areas like Mallacoota were at acute risk. In some areas, communities were under threat for weeks and evacuated repeatedly, exhausting them before the recovery process began.

Then, the pandemic hit, disrupting the established pattern of recovery where people get together to make sense of what has happened and start to rebuild their communities. One person describe the timing as “brutal”. Another said:

When the fires happened, you had a couple of amazing people who stepped up, opened the hall, and everyone was coming in, and they started doing Friday night dinners and everyone was there. There were 200-odd people every Friday night and then COVID ended it.

Via online community consultations, interviews and focus groups, we asked community members to identify strengths that supported recovery and opportunities for change.

We also surveyed 614 people during October 2020 in fire-affected regions of Victoria and New South Wales, with 31% of respondents coming from Victoria and 69% from NSW.

When asked what strengths their community showed following the bushfires, they included generosity and kindness (69%), resilience (61%) and active volunteering (59%).


Growing the seeds report., Author provided

When asked to identify the main challenges since the bushfire, COVID was named as the main challenge (49%), followed by damage to the environment (39%), anxiety (31%) and overall fatigue (26%).


Growing the seeds report., Author provided

The combination of bushfires and the pandemic also created economic risks and disrupted supply chains. Small businesses make up 98% of the local economy, and many are heavily reliant on tourism.

Recovering through community strength and capability

Many of the strengths needed to drive recovery and resilience are already at the heart of these communities. These capabilities are more diverse and widespread than is often assumed.

There is considerable wealth and capacity in some areas, but also a high level of social and economic vulnerability, with some living hand-to-mouth.

There is significant local knowledge of risk management and recovery, which is often overlooked by experts coming in from outside. As one person told us:

You’ve got bureaucracy coming in from Melbourne who think that we’re just a bunch of country bumpkins who don’t quite know what we’re doing, yet we know our community better than they do.

Volunteer and informal economies are significant and underpin community resilience. Yet formal recovery strategies don’t target these areas very well; some people in the informal economy found they did not qualify for economic or business support at all.

The JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs helped maintain employment (albeit at levels of productivity that were lower than in the past). JobKeeper has now ended but support is still needed to boost productivity and help the local economy recover.

We also found:

  • government and some supporting agencies often lacked knowledge about the cultural, physical and social structures of different communities
  • some policies had perverse effects (for example, the HomeBuilder grant resulted in a lack of available builders)
  • programs and communication were often not tailored and did not accommodate the diverse needs of communities or specific cohorts within them
  • a lack of clarity as to what role the community have in response and recovery, and what risks they are responsible for
  • short-term allocation of resources and funding sometimes created an environment of uncertainty; for example, some participants raised concerns vulnerable community members may at risk when contracts for certain programs ran out, as the service offered would either cease or be led by a new contract-holder. As one person told us:

You can’t just bring someone in now and go, ‘Here you go, you take over all my people’, because the relationships and the trust that you build over this time, it’s not something you can hand over to someone else.

Knowing community strengths and supporting them

Recovery processes will never be perfect and we can also no longer assume communities will have time to recover from one disaster before the next arrives. As one person said:

People are suffering collective trauma, which creates anxiety and irritability. So, it is going to be difficult to move forward and I believe [name removed] will be a really changed place, this is something that will echo up and down along all fire-ravaged communities.

In natural hazard prone areas like Gippsland, it’s crucial to know what strengths already exist in the community so they can be harnessed when disaster hits. In other words, we need to find ways to support and grow community capabilities.

Listening to communities

It’s crucial communities, governments and the emergency services have a shared understanding of what the priorities are after a disaster and what can be realistically achieved.

A database of community capabilities would support more effective planning, policy-making and program development, as would a longer term collaborative project to identify and develop community capability.

Through listening to these communities we can learn from their experiences and support the development of community-led pathways to recovery.




Read more:
More than a decade after the Black Saturday fires, it’s time we got serious about long-term disaster recovery planning


If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone
you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.
The Conversation

Celeste Young, Collaborative Research Fellow, Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities (ISILC), Victoria University and Roger Jones, Professorial Research Fellow, Victoria University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Victoria’s new feral horse plan could actually protect the high country. NSW’s method remains cruel and ineffective


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Don Driscoll, Deakin UniversityFeral horses are a catastrophic problem for the environment, particularly in the high country that crosses the New South Wales and Victoria border. To deal with this growing issue, the Victorian government has released a draft feral horse action plan, which is open for comment until April 23.

It comes after Victoria’s old action plan from 2018 proved ineffective, with feral horse numbers increasing in the most recent counts in 2019. This is similar to New South Wales’ current performance, where feral horses are legally protected and numbers are essentially unmanaged.

This new Victorian plan has flaws, but it’s still likely to perform better than the old plan (and the very low benchmark set by NSW), as it generally aims to deploy evidence-based management of national parks.

As Victoria gets on top of its feral horse problem, NSW will be left further behind with a degrading environment and rising costs of horse management.

The feral horse threat

Feral horses degrade ecosystems and threaten native Australian species with their heavy trampling and excessive grazing. They damage waterways and streamside vegetation which, in turn, threatens species that live in and alongside the streams, such as the alpine spiny crayfish, the alpine water skink and the Tooarrana broad-toothed rat. All of these are threatened species.

Damage from feral horses could worsen as ecosystems recover from the extensive 2019-20 eastern Australian bushfires. Horse grazing could delay animals’ habitat recovery and horse trampling could exacerbate stream degradation after fires.

In fact, there are 24 species that need protection from feral horses after the fires, as identified by the Australian government’s wildlife and threatened species bushfire recovery expert panel in September.

All of this ecosystem destruction translates into substantial economic costs. Frontier Economics released a report in January this year showing the potential benefits of horse control in Kosciuszko National Park was A$19-50 million per year. The benefits accrue through improved recreational opportunities, improved water quality and reduced car crashes involving feral horses.

In contrast, horse control could cost as little as A$1 million per year and up to $71 million, depending on the methods used. Frontier Economics concluded the costs that are incurred by keeping feral horses far outweigh the cost of eradication.

Alpine water skink
Alpine water skinks are among the vulnerable native species threatened by feral horses.
DEPI/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Victoria’s new feral horse plan

The draft Victorian feral horse action plan aims to:

  1. remove isolated populations on the Bogong High Plains within three years and prevent new populations from establishing
  2. contain and reduce feral horses in the eastern Alps by removing 500 horses in the first year
  3. use the most humane, safe and effective horse control methods.

The first aim makes complete sense. Removing small populations will always be more humane, cheaper and better for the environment than leaving them uncontrolled.

The second aim is perplexing. Based on 2019 surveys, the draft action plan says there are approximately 5,000 horses in the eastern Alps and the population is growing at 15% per year. If the government continues to remove 500 horses per year after the first year, it could see the population rise to more than 9,000 over ten years, despite culling 5,000 horses in that time.




Read more:
Double trouble as feral horse numbers gallop past 25,000 in the Australian Alps


In contrast, removing 2,000 horses per year could see the population controlled within three years. Reducing horse numbers rapidly results in the fewest horses having to be culled in the long term.

The third aim of the Victorian draft action plan gives appropriate and strong emphasis to animal welfare. Controlling horse numbers can be morally challenging, and requires a clear understanding of the trade-offs.

Without horse control, native animals are killed when their habitat is destroyed, unique Australian ecosystems are degraded, horses themselves starve or die of thirst in droughts, and the economic costs of inaction escalate. To avoid these costs, horse numbers must be reduced by culling.

This is the grim reality, but with careful attention to animal welfare, the draft strategy will ensure horse control is managed humanely, with control methods based on evidence rather than hyperbole.

Money wasting in NSW

Victoria’s plan is in stark contrast to the NSW government’s approach. In 2018, the NSW government passed the so-called “brumby bill”, which protects feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park.




Read more:
Passing the brumby bill is a backward step for environmental protection in Australia


The current method of control in NSW is to capture the horses and transport them to an abattoir if they cannot be re-homed. But evidence shows culling has fewer animal welfare concerns than this method.

And in the latest round of money-wasting horse management, the NSW government trapped 574 horses over the past year, but released 192 females and foals back into the park. If the program is aimed at reducing horse numbers, releasing the most fertile animals back into the population is counter-productive.

Regenerating plants and burnt trees in fire-damaged alpine region
Feral horses are exacerbating the damage from recent bushfires in the High Country.
Shutterstock

What’s more, removing 300-400 horses per year has little impact on overall numbers. There are around 14,000 horses in Kosciuszko National Park, with a growth rate of 23% per year. This means more than 3,000 horses must be removed just to prevent the population from getting bigger.

The high country without feral horses

If the Victorian draft plan can be improved to invest in rapid horse reduction and ecosystem restoration, we can expect to see quagmires created by trampling horses return to functioning ecosystems and the recovery of threatened species.

Stream banks can be stabilised and then dense grass tussocks and sedges will return, creating homes for threatened skinks, crayfish and the Tooarrana broad-toothed rat.

While Kosciuszko’s alpine ecosystems continue to decline under the NSW government’s political impasse, the Victorian Alps will become the favoured destination for tourists who want to see Australia’s nature thriving when they visit national parks.




Read more:
To fix Australia’s environment laws, wildlife experts call for these 4 changes — all are crucial


The Conversation


Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Open data shows lightning, not arson, was the likely cause of most Victorian bushfires last summer



Tracy Nearmy/AAP

Dianne Cook, Monash University

As last summer’s horrific bushfires raged, so too did debate about what caused them. Despite the prolonged drought and ever worsening climate change, some people sought to blame the fires largely on arson.

Federal Coalition MPs were among those pushing the arsonist claim. And on Twitter, a fierce hashtag war broke out: “#ClimateEmergency” vs “#ArsonEmergency”.

Fire authorities rejected the arson claims, saying most fires were thought to be caused by lightning.

We dug into open data resources to learn more about the causes of last summer’s bushfires in Victoria, and further test the arson claim. Our analysis suggests 82% of the fires can be attributed to lightning, 14% to accidents and 1% to burning off. Only 4% can be attributed to arson.

Lightning in the sky
Lightning, not arson, caused most Victorian bushfires last summer.
Twitter

What we did

We started with hotspots data taken from the Himawari-8 satellite, which shows heat source locations over time and space, in almost real time. We omitted hotspots unlikely to be bushfires, and used a type of data mining called “spatiotemporal clustering” – where time dimension is introduced to geographic data – to estimate ignition time and location.

We supplemented this with data from other sources: temperature, moisture, rainfall, wind, sun exposure, fuel load, as well as distance to camp sites, roads and Country Fire Authority (CFA) stations.




Read more:
Bushfires, bots and arson claims: Australia flung in the global disinformation spotlight


Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) holds historical data on bushfire ignition from 2000 to the 2018-19 summer. The forensic research required to determine fire cause is laborious, and remotely sensed data from satellites may be useful and more immediate.

By training our model on the historical data, we can more immediately predict causes of last summer’s fires detected from satellite data. (Note: even though we were analysing events in the past, we use the term “predict” because authorities have not released official data.)

DELWP’s data attributes 41% of fires to lightning, 17% to arson, 34% to accidents and 7% to hazard reduction or back burning which escaped containment lines (which our analysis refers to as burning off).

Causes of fires from 2000-2019. Lightning is most common cause. The number of fires is increasing, and this is mostly due to accidents.
Own work

To make predictions for the 2019-20 bushfires, we needed an accurate model for causes in the historical data. We trained the model to predict one of four causes – lightning, accident, arson, burning off – using a machine learning algorithm.

The model performed well on the historical data: 75% overall accuracy, 90% accurate on lightning, 78% for accidents, and 54% for arson (which was mostly confused with accident, as would make sense).

The most important contributors to distinguishing between lightning and arson (or accident) ignition were distance to CFA stations, roads and camp sites, and average wind speed.

As might be expected, smaller distances to CFA stations, roads and camp sites, and higher than average winds, meant the fire was most likely the result of arson or accident. In the case of longer distances, where bush would have been largely inaccessible to the public, lightning was predicted to be the cause.

Spatial distribution of causes of fires from 2000-2019, and predictions for 2019-2020 season.
Own work

What we found

Our model predicted that 82% of Victoria’s fires in the summer of 2019-2020 were due to lightning. Most fires were located in densely vegetated areas inaccessible by road – similar to the historical locations. (The percentage is double that in the historical data, though, probably because the satellite hotspot data can see fire ignitions in locations inaccessible to fire experts).

All fires in February 2020 were predicted to be due to lightning. Accident and arson were commonly predicted causes in March, and early in the season. Reassuringly, ignition due to burning off was predicted primarily in October 2019, prior to the fire restrictions.

Spatio-temporal distribution of cause predictions for 2019-2020 season. Reassuringly, fires due to burning off primarily occurred in October, prior to fire restrictions. February fires were all predicted to be due to lightning.
Own work

Quicker fire ignition information

Our analysis used open-data and open-source software, and could be applied to fires elsewhere in Australia.

This analysis shows how we can quickly predict causes of bushfires, using satellite data combined with other information. It could reduce the work of fire forensics teams, and provide more complete fire ignition data in future.

The code used for the analysis can be found here. Explore the historical fire data, predictions for 2019-2020 fires, and a fire risk map for Victoria using this app.


This analysis is based on thesis research by Monash University Honours student Weihao Li. She was supervised by the author, and former Principal Inventive Scientist at AT&T Labs Research, Emily Dodwell. The Australian Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers supported Emily’s travel to Australia to start this project. The full analysis is available here.

The Conversation

Dianne Cook, Professor of Business Analytics, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Victoria’s electric vehicle tax and the theory of the second-best



Alexandru Nika/Shutterstock

John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

One of the central ideas in tax policy is the principle of the second-best.

Economic theory gives us a good idea of what an ideal tax system would look like, given our objectives. But in real life, things fall short.

It might be thought that piecemeal reform, moving some taxes closer to the ideal, would be a step in the right direction.

But it needn’t be, if other taxes aren’t moved.

Here’s an example. Imagine that the goods and services tax exempted health products, both mainstream and alternative.

An ideal GST wouldn’t exempt health products (though the government might provide subsidised access to some products, as it does through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme).

Imagine is administratively possible to remove the exemption for mainstream health products, which would bring it closer to the ideal.

Now imagine that for jurisdictional reasons it isn’t as easy to remove the exemption for alternative products.

Second-best can make things worse

Removing the exemption for mainstream products, which can be done straight away, seems like a good idea because it would be one step closer to removing all exemptions.

But if it is actually done straight away, without waiting the removal of the exemption on alternative products, it would have unintended (and perhaps dangerous) consequences.

People would be encouraged to switch from mainstream to alternative health products.




Read more:
Think taxing electric vehicle use is a backward step? Here’s why it’s an important policy advance


The same sort of issues arise with the plans to charge electric vehicles per kilometre driven in order to treat them more like conventionally-powered vehicles (which are taxed per kilometre driven through fuel excise).

South Australia and NSW have announced plans to do so. Victoria has announced details, and will introduce the charge from July 2021.

It will charge electric and other zero emission vehicles 2.5 cents per kilometre travelled and plug-in hybrids at cents per kilometre travelled.

Victoria justifies the charge this way:

Australian drivers pay fuel excise when they fill up their vehicle with petrol, diesel or liquefied petroleum gas. Zero and low emission vehicle owners currently pay little or no fuel excise but still use our roads.

Conventionally-powered car typically pay about 4.2 cents per kilometre through fuel excise and fuel-efficient cars about 2.1 cents.

This means Victoria will be charging electric vehicles as much or more than fuel-efficient vehicles, even though (at least when charged through rooftop solar) they won’t contribute to global warming.

Not only that, but conventionally-powered cars generate health and other costs through air and noise pollution, for which they are not charged.

What first-best would look like

The ideal system would include charges to cover the cost of

  • building and maintaining the roads

  • congestion

  • the injury, death and damage caused by car crashes

  • the health and other damage caused by air and noise pollution

  • the global price of carbon emissions

Right now we charge through fuel taxes, registration fees and tolls (mostly paid to private firms, but this is irrelevant in economic terms) along with a variety of minor fees.

However, because fuel excise was frozen by the Howard government in 2001 (and only began increasing again in 2014) the revenue from it is barely enough to cover the cost of constructing and maintaining roads and grossly insufficient to cover the broader costs of conventional vehicle use.

Conventional vehicles get things for free

Although there is much debate about how carbon can or should be priced, any serious attempt to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement is likely to require a carbon price of $100/tonne, which corresponds to 23 cents a litre.

Estimates for local air pollution costs (including the cost of deaths from cancer and asthma) start at 10 cents a litre. Noise pollution costs are extra.

Electric vehicles powered by renewable energy generate hardly of these costs.

Put simply, just as much (or more than) the owners of electric vehicles, the owners of conventional vehicles pay a mere fraction of what they should.

Second-best would be worse

Increasing what the owners of electric-powered vehicles pay is a second-best solution that might move us further away from first best.

It might discourage the takeup of vehicles that impose fewer costs on society.

To end on a positive note, the 1997 decisions of the High Court that effectively prohibited states from taxing petrol forced the Commonwealth to collect the tax and pass it on to the states, exacerbating the problems of an unbalanced federal tax system.




Read more:
Wrong way, go back: a proposed new tax on electric vehicles is a bad idea


There appears to be no constitutional impediment to a tax on kilometres travelled (and nor a privacy impediment, Victoria will implement it by asking for odometer readings once a year rather than monitoring where cars travel).

It would help redress the tax imbalance.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Victoria just gave 2 billion litres of water back to Indigenous people. Here’s what that means for the rest of Australia



GLaWAC

Troy McDonald, Indigenous Knowledge and Erin O’Donnell, University of Melbourne

For the first time in Victoria’s history, the state government has handed back water to traditional owners, giving them rights to a river system they have managed sustainably for thousands of years.

The two billion litres of water returned to the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC) this month means traditional owners can now determine how and where water is used for cultural, environmental or economic purposes.

The decision recognises that water rights are crucial for Indigenous people to restore customs, protect their culture, become economically independent and heal Country.

The hand-back to Gunaikurnai people is the crucial first step in a bigger, statewide process of recognising Indigenous people’s deep connection to water. It also serves as an example to the rest of Australia, where Indigenous rights to water are grossly inadequate.

Water from the river has
Gunaikurnai woman Alice Pepper on the banks of the Mitchell River. Water from the river has been handed back to traditional owners.
GLaWAC

Water’s rightful home

Gunaikurnai people hold native title over much of Gippsland, from the mountains to the sea.

The water hand-back comes ten years since this native title was secured, and since Gunaikurnai people entered into the state’s first Traditional Owner Settlement Agreement with the government. Under this agreement, GLaWAC is a joint manager, with Parks Victoria, of ten parks and reserves in Gippsland, including the Mitchell River National Park.

Victorian water minister Lisa Neville said the hand-back was a key milestone in her government’s 2016 Aboriginal Water Policy. That plan aims to:

  • recognise Aboriginal values and objectives of water
  • include Aboriginal values and traditional ecological knowledge in water planning
  • support Aboriginal access to water for economic development
  • build capacity to increase Aboriginal participation in water management.

GLaWAC engages closely with government agencies that control how water is shared and used and these partnerships are highly valued. But it is only through owning water that traditional owners can really control how water is used to care for Country and for people.

For the moment, the water will be staying in the river. Its use will be decided after discussions between GLaWAC and Gunaikurnai community members.

The Mitchell River
Indigenous poeple must own water to control how they care for Country.
GLaWAC

Barriers to water ownership

In 2016, the Victorian government committed A$5 million to a plan to increase Aboriginal access to water rights, including funding for traditional owners to develop feasibility plans to support water-based businesses.

There are significant barriers to reallocating water to Victoria’s traditional owners. Water is expensive to buy, hold and use. Annual fees and charges can easily run to tens of thousands of dollars a year in some locations.

Using water to care for Country supports well-being, the environment and other water uses, including tourism and recreation. But, unlike using water for irrigation, there may not be any direct economic return from a water hand-back. This means water recovery for traditional owners must include ways to cover fees and charges.




Read more:
Australia has an ugly legacy of denying water rights to Aboriginal people. Not much has changed


Victoria’s water entitlement framework is also consumption-based – it is designed for water to be taken out of rivers, not left in. This can make it hard for traditional owners to leave water in the river for the benefit of the environment. So water entitlements and rules should be changed to reflect how traditional owners want to manage water.

Lastly, many traditional owners lack access to land where they can use the water. Or they may wish to use water in areas that, under natural conditions, would be watered when rivers flood, but which are now disconnected from the waterway. To help overcome this, traditional owners should be given access to Crown land, including joint management of parks. GLaWAC’s partnership agreements are a good example of how this might happen in future.

GLaWAC water team Uncle Lloyd Hood and Tim Paton.
GLaWAC water team Uncle Lloyd Hood and Tim Paton. Water rules should be changed to reflect how traditional owners manage water.
GLaWAC

Change is possible

While significant barriers to water access remain, this hand-back shows how real water outcomes for traditional owners can be achieved when there is political will and ministerial support.

The water is part of six billion litres on the Mitchell River identified as unallocated, meaning no-one yet has rights over it. The remaining four billion litres will be made available on the open market, for use by irrigators or other industries. It can be extracted only during the colder months from July 1 to October 31.

The extraction and use of the water by Gunaikurnai people will be linked to specific locations, and the licence is up for renewal every 15 years. GLaWAC will work with state agency Southern Rural Water to ensure that the licence conditions match the water plans of traditional owners.

This step is crucial. There have been many instances in other states where traditional owners have obtained water, but been unable to use it due to barriers on how it can be used, and annual fees and charges.

Mitchell River scene
Water extraction form the Mitchell River will be limited to colder months.
GLaWAC

Overcoming a history of injustice

Traditional owners across Australia never ceded their rights to water. Yet Aboriginal people own less than 1% of the nation’s water rights. Righting this wrong is the “unfinished business” of national water reform.

Even when political commitments are made, there has been little progress. For example, in 2018 the federal government committed A$40 million to acquire water rights for Aboriginal people in the Murray-Darling Basin, but no purchase of water rights has yet occurred.

This woeful and unjust situation is also reflected in Victoria. Before the Gunaikurnai hand-back, only a tiny handful of Aboriginal-owned organisations and one traditional owner, Taungurung, owned water rights in Victoria, and the volumes were small. In these cases, water recovery was not a formal hand-back from the state, and included a donation from a farmer.

Across Australia, Aboriginal people are watching the Victorian water reform process with great interest. The water returned to Gunaikurnai people builds momentum, and increases pressure on governments across Australia to take water justice seriously.




Read more:
Aboriginal voices are missing from the Murray-Darling Basin crisis


The Conversation


Troy McDonald, Chairman of Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation, Indigenous Knowledge and Erin O’Donnell, Early Career Academic Fellow, Centre for Resources, Energy and Environment Law, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Think taxing electric vehicle use is a backward step? Here’s why it’s an important policy advance


Jago Dodson, RMIT University and Tiebei (Terry) Li, RMIT University

The South Australian and Victorian governments have announced, and New South Wales is considering, road user charges on electric vehicles. This policy has drawn scorn from environmental advocates and motor vehicle lobbyists who fear it will slow the uptake of less-polluting vehicles. But, from a longer-term transport policy perspective, a distance-based road user charge on electric vehicles is an important step forward.

Superficially, a charge on electric vehicle use seems misguided. Road sector emissions are the worst contributors to climate change. Electric vehicles powered by clean energy offer the promise of near-zero emissions.




Read more:
Transport is letting Australia down in the race to cut emissions


As electric vehicle and renewable energy costs decline we can expect a shift to full electrification of urban vehicles over the next 30 years. Surely accelerating this transition is an urgent climate task?

The downside lies not in the carbon benefits of these vehicles, but in their use as private passenger transport in congested urban areas and the costs this use imposes on cities. As renewable energy becomes cheaper, the marginal cost of every kilometre driven is likely to decline. As driving becomes cheaper, more of it is likely to occur.

More driving means more congestion. Inevitably, that increases demand for increasingly expensive road projects, such as Sydney’s WestConnex, or Melbourne’s Westgate Tunnel and North East Link. It certainly will run against the recognition in urban plans such as Plan Melbourne that we must shift to alternative transport modes.

If we don’t have a pricing regime that accounts for the cost of car use in cities, the transition to electric vehicles is likely to work against the wider goals of urban and transport policy.




Read more:
Cars rule as coronavirus shakes up travel trends in our cities


How would distance-based charging work?

Many urban transport policy advocates have called for distance-based road-user charging to be imposed on all vehicles in cities. This sounds great in theory, but in practice is difficult for technical and political reasons of privacy and surveillance. Such concerns will diminish over time as cars increasingly incorporate automated telematics that necessarily track their movement.

Distance-based road-user charging efficiently matches road use to its costs – of infrastructure, congestion, noise, pollution and deaths. It improves on fuel excise, which drivers can nearly completely evade by using a highly efficient vehicle. It also goes beyond tolling to fund major roads, which typically apply only to specific links.

Second, road-user charging can be varied in response to demand that exceeds road capacities. Higher rates can be applied at peak times to ensure free-flowing traffic and shift travel to other times and modes. Various taxation reviews, including the 2009 Henry Taxation Review and Productivity Commission reports, have promoted such policies.




Read more:
Road user charging belongs on the political agenda as the best answer for congestion management


Exactly how big would the disincentive be?

Would imposing such charges on electric vehicles retard their uptake?

Based on our work with ABS Census journey-to-work data, in Melbourne the average daily round-trip commuting distance by car is about 25 kilometres. The proposed Victorian charge is 2.5 cents per kilometre. Thus, in Melbourne the average daily commuter’s road user charge is likely to be 63 cents – $3.13 for a typical five-day working week. Over a 48-week working year that totals A$150, hardly a large sum for most people.

By comparison, a commuter in a conventional vehicle with the average current fuel efficiency of 10.9 L/100km will use about 2.73 litres of fuel on which they pay 42.3 cents per litre in fuel excise. That’s about $1.15 a day, or $5.75 a week.

The average tax saving for electric vehicles compared to conventional vehicles will be about 2.1 cents per kilometre. Electric vehicle drivers will be taxed about 53 cents a day, or $2.64 a week, less for their car work travel. They’ll be about $126 a year better off.

Commuting trips make up about 25% of car use, so electric car users’ overall savings are likely to be even greater.

It is difficult to see how such savings on excise tax are a disincentive to electric vehicle uptake. Fears of a “great big new tax”, as the Australia Institute puts it, seem unfounded, as are concerns that road-user charges would “slam the brakes on sales”.

Let’s be clear, the big barrier is the upfront cost of electric vehicles, about $10,000 more than their conventional equivalents. Advocates for electric vehicles should focus on that difference, and the failures in Australian government policy, not state road-user charges.




Read more:
Electric car sales tripled last year. Here’s what we can do to keep them growing


Why taxing actual road use matters

It needs to be recognised that, with lower marginal costs, electric vehicles are likely to be used more than conventional cars. That would increase pressure on urban road capacity. So while the new road-user charge of 2.5 cents per kilometre is flat across the time of day or the route driven, this will likely need to change.

Distance-based road-user charges have been politically controversial. Imposing a tiny charge on a minority vehicle type is an expedient way of introducing a needed reform. Fewer than 1.8% of vehicles in Australia are currently electric or hybrid. But as all cars become electric, distance-based road charges will become an increasingly powerful policy tool.

Thanks to advancing telematics, transport planners will eventually be able to impose variable road-user charging by time of day and route, similar to ride-hailing companies’ “surge” pricing. We could then apply novel approaches such as a cap-and-trade system. A city could allocate its motorists an annual kilometres quota, which is then traded to create a market for excess urban road use.

The private car could also be integrated into mobility-as-a-service models.

Road-user charges could be regressive for people with few alternatives to the car. But telematic tracking could allow for lower charges for less affluent households in dispersed outer suburbs with few other options.

Beyond fuel, private cars have high environmental costs in steel, plastic, aluminium, glass and rubber use. And about one-third of our increasingly valuable urban space is given over to cars in the form of roads and parking.




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To reduce this demand on resources and space, car use could be priced to shift travel to, and fund, more sustainable and city-friendly modes such as public transport, walking and cycling. We could even price the car out of cities completely. The most environmentally sustainable car, after all, is no car at all.The Conversation

Jago Dodson, Professor of Urban Policy and Director, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University and Tiebei (Terry) Li, Research Fellow, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In a land of ancient giants, these small oddball seals once called Australia home


Artwork by Peter Trusler, Author provided

James Patrick Rule, Monash University; Erich Fitzgerald, Museums Victoria, and Justin W. Adams, Monash University

When most of us think of the prehistoric past, we envision a world of bizarre, often fearsome giants. From dinosaurs to mammoths and even penguins, life then seemed larger than life today.

Millions of years ago in Australia, giant goannas, kangaroos and diprotodontids (wombat relatives) roamed the landscape. The seas teemed with gargantuan predators such as the infamous “megalodon” shark and so-called giant killer sperm whales.

Fossils from this lost world can be found in sandstone rocks, between five million and six million years old, at Beaumaris – a bayside suburb in Melbourne and one of Australia’s most significant urban fossil sites. Here, fossils of ancient marine animals often wash ashore, eroded out of rocks by the tides.

However, some of these fossils are now revealing “jumbo” was not the only size for extinct animals. Our team’s research, published today in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, reports nine new seal fossils from Beaumaris, which we suspect came from nine different individuals.

The findings paint a picture of a relatively small animal, making its way through a world of giants.




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More than doubling the seal fossil record

Melburnians have been collecting fossils from Beaumaris for more than 100 years. Yet it continues to produce remarkable and scientifically important finds.

A beach foreshore in Melbourne.
The fossils we studied were found on the foreshore of Beaumaris, Melbourne.
Erich Fitzgerald, Author provided

This includes extremely rare fossils of animals such as seals. Previously, scientists had studied only one seal fossil from this site.

The nine new fossils detailed in our research were collected and donated to Museums Victoria by local scientists and citizen scientists over the past 88 years. They have more than doubled the known fossil record of seals in Australia.

These fossils represent the oldest evidence of seals in Australia and were identified as “true seals”, a group mostly known from the Arctic and Antarctic. True seals belong to a different group to Australia’s fur seals and sea lions (eared seals), which only arrived in the region about 500,000 years ago.

Seal fossil specimens
In total, we found nine seal fossil specimens from Beaumaris, from potentially nine different individuals.
Erich Fitzgerald and James Rule, Author provided

In particular, one of the fossils we identified is a monachine (a southern true seal). Today, these are represented by animals such as leopard or elephant seals in the Southern Ocean surrounding the Antarctic, to which they are related.

Size estimates found the Beaumaris monachines to have been quite small, at only 1.7 metres long. This is similar to the size of today’s Northern Hemisphere seals such as the harbour seal.

However, the Beaumaris seal’s living relatives are much larger – usually 3m long or more. Modern leopard seals can grow to more than 3m long, while elephant seals can reach up to a gigantic 5m in length.

Most fossil whales found at Beaumaris are also smaller than their living counterparts.

This is the opposite trend to many other animal groups with fossils found there, including some sharks and seabirds, wherein the extinct animals were much larger than those alive today.

The extinct Beaumaris seal was much smaller than its living relatives today.
Art by Peter Trusler, Author provided

An uncertain future for marine life

Why is finding small seals at Beaumaris important?

Five million years ago, before the ice ages, the average annual temperature in southeast Australia was about 2–4°C warmer than it is today, with sea levels up to 25m higher.

These warmer oceans supported a greater diversity of marine megafauna than today, with longer but less energy-efficient food chains. These chains only had room for a few large top predators, such as megalodon sharks. And this may have limited the size of other top predators, including seals.

This chart shows the history of seals’ size evolution in Australia, compared to large sharks.
Peter Trusler and James Rule, Author provided

This is important. It suggests the large size of Antarctic seals living in the Southern Ocean today is due to colder oceans with more energy-efficient food chains, in which more food is available for marine animals.

If climate change continues to warm the oceans, food chains may once again start to become less energy efficient, resulting in a loss of the resources today’s large seals rely on for survival.

The discovery of seal fossils at Beaumaris has implications for not only unlocking the past, but also for contextualising the future.

It shows the biodiversity and ecology of marine megafauna off southern Australia originated during the long-term transition from a warmer to colder world – a process that only recently began changing trajectory.

To this day, the fossil site at Beaumaris continues to reveal scientifically important finds, thanks to members of the public working with scientists from Museums Victoria.




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The Conversation


James Patrick Rule, Palaeontology PhD Candidate, Monash University; Erich Fitzgerald, Senior Curator, Vertebrate Palaeontology, Museums Victoria, and Justin W. Adams, Senior Lecturer, Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

340,000 Melburnians have little or no parkland within 5km of their home


Ali Lakhani, La Trobe University; Dennis Wollersheim, La Trobe University; Elizabeth Kendall, Griffith University, and Prosper Korah, Griffith University

Under the stage 4 restrictions enforced throughout metropolitan Melbourne, residents can exercise for one hour each day, within five kilometres of their home.

While such restrictions are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, they can potentially harm people’s physical and mental well-being.

Parks are great for exercising, getting fresh air, and getting close to nature, all of which boost our physical and mental health.

Unfortunately, some Melburnians have little or no access to parkland within their permitted 5km radius, meaning they are likely to miss out on these benefits.

Space to breathe

Our map analysis looked at mesh blocks, the smallest geographical area defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, typically containing 30-60 homes.

For each mesh block zoned as residential, we tallied up the total area zoned as parkland within a 5-kilometre radius. The results are shown in the interactive map below, in which darker greens indicate a larger area of available parkland (very light green: 0-4.5 sq km; light green: 4.5-9.2 sq km; mid-green: 9.2-13.2 sq km; dark green: 13.2-19 sq km; very dark green: more than 19 sq km).

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Of the 42,199 residential mesh blocks currently under stage 4 restrictions, 3,496 have between 0 and 4.5 square kilometres of parkland within 5km. This equates to about 135,000 homes or 340,000 people with little or no access to parks within their permitted area for exercising.

On average, residents in Cardinia, Mornington Peninsula and Melton have the least parkland within a 5km radius, whereas those in Knox, Yarra and Banuyle have the most.

Haves and have-nots

Our findings confirm that some Melburnians are more fortunate than others in their ability to access urban green space during stage 4 lockdown.

For those less fortunate, the state government should consider replacing the blanket 5km rule with a special provision that allows people to travel outside this radius if they would otherwise be unable to access a park.




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Bespoke rules could also help others, such as residents with a disability or older Melburnians who use a mobility aid. While many members of these groups might have plentiful parks within their 5km radius, they may have problems accessing them. Issues can include uneven pavements, kerbs without ramps, or steeply sloped paths.

The state government could help these people by auditing public spaces to establish where structural barriers exist, and then work to remedy them. Alternatively, once again, the blanket 5km rule could be amended with a special provision that allows older Melburnians, or those with a disability, to travel outside their 5km radius to get to the most suitable nearby park.The Conversation

Ali Lakhani, Senior Lecturer in Public Health, La Trobe University; Dennis Wollersheim, Lecturer, Health Information Management, La Trobe University; Elizabeth Kendall, Professor, The Hopkins Centre, Menzies Health Institute Queensland, Griffith University, and Prosper Korah, PhD Researcher, Urban Studies and Planning, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

These historic grasslands are becoming a weed-choked waste. It could be one of the world’s great parks



Adrian Marshall, Author provided

Adrian Marshall, University of Melbourne

Volcanic plains stretching from Melbourne’s west to the South Australian border were once home to native grasslands strewn with wildflowers and a vast diversity of animals. Today, this grassland ecosystem is critically endangered.

To protect the last remaining large-scale patch, the Victorian government proposed the “Western Grassland Reserve”. But in June, a damning Auditor General’s report revealed this plan has fallen flat.




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With weeds choking the native grasses and many animals now locally extinct, the deteriorating reserve represents a failure of imagination.

Debate has raged about funding, timelines and bureaucratic processes. But what the debate is missing is a new vision, with funding and management models, for the Western Grassland Reserve, that recognises its deep culture and history, and its potential to be one of the great parks of the world.

Failing our flora and fauna

The Victorian government’s plan was to acquire 15,000 hectares of mostly farmland beyond Melbourne’s outer limit between 2010 and 2020. The money is coming from offsets, where developers are, in effect, charged a fee to be allowed to destroy federally protected remnant grassland within the urban growth boundary.

But the Auditor General’s report found a scant 10% of Western Grassland Reserve land has been purchased, with little offset money remaining for further purchases.

In addition, delays in purchasing land are costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars because of rising land prices. A predicted substantial downturn in development further exposes the flaws of a funding model inadequate to its conservation task.




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We urgently need to investigate new funding and management models that embrace the reserve as a cultural landscape for people.

A quintessential Australian experience

As a patchwork of farms overlaid on traditional Wathaurong land, the Western Grassland Reserve could be shaped into one of the greatest large parks of the world – a cultural landscape capturing a quintessential Australian experience, speaking of Indigenous culture, our colonial past, and who we are today.

A well-designed reserve could show us the history of grassland pastoralism that gave rise to the saying “Australia rides on the sheep’s back”. It could immerse us in Dorothea MacKellar’s “land of sweeping plains”. It can give us back the immense flowered landscape that so stunned the explorer Thomas Mitchell, he coined the phrase “Australia Felix”, which means “happy Australia”.

And it could show us something of the profound knowledge Indigenous people hold. Few know this, but the Wurdi Youang stone circle near Little River – though as yet undated – may well be one of the oldest known astronomical structures in the world, far predating Stonehenge or the pyramids.

Dark boulders on grasslands represent the Wurdi Youang stone circle
Part of the Wurdi Youang stone circle, that may be one of the oldest astronomical structures in the world.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Imagine its potential

Imagine a picnic under a spreading gum beside an old farm dam. There’s a bluestone dairy repurposed to fine dining, a grand farmhouse for overnight stays, bike trails, and a series of regional playgrounds emphasising natureplay and adventure for all abilities.

With the right conservation, ephemeral wetlands and creeklines could be bursting with birdlife and ready to explore, and even working farms retained for school visits.

Nearby, at Mount Rothwell, a fenced conservation area contains almost extinct small marsupials – bandicoots, potoroos and apex predator quolls. These were once commonplace, and still a night visit is an unforgettable experience, yet one few Melburnians have enjoyed.

A small brown bird with a spotted neck walks on the ground
The critically endangered plains wanderer, the world’s most unique bird, once lived in these grasslands.
Shutterstock

Innovation in management

Part of a bigger picture for the Western Grassland Reserve is a new management model beyond a poorly-funded Parks Victoria asset being managed solely for environmental values.

Options abound for innovation and leadership here. We can create a well-coordinated network of different management approaches and protection levels with traditional publicly owned national parks, conservation reserves, private land covenants, private protected areas and Indigenous protected areas.

Funding for management also needs rethinking. Market-driven models can ensure performance-based outcomes. For example, farmers can be paid to graze sustainably. And a new model leveraging resources and expertise could encourage the involvement of NGOs, traditional owners and community groups, species-specific teams, the Royal Botanic Gardens, with research input by universities.

Built-in commercial seed production, which is fundamental to restoring degraded areas, can kick-start the native seed industry in a win–win for commerce and the environment.

These sorts of alternative management and funding have been achieved in the south of France, within the Carmague and the stony plains of Le Crau. There, 10,000 hectares of grassland and wetland complexes are managed by broad alliance of NGOs and conservation agencies across defence land, national parks and private protected areas.

And in the USA, the largest tallgrass prairie in the country is managed by Kansas State University and the Nature Conservancy, with federal and philanthropic input. It also has an educational program that brings in more than 100 school and public events a year.

So what are we waiting for? The Great Ocean Road was built during the Great Depression, let the Western Grassland Reserve be a visionary project for these difficult times under COVID-19.The Conversation

Adrian Marshall, Academic, Landscape Architecture and Urban Ecology, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.