Better get a lawyer owl. Better get a real good one

When nine boobook owls arrived at the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital around the same time, logic told wildlife veterinarian Michael Pyne that habitat destruction was mostly to blame.

The owls nest in old trees with hollows, so it was far more likely to be chainsaws or bulldozers than storms that caused their distress.

The boobooks didn’t come from one place, their homes were as far afield as the Sunshine Coast and New South Wales. But they were all brought in by people who share a strong compassion for living things.

Dr Pyne is a pragmatist, he knows development can’t stop, but he is part of the Australian society’s machinery that protects nature’s creatures when they are most vulnerable.

The Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) is another part of that machinery. It provides free legal aid on environmental issues.

When habitat is destroyed, people find boobook owl nestlings on the ground, they find koalas wandering lost on sporting ovals, they find whales and dolphins injured by boatstrikes, pollution or entanglements. If you are concerned that a new development is a danger to threatened species or ecosystems, there might be a legal recourse.

The Environmental Defender’s Office in your state will help you decipher environmental planning by-laws and legislation. They’ll point out the pertinent clauses in the legislation, and the relevant laws and precedents. With their free legal advice and 20 years of experience advising communities, you can make more than an emotional appeal. You can give trees, plants and animals a voice that is a command not a whine.

The Abbott government, however, just wielded the proverbial axe to the EDO and cut all its Federal funding in December.

Every EDO office in every state was stripped of the Federal money that they have relied on for 20 years.

It’s a double blow to the Queensland EDO because it also lost its state funding recently under the Newman government.

Ouch.

The Queensland office will no longer be able to help community environment groups on the Gold Coast the way it did in the past, Principle Solicitor of the Queensland EDO office, Jo-Anne Bragg, said.

“Not unless we get some large donations so we can sustain ourselves, pay the rent, keep our office open,” Ms Bragg said.

“So far we have not let go any staff however we are still counting the donations coming in to decide what to do,” she said.

“We need both large and small donations so this valuable service may survive. In the US a public interest law office called Earth Justice survives on donations and we plan to be like them if enough support is shown by the community.”

Lois Levy is the former head of Gecko – Gold Coast and Hinterland Environment Council.

Gecko has used the EDO hundreds of times since the EDO started in 1995, she said.

For two decades the EDO has provided community groups on the Gold Coast with legal advice, training on what legislation and new zoning legislation means and how it will affect people, legal representation in courts and up-to-date information on changes in legislation, she said.

The Abbott government’s EDO cuts “create a lack of equity in the legal system,” Ms Levy said.

“It’s an attack on democracy.”

Queensland Greens Senator and Australian Greens Environment Spokesperson, Larissa Waters was an EDO lawyer for nine years in Brisbane.

“I experienced firsthand how grateful community members were for this much-needed legal support,” Ms Waters said.

“During my time at the Queensland EDO, I worked on the landmark Nathan Dam case, which established that development approvals must consider downstream environmental impacts not just those on the site,” the Queensland Senator said.

“The Abbott and Newman governments are trying to silence the community and let the big end of town get away with anything they want, even where they’re irreparably damaging environmental assets and the sustainable industries they support,” Senator Waters said.

Labor Senator for Tasmania and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General, Lisa Singh, said the Abbott government’s attack on the EDO was an ideological attack.

“The long term consequences of these cuts on communities will be brutal creating an access to justice crisis,” Senator Singh said.

Kelvin Thomson who is a naturalist as well as the Federal Labor Minister for Willis in Victoria said he was not speaking for Labor but he personally supports the reinstatement of the funding because the work of the EDO offices is “extremely important”.

“They [EDOs] are one of the reasons why Australia’s record of environment protection, though far from perfect, is superior to that of some other countries around the world,” Mr Thomson said.

“There is a lot of valuable legislation in the EPBC Act, but its value is diminished if particular Ministers or Governments are unwilling to enforce it, and then EDOs become essential to protecting the environment. Even sympathetic Ministers can appreciate the work of EDOs, which can provide useful guidance, or second and third opinions on issues.”

As for the Gold Coast, the Newman Government has opened up National Parks such as Springbrook World Heritage Area for commercial use and is about to release a new planning scheme that could open up areas of high conservation value for residential use. The changes could affect boobooks and threatened species like koalas that are in the sights of two deadly killers – disease and habitat destruction.

Gecko’s Lois Levy said the Environmental Defenders Office would normally run a workshop for Gold Coast community groups on how to make submissions to this new planning act, but the EDO hasn’t got the money to do it.

“EDO will not be able to continue to run workshops on the Gold Coast. If EDO is gone, then it strengthens developers chances to flatten valuable bushland by influencing changes to the planning laws that fail to respect the natural environment,” Queensland EDO’s principle solicitor said.

With wildlife needing as much help as it can get, the hole in services is not good news. Consider the boobooks at Currumbin Wildlife Hospital. Or think of the 250-300 koalas the hospital (that by the way has no state or federal funding) treated last year, a huge number compared to 27 in 2008. Those koalas and boobooks don’t just need a vet.

They need a lawyer. Better be a real good one.

Photo: Baby boobook owls at the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital (www.savingyourwildlife.org.au)

3 Comments

Leave a Reply