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The year – 2002.
My own stupid idea.
Semi-nude fundraising calendars were the rage in rural communities. The local bachelors of Port Macquarie were about to join the trend.
Our charity of choice?
The local koala hospital. A unique ‘return to the wild’ centre for injured koalas in urban Port Macquarie. They needed a koala ambulance.
We somehow got our hands on a ridiculously revealing G-string with a fluffy koala head where the fig-leaf would have sat in ancient times. The idea was to get photos in this G-string doing something you were known for – rugby, cricket, even, believe it or not, politics.
I was still the NSW Shadow Minister and I was not going to wear this thing on the floor of the NSW parliament, despite the urgings of friends.
As a compromise, I ended up bare-chested as Mr June, doing what politicians are known to do best – having a long lunch at a local restaurant, yet holding the hands, or paws, of a giant stuffed koala in some weird romantic embrace.
Compromise had combined with compromising.
We raised $15,000.
The koala ambulance now exists.
Politically I expected some blowback for my risqué appearance. Politicians can’t trip over without it being news sometimes, so I thought this might drop me in some hot water in Parliament or the press.
Probably more unnerving, though, was the total silence from colleagues and opponents alike.
That was, until six months later, I walked into then Premier Bob Carr’s media office to find my poster on the wall. Mr June 2002 was on full display at the nerve centre of NSW politics. Amanda Lampe, the Premiers media advisor, was sitting underneath, and smiling. It was all harmless. Even the ruthless, and at times shameless, NSW Labor media machine could see it was for a good cause.
And no small irony in NSW Labor deciding not to hit the vaudeville button with the Port Macquarie calendar.
Eight years later, the first phone call I received on election night 2010 was from Prime Minister Gillard’s Chief-of-Staff. She was seeking a big favour of the telephone numbers of all the relevant crossbench MP’s that they would be negotiating with over the coming weeks.
It was that same smiling Amanda Lampe.
I was happy to help them with the phone numbers. In politics, relationships matter. Often, they are the only thing that does.
So how about those koalas, then?
Having seen inside the walls of Canberra’s highest offices, it is my stronger view than ever that public policy in Australia is failing to treat biodiversity and species loss with the serious urgency it needs and deserves.
Take the iconic koala as the example.
They really shouldn’t live near people. The major killers of koalas are cars and dogs.
Yet studies show that most koalas do live near people, outside of National Parks, and are co-habitants in semi-urban or urban settings.
This means the survival of koalas as a species depends entirely on our own willingness to give a bit, and to understand, and to make changes necessary to their survival.
I sleep with a very noisy male koala in the bush across the road. Many locals complain about these noises, but I choose not to. The reality is male koalas grunt. I welcome this very Australian noise rather than complain to friends, or set the dog on it. As some Australians sadly do.
I also choose to drive more carefully in the known koala bush areas around where I live, particularly at dawn and dusk when they are mostly on the move. One third of all koala deaths are from cars.
Then dogs. Locking dogs and cats up at night should be Australian common-sense, if not Australian law.
And for swimming pool owners in known koala areas, how about leaving a simple knotted rope dangling in the pool and tied to something secure like the pool fence. Even though koalas can swim, they are known to drown on the slippery edges of modern pools. It’s probably never going to be used, but how uniquely Australian to be able to tell your friends from overseas that the knotted rope is to let the koalas do some laps.
And then the difficult politics of this reality. We must all find a way to engage Australia’s farming community at a better level on biodiversity loss. They absolutely hold the keys to the survival of a species currently designated “rare and vulnerable” on the entire east coast of Australia.
Koala preservation (and biodiversity more generally) needs to become more of an integrated part of all land management strategies in Australia. This includes planning support and incentives for planting koala food trees (tallowwood, forest red gum, swamp mahogany, scribbly gum, and nicholii), especially near streams, rivers and storage dams.
Planning support and incentives for the linking of existing stands of trees with further plantings to make actual corridors across private and public lands.
And of course, for a number of reasons on full display right now, support for the sensible practice of hazard reduction burning.
I say all this not to be some ‘raving greenie’ as seems to be the public policy slur of choice in 2013.
I say it because all evidence says that business as usual in Australia will guarantee the Australian koala will die out.
Personally, I don’t like that guarantee.
I like living in a country with a unique ecosystem, and with animals like koalas known only to our lands.
I don’t like the idea that it is our generation that will be tagged the ‘selfish generation’ by the future, and that it is us, now, who are doing more to progress the extinction of Australia’s flora and fauna than any other generation before us.
Somehow, politically and culturally, we have to make changes that recognise this fact, and respond to the problem. Each individual home and community is in charge of the problem and also owns the answers of embracing their landscape.
I want to live in a country that celebrates a vibrant and unique biodiversity, including the Australian koala.
And I’m not just saying it. Over the past three years, I cashed in many of my political chips on this issue of biodiversity loss, much of it without the long-term success I would have liked.
And heck, I’ve even got my clothes off for the cause!