House debates

Thursday, 4 February 2021


Environment and Energy Committee; Report

4:16 pm

Photo of Ted O'BrienTed O'Brien (Fairfax, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy, I present the committee's report entitled Tackling the feral cat pandemic: a plan to save Australian wildlife, together with the minutes of proceedings.

Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).

by leave—When the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay, it brought with it a lethal predator that has wreaked havoc on Australian native wildlife ever since, and that predator is the cat. Cats have been the major cause for the extinction of 25 Australian mammal species since 1788, and a contributing factor to the extinction of a dozen more animals. Seventy-four mammal species, 40 birds, 21 reptiles and four amphibians are under threat from the predation of cats—in particular, feral cats. Australia has approximately 2.8 million feral cats that live, breed and hunt in the wild. They kill over three billion native Australian animals every year. I will say that again: the 2.8 million feral cats in Australia kill over three billion native Australian animals every single year. This equates to the average cat killing around 1,100 animals annually. Those numbers are truly horrific. One of the great tragedies of last year's Black Summer bushfires was the loss of wildlife, with estimates of between a billion and three billion animals perishing. It puts this problem in perspective: feral cats do even more damage to Australian wildlife every single year.

Do feral cats need to be culled? Yes, they absolutely do. But it is going to take some time before we have the technology to rid these lethal carnivores from our natural environment at scale and in an affordable and humane way. That is why we need a new national conservation mission, a mission which is the centrepiece of the report that I table here today in this chamber on behalf of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy, a report that follows our inquiry into the problem of feral and domestic cats in Australia.

The new national conservation mission we're recommending to government is called Project Noah—think Noah's ark and you'll get the gist. Project Noah is aimed at expanding Australia's network of predator-free fenced areas and islands. It would bring together the expertise and resources of governments, communities, the private sector and philanthropic groups to protect threatened native species from the predation of feral cats and other predators. If government adopts such a proposal, the committee's hope is that it embarks on this mission with ambition so safe havens can be introduced across a range of ecosystems across the country.

Project Noah, it has to be said, is not a silver-bullet solution. However, it is an important part of what needs to be done. So the inquiry's report also recommends a suite of other measures, including a body of work that needs to be conducted, a reset of Australian government policy planning and resourcing and new strategies for management and control, also of domestic cats. When it comes to the body of work that needs to be conducted, the committee's view is that such work needs to focus on understanding cat impacts and the need to develop nationally consistent definitions for feral, stray and domestic cats. Further research matters include the prevalence, impact and control of cats; emerging technologies and emerging methodologies, including gene drive technology; management of cat-borne diseases; and the relationship between cat predation and habitat degradation.

When it comes to a reset of the Australian government's policy planning and resources, we make these recommendations in relation to Australia's feral cat problem, including the new iteration of the Threat abatement plan for predation by feral cats; a revised threatened species strategy, including new targets for culling feral cats; and consideration of reform opportunities identified through the review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. When it comes to new strategies for the management and control of domestic cats, the committee's views include consideration for measures that increase support for desexing domestic cats, registrations and microchipping, a consideration of night curfews and a national cat-ownership education campaign.

This has been a fascinating inquiry, and I for one was absolutely shocked at the magnitude of the problem. I go back to the starting point of my speech in this House, which was of the three-billion-plus native Australian animals killed on an annual basis by feral cats. Let those numbers sink in.

Let's remember cats are not native to Australia. They came to Australia upon European settlement. But they continue to threaten Australian species, which is why such action is required. But it's not just the action of culling, as important as culling is; it's important that we keep our eye on the endgame. The endgame isn't the culling; the endgame is the protection of our threatened species, which is why, while we do cull, we need to also keep focused on the protection of those species.

There's been an enormous amount of work put in by so many people who made submissions and witnesses who came forward. I want to thank them for their contributions to the inquiry and thus the committee's deliberations. I also want to acknowledge my fellow committee members. Our committee, of course, includes people right across the chamber—members of the Liberal Party, the Labor Party, the National Party, and, of course, the crossbench. When you talk about issues in environment and energy, sometimes you don't get unanimity, but so stark is this problem of feral cats in Australia, and so practical the solutions can be, that, indeed, we did have a true unity of purpose and unanimity among the committee. And I thank my colleagues for their assistance throughout the process. I also want to acknowledge the secretariat that once again served our committee, and therefore the parliament and the people of Australia, with great professionalism. We could not have done the job without their support.

And so, today, we table this report and we do so asking the government to give serious consideration to the recommendations made by this committee. There are a lot of things that are on the government's agenda. But a feral cat can kill 1,100 or more animals every single year—plus, if a feral cat's average life is five years, that's 5,500 animals that a single feral cat could kill, which is why we do need to take action.

We are hopeful that Project Noah represents a new, innovative idea, and there are people in this country who are already creating safe havens for our native species, and we need to keep them protected. So it is with that that I urge the government to seriously consider the recommendations in this report so we can address that urgent threat that feral cats pose to Australia's wildlife. I therefore commend this report to the House.

4:27 pm

Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Whitlam, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—This is something we should be able to work together on. We have a significant problem with feral cats in this country—6.3 million of them. If you think about that, it's the equivalent of just about every person in Sydney having their own cat. These are cats out there in the wild, killing our native animals and creating biosecurity risks. It's something we need to be able to deal with. There are 3.2 billion animals slaughtered every year by this feral cat menace.

At the beginning of the global pandemic and ensuing economic crisis, I was advocating job creation programs which were focused on dealing with the feral animal problem. I was advocating to the government that here is a perfect opportunity for us to do something that will have a lasting impact on our environment while keeping people in work and perhaps providing people who've been out of work with valuable job skills. I had in mind the excellent Indigenous rangers program. This is a program which has created over 2,100 jobs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout the country. Their job, quite simply, is working on country and providing custodianship of land, including the mitigation of bushfire risks, biosecurity risks and improving land and land management practices.

On the eradication of feral animals, we've been focused on cats, but let's also say something about feral horses, an issue very close to where we are, and the member for Fenner will be able to attest to this. It would be good if we could get a bipartisan position on this. I think the Liberal and the Labor parties could agree; the National Party appears to be divided on this issue in New South Wales. We have a significant issue with feral horses in this country. As the member for Sydney was saying, if we call them 'brumbies', they are kind of cute and part of our heritage. If we call them 'feral horses', we can focus on the problem—the devastation they wrought on our environment. We have got a problem. We have a challenge with unemployment as well. Let's put our minds together. As the old saying goes: kill two birds with one stone when dealing with feral pests in this country.

4:30 pm

Photo of Ted O'BrienTed O'Brien (Fairfax, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the House take note of the report.

Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of date for the next sitting.