IN THE NEWS: On JAN 7, 2019
Leafy Brighton has become politically interesting. Previously known for beaches, desirable real estate and "blue-ribbon" Liberal credentials, the southern suburb is now on the map as a marginal electorate.
Its new Liberal MP, James Newbury, scraped home by only 865 votes. Then, just before Christmas, he used his maiden speech to stir the possum.
Mr Newbury said his party needed to accept that modern Victoria has a "growing conscience" for the natural environment.
"For three months each year, duck hunters, who represent half of 1 per cent of Victorians, kill and bag up to 10 ducks per day," Newbury told the Parliament.
"Victoria's natural environment and wildlife are a unique part of this state's identity and a modern Liberal Party must speak out on behalf of the promotion and preservation of them."
His comments were soon hosed down. Liberals need Nationals if the Coalition is to regain government, and Nationals are staunchly pro-shooting. State Liberal MPs number almost three times the Nationals, but the tail seems to be wagging this dog.
Federally, Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie chairs a group called Parliamentary Friends of Shooting. She speaks of duck shooting as "a lovely cultural experience for many families … They go camping with friends and family. They get up early in the morning and they go shooting their duck."
Probably Newbury would agree that going away camping is a great family activity, for enjoying wildlife, not blasting it. (Comedians Roy and HG took aim at Sports Minister McKenzie on New Year's Eve, in a segment on the ABC's The Yearly with Charlie Pickering. In feigned support for her claim that shooting keeps families together, they quipped: "People are not inclined to leave the house if there's a gun around.")
There are many signs of internal division in the Coalition, and duck-shooting policy may be the latest. Former MP Robert Clark, now president of the Victorian Liberals, wrote in 2017 to a constituent opposed to duck shooting: "I share your concern about the welfare of animals and birds, and am vegetarian myself for that reason". But Hansard shows he did not subsequently raise these concerns in Parliament.
Labor has already pumped millions into "shooting sports". No doubt some Labor MPs rue their election promise of another $14m for the hunting lobby that nevertheless spruiked the advantages of a Coalition government.
Labor's former agriculture minister Jaala Pulford would say duck shooting "is not everyone's cup of tea", while authorising the demise of some half-million native waterbirds each year. She received assurances from the Game Management Authority that duck hunting is regulated to ensure it's "sustainable" and "humane".
In 2017, in fact, all hell broke loose at the start of the season.
Here is an eyewitness account from a volunteer who was retrieving wounded waterbirds to take them to volunteer vets:
"It was still dark but the marsh was already erupting in gunfire. As the legal [starting] time came around the roar became deafening and we could see the silhouettes of birds dropping from the sky ... As the wetland thundered with gunfire the birds were calling in distress and flying the gauntlet with nowhere to escape. Behind the shooters, dead birds were bobbing around unretrieved as the wounded scrambled for shelter with shattered wings, bleeding wounds and blood bubbling out of their bills. A couple bled out in my arms …
"The number of dead and wounded, both game and protected, was overwhelming. All around the spent cartridges were washing into the bank, surrounding the dead and dying. The beautiful wetland was utterly trashed."
As a result, the Game Management Authority instigated an independent review of its law enforcement ability. The verdict, by Pegasus Economics, was heavily critical: the authority had not enforced hunting laws and was too "comfortable" with shooter organisations.
Every December the authority makes an environmental assessment prior to recommending another duck-shooting season, however it omits any consideration of climate change. A government decision is expected soon for the 2019 season, amid record-breaking drought in the eastern states that scorched wetlands, halted breeding and exacerbated long-term decline of waterbird populations.
Alleged economic benefits from hunting are grossly exaggerated and have been roundly criticised by independent experts. With almost a quarter of licensed hunters qualifying for concessional or free licences, it's hard to imagine duck shooters spending $235 for each bird taken home. Many regional Victorians claim duck shooting is a negative for their businesses; they want government funding diverted to nature-based tourism instead.
But the political point is bigger than duck shooting: it's about the political process. Both major parties rely on a heavily criticised regulator, spurious economic claims and an environmental analysis that omits climate change to condone activities that are deeply unpopular among voters.
Only two in every 1000 Victorians went duck shooting last year; almost half of our licensed duck shooters failed to participate. The tiny proportion of Victorians who shoot ducks grows smaller every year. Duck shooting is legal only while government continues to sanction it. It's outlawed in Western Australia, New South Wales, the ACT and Queensland, where voters' "growing conscience" for the environment put an end to it.
The member for Brighton has been silenced. But many MPs on both sides know the tide is turning.