Environment minister’s koala photo op sparks surprise backlash

The picture was designed to draw attention to the government's $12 million funding pledge, but others seized upon another detail in the social media post.

Politicians posing with wildlife was once considered as safe a bet as kissing a baby, but a seemingly innocuous photo of a government minister and fluffy marsupial has drawn widespread ire online.

Sour comments began flooding across Twitter moments after Tanya Plibersek shared a selfie showing her posing with a koala under a caption reading “No one wants to imagine a future without koalas”. While that's a message most Aussies could get behind, the post inadvertently drew attention to Australia's crumbling biodiversity and the lack of strong laws to protect it.

A social media post by Tanya Plibersek cuddling a koala (inset). Koala habitat being destroyed (background)
A social media post by Tanya Plibersek featuring a koala photo has unexpectedly drawn ire on social media. Source: Twitter

What ecologists say about Plibersek's koala post

The purpose of Plibersek's koala post was to highlight the Albanese’s $12.4 million cash injection for health projects which will help the animals receive care “when disaster strikes.”

That money is bound to be helpful as Australia readies itself for a predicted horror fire season which could threaten koala populations. During the Black Summer bushfires around 60,000 koalas were killed or impacted, and the species was subsequently listed as endangered in NSW, Queensland and ACT.

But several high-profile ecologists have seized upon the big-picture threats that are driving the "disasters" koalas increasingly face. They've taken to social media to retweet Plibersek's post with lines accusing the government of not doing enough to prevent habitat loss and climate change.

University of Melbourne senior research fellow Dr Yung En Chee likened the Commonwealth's approach to placing “ambulances at the bottom of cliffs”, and said governments don’t appear interested in stopping habitat loss.

Deakin University ecologist Professor Euan Ritchie quipped that the government better build a “BIG wildlife hospital” because koala homes are continuing to be destroyed.

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What the government is doing to reform logging of wildlife habitat

Koala hospitals are just one of the new funding streams announced by the Albanese Labor government since it shot to power promising to reform environmental protections.

The Commonwealth makes decisions on development proposals that will have significant impacts on species like koalas threatened with extinction. But many of the day-to-day decisions required for smaller projects are made by local councils, and wildlife advocates say these approvals accumulate to “death by 1000 cuts” for many species.

Another area of contention are Australia’s Regional Forest Agreements, which essentially prevent the Commonwealth from interfering in the states’ native forest logging operations.

A spokesperson for Minister Plibersek told Yahoo these laws are “undergoing consultation” and the government would welcome crossbench support to expedite “strong new laws” through parliament.

“We know native forests are valuable for their carbon storage and native habitats including for endangered animals like koalas. That’s why our government has already announced that for the first time in Australian history Regional Forest Agreements will have to comply with our strong new environment laws,” they said.

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That time Scott Morrison picked up a wombat

It’s not the first time recently a politician has raised eyebrows after posing with a native animal. In 2020, after then Prime Minister Scott Morrison posed with a wombat at a Central Coast wildlife park during a new zoos funding announcement, many critics took to Facebook to accuse his government of not doing enough to protect animals in the wild.

Background - a road with a forest around it. Inset - the image of Morrison cuddling a koala.
In 2022, Scott Morrison's koala photo was repurposed by social media users to draw attention to a surge in wildlife road deaths. Source: Facebook/Getty

A 2022 post showing Morrison hugging a koala also drew unwanted attention from activists who repurposed his post to highlight a spike in koala road deaths across NSW. And there have since been calls to ban politicians from posing with captive native animals until Australia's extinction crisis is reversed.

Reflecting on Plibersek’s post, Polly Hemming from independent think tank Australia Institute told Yahoo that reforms to Australia’s environment laws need to be sped up.

“Minister Plibersek said there would be no new extinctions on her watch. But there seems to be far more effort going into the minister's social media and photo opportunities than any measures that would actually achieve this,” she added.

Hemming believes the answer to protecting koalas is simple “Stop doing the harm. Stop approving new coal mines. Stop subsiding gas expansion. Stop native forest logging. Stop making excuses,” she said.

Wildlife photographer Nick Volpe also weighed in, writing to his 16,000 followers, “*Rampant deforestation continuing in koala habitat.* Oh but a cute photo opportunity and a tiny drop of funding for a few urban koalas will help our current extinction crisis!,” he said in a retweet.

“Australia is the only first-world nation in the top 10 deforestation hotspots,” he later told Yahoo, before adding “We need to lead by example and properly fund conservation efforts in this country to protect our wildlife and environment.”

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