Weeders need more powerful advocates

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Andrew Cox 

Invasive Species Council, PO Box 166, Fairfield, Victoria 3078, Australia.

Cite this article as:

Cox, A. (2013). Weeders need more powerful advocates. Plant Protection Quarterly 28(2), 47-9.


Responding to the weed crisis needs more than research and action on the ground. Like other major environmental advances, the institutional, legal and policy changes, and resources needed to effectively respond to weed threats require coordinated advocacy. In these days of government shrinkage and budget slashing, weed management reform needs strong community voices more than ever. But it is not a ‘hot button’ community issue spurring street marches and petitions. Weed practitioners, including in government and academia, have been at the vanguard of driving change in the past, and are essential to advocacy efforts today.

The Invasive Species Council challenges the view that those in government or academia should remain narrow in their role and refrain from involvement in advocacy – they too are part of the community and have in-depth knowledge of the need for reform. We appeal for weed practitioners in all domains to consider how they can best support advocacy efforts for weed reforms.


As you all know, our natural environment is in trouble. As the years tick over, we learn that there are more and more species suffering decline.

Habitat loss was the original driver. Now the big new threat is climate change. Yet from the start of European occupation, the introduction of exotic species has been the silent companion to the occupation, the clearing and the Anglicising of the Australian landscape.

The early settlers brought their rats and their cats, they brought their domestic stock and their food plants. They brought their song birds, their hunting quarry and their fish to catch. The early botanic garden curators and the acclimatisers were determined to remake Australia to resemble their homeland and, for some, exotic African savannas. They scattered seeds and imported and released animals.

While thankfully the bold plans to establish herds of giraffes, antelopes and ostriches and to remake the bush as English gardens were unsuccessful (Low 1999a), we are now left with a legacy of invasive plants, animals and pathogens that continue to overwhelm our native fauna and flora.

Today we already have about 30 000 exotic plants in Australia, about 3 000 naturalised and at best guess a dozen more are naturalising each year (Groves 1997, Sinden et al. 2004, Randall 2007, Navie and Adkins 2008, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry 2009, Downey et al. 2010). Maybe half of these are causing harm in the natural environment.

Should government constrain your voice?

This room full of people knows more than anybody else about our weed problems. You know how it is growing, not subsiding.

Many of you are undoubtedly immensely frustrated by the woefully inadequate laws, policies and funding for weed prevention and management.

Would you like to do more than document and study the ever-unfolding disaster and/or control weeds after they are already well established? Does it have to be this way?

There have been some useful papers at past Australian Weeds Conferences about the effectiveness of present legislation and an analysis of different policy approaches. However, does your work have to stop there?

I do not want to diminish the value of your important work. We absolutely need it.

But there is a noticeable absence of coordinated scientific and expert voices forcefully promoting policies and laws that will address some of the root causes of our escalating weed problem. (And it does have to be forceful to break through all the competing priorities of government.)

Have the scientists, the experts and the public land managers who know the problems extremely well become too constrained to say publicly what they really think? Are they worried that they are breaking the new rules of controlling governments that prevent public servants speaking contrary to the ‘whole of government’ position, or do they think that they can achieve more by working from the inside?

I worked in government for four years and understand the arguments and the constraints. The same arguments have been had in government and scientific circles over a long time in many other fields.

I believe that you should resist the argument that those in government cannot have an independent voice outside of their formal roles. Or when a government employee is involved with an organisation like the Weed Society, that organisation should be silent on issues that may contradict an official government position.

There is some room to move. The challenge is how you go about it.

I put to you that your advocacy (as individuals and as the Weeds Society of Victoria) is particularly needed for weed reforms because such a substantial proportion of weed experts are in public institutions and because the issue does not have a high public profile. More than climate change or land clearing, weed policy needs expert advocacy. The invasive species council (ISC) was established because of the lack of a strong focus on invasive species policy within the non government organisation sector. This is still an issue.

The role of scientists and experts and advocacy

In those early days, and more recently too, scientists have driven the introduction of exotics, including pasture grasses, with disastrous effects on Australia’s ecosystems.

Yes, there were also scientists willing to speak out and express alarm about the unfolding botanical disasters.

In 1909, the Victorian government  botanist, Alfred Ewart, was appalled by the weeds spreading throughout Victoria and called for controls to prevent any new weed from being introduced into Victoria (Low 1999b). These calls fell on deaf ears, but he was unafraid to state the problem as it was.

There have been some outspoken expert advocates.

I am sure we all rue the loss of the Weeds Cooperative Research Centre (CRC). Its Chief Executive Officer, Rachel McFadyen, was outspoken in calling for policy reforms including advocating a ‘white list’ approach to weeds. McFadyen and the ISC campaigned to get gamba grass declared.

Invasive Animals CRC Chief Executive Officer, Tony Peacock, was outspoken against the attempt by the Shooters Party about five years ago to release potentially invasive bird species into game reserves in New South Wales and critiqued the idea that hunters were effective at pest control.

Individual scientists have often self-organised, such as the highly successful Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. They comment on issues such as vegetation clearing, water reform and climate change, strongly challenging government policy and vested interests. This group has had real influence in changing the nature of the public debate and shifting public policy and laws.

Scientists are generally keen to play an advocacy role. In 2012, a study by the Pew Foundation of over 2,500 United States scientists found that 97% of scientists said it was indeed appropriate for scientists to “become actively involved in political debates” (Pew Research 2009).

Scientists are an essential part of our community and it is important that their voices are heard.

Weeds societies

Weed societies have shown a willingness to be publicly active, for example the advocacy section of the Council of Australasian Weed Societies (CAWS) website, there is a copy of a letter that the CAWS sent to the Federal Government in 2004 or 2005 (to Ministers Warren Trust (Agriculture) and Ian Campbell (Environment) (Council of Australasian Weed Societies 2013).

Council President Richard Carter was upset that ‘the Government has not recognised the community interest in preventing further weeds entering Australia, and spreading within Australia’. He called for  mandatory risk assessments for the import of new plants and for more resources to implement the Action Plan prepared by the CRC for Weed Management.

The CAWS strategic plan 2007-2010 mentioned the preparation of policy statements on issues such as invasive garden plants, national research capacity and national consistency in weed management(Council of Australasian Weed Societies 2008). It proposed that CAWS issue media releases. CAWS sought to be recognised as the ‘leading, independent body on weed management issues’.

That strategic plan stated that CAWS supported its member’s interests to ‘reduce the impact of weeds’.

In November 2007, the CAWS minutes show that Invasive Species Council was to be approached about a closer working relationship, potentially collaborating on information sheets, such as the tall wheat grass issue that was controversial at the time. This approach never took place (Council of Australasian Weed Societies 2007)

In recent deliberations on the development of the new CAWS strategic plan there has been a debate about CAWS having an advocacy role(Council of Australasian Weed Societies 2012).

I strongly urge you to embrace whatever capacity you have to be a voice for reform. It is very much needed.

Options for members of the Weed Society of Victoria

Following are some options available to you as members of the Weed Society of Victoria.

The Weed Society of Victoria and CAWS decide to undertake strategic advocacy

As I mentioned, this has been done before.There is an important role for the experts in weed management to express collective views.

These annual conferences are important forums to explore reform options via individual papers. As an example, I should highlight an important paper on the benefits of a white list approach to weed listing, written by senior staff in various state governments for the 2006 Australian Weeds Conference.

But the conference forum is very different to a collective voice.

To avoid compromising those members of the society that work in policy areas, protocols on advocacy work are needed. In developing position statements, look at the processes of scientific academies and other representative groups to see how they develop agreement in controversial areas.

To go down this path requires a small amount of risk taking and leaving behind those that are more comfortable keeping their heads down.

The Weed Society of Victoria and CAWS create an informal partnership with the Invasive Species Council.

The ISC is receptive to exploring how it can strengthen its ties with the Weed Society of Victoria and CAWS. The Society has great depth and expertise that could be utilised by our Council.

Individual members create a new weed advocacy group

If the Weed Society of Victoria or CAWS is unable to take up the challenge of being more effective collective advocates, then you may choose to form a separate group made up of people who feel less constrained.

Individual members actively support the Invasive Species Council

Already many Weed Society members support us through informal input and through donations. To further build our effectiveness, you may like to individually increase this support.

We are open to new ideas for those that want to contribute more.

Working with the Invasive Species Council

The ISC does not pretend to have all the answers, but we insist on taking an expert, scientific approach to our work.

One of the great strengths of the ISC is that we are truly independent. We receive our funding from donors – individuals, trusts and foundations. This allows us to state a problem as it really is, in any way we choose.

Yes! We need more resources to tackle the growing invasive problem. Yes! We are seeing an alarming drop in capacity of biosecurity staff and researchers across Australia. Yes! We should introduce new national and state laws to make our biosecurity system more effective. Yes! Environmental weeds have been neglected due to the historical emphasis on agricultural weeds and because weeds are not a ‘sexy’ issue. Yes! We should apply science to decisions and be more transparent in decision-making.

We believe that there is great scope for bringing change in this area, as there has been for other big environmental issues. As is fundamental to almost all ‘public good’ reforms, we need strong public support, attention-grabbing communication through the media, a social media groundswell underpinned by sound arguments and strong well-articulated evidence.

In my past advocacy roles I have seen it work many times.

Landclearing laws in New South Wales and Queensland would not have been introduced without a targeted and sustained advocacy campaign. The recently created red gum National parks along the Murray River in New South Wales and Victoria owe their existence to a determined community campaign and partnerships with Aboriginal people and experts over more than a decade.

The ISC is building up its campaign to reform weed laws and policies across Australia as a central part of its invasives agenda.

We would like to work more closely with botanists, ecologists and weed experts. We need experts with knowledge about weeds and potential weeds and what is and is not practical. We need experts in economics, sociology and law as well as biology.

We have already established a scientific reference group to provide input into our work, but we are looking to expand its ranks.

Right now, at the national level, the ISC is working on improvements to the Victoria Biosecurity Bill, currently before the Senate. We are also developing support for a separate Greens party Bill to create an independent authority on biosecurity.  Our work in Canberra has been assisted by a ground-breaking collaboration with industry groups such as NSW Farmers, Tasmanian Fruit Growers, Nursery and Garden Industry Australia and AusVeg.

We are promoting a proposal for Environmental Health Australia that would see government, industry and the community working together on strategic issues for environmental invasives. Earlier in the month we launched a national survey to learn about the extent of organisational efforts in tackling invasive species. Already we have received over 400 responses.

In Victoria, we are seeking to influence the proposed Invasive Species Management Bill under development and we are working to break the impasse on feral deer and horse control that is seeing their numbers steadily grow through inaction.


The field of weed management can often feel overwhelming. We all want to do something about it and I am sure we can make a difference.

A critical part of the solution is for substantial changes to weed laws, policies and funding across Australia. This will not come about unless there is concerted and well-organised advocacy.

We challenge the view that those in government or academia should remain narrow in their role and refrain from involvement in advocacy.

You are part of the community and you have in-depth knowledge of the need for reform.

We appeal to all weed practitioners:  how best can you support advocacy for weed reform?


Council of Australasian Weed Societies (2007). Minutes 15 November 2007. http://www.caws.org.au/meetings/CAWS%20Exec%20minutes%2015%20November%202007.pdf (accessed 15 April 2013).

Council of Australasian Weed Societies (2008). Strategic Plan 2007-2010: Draft for comment January 2008. http://www.caws.org.au/policies/CAWS%20strategic%20plan%202007-2010%20March%202008.pdf (accessed 15 April 2013).

Council of Australasian Weed Societies (2012). Minutes 7 October 2012. http://www.caws.org.au/meetings/CAWS%20Exec%20minutes%207%20October%202012.pdf (accessed 15 April 2013).

Council of Australasian Weed Societies (2013). Advocacy. http://www.caws.org.au/advocacy.php (accessed 15 April 2013).

Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. (2009). ‘Census of Cultivated Plants’. (Australian Government, Canberra).

Downey, P.O., Scanlon, T.J. and Hosking, J.R. (2010). Prioritising alien plant species based on their ability to impact on biodiversity: a case study from New South Wales. Plant Protection Quarterly 25(3), 111-26.

Groves, R. (1997). ‘Recent incursions of weeds to Australia, 1971–1995’. (Cooperative Research Centre for Weed Management Systems, Canberra).

Low, T. (1999a). ‘Feral Future: The untold story of Australia’s exotic invaders’, p. 33. (Penguin Books Australia, Ringwood, Victoria).

Low, T. (1999b). ‘Feral Future: The untold story of Australia’s exotic invaders’, p. 29. (Penguin Books Australia, Ringwood, Victoria).

Navie, S.C. and Adkins, S.W. (2008). ‘Environmental weeds of Australia’. (Centre for Biological Information Technology, Queensland University, Brisbane).

Pew Research. (2009). Public praises science; scientists fault public, media: Scientific achievements less prominent than a decade ago. Section 4: Scientists, politics and religion. http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-4-scientists-politics-and-religion (accessed 15 April 2013).

Randall, R. (2007). ‘The introduced flora of Australia and its weed status’. (Cooperative Research Centrefor Australian Weed Management, Adelaide).

Sinden, J., Jones, R., Hester, S., Odom D., Kalisch, C., James R. and Cacho, O. (2004). ‘The economic impact of weeds in Australia’. (Cooperative Research Centre for Australian Weed Management, Adelaide).

First published online: June 24, 2013