The decades-long association between the NSW Liberal Party and the Nationals known as the Coalition was almost brought to an end in mid-September, when deputy premier and Nats leader John Barilaro threatened to march his entire party over to the crossbench.
Why? Because the Nationals wanted to reserve the right to further exterminate state koala populations in the name of profit.
That’s right, the Nationals were threatening to split the government in two because party members assert that a planning policy that came into play last March is making life difficult as it places the welfare of koalas above the ability to clear their natural habitat.
Gladys Berejikilian stood her ground. The NSW premier wasn’t reneging on any plans to save the well-known marsupial. She wanted to be the state head that saved the koalas. And the Nats leader eventually backed down.
However, NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann is crying foul over this little arrangement, as she points out that right now, there’s a bill before parliament that not only rolls back the restrictions the Nats initially wanted revoked, but it takes things a whole lot further.
Exterminating “tree rats”
NSW agriculture minister and Nationals MP Adam Marshall introduced the Local Land Services Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2020 in mid-October. And as Faehrmann tells it, this rather innocuous looking bill revokes koala habitat protections in this state.
The State Environmental Planning Policy (Koala Habitat Protection) 2019 (the Koala SEPP) came into effect on 1 March this year. It aims to protect koala habitat, so they can survive their current decline in numbers. The new Koala SEPP replaced its out-of-date 1994 iteration.
And it’s the Koala SEPP the Nats seek to revoke. That’s why the minister has produced this legislation that amends the Local Land Services Act 2013 (NSW), so that land clearing can continue regardless of koala populations, and this is especially so on private land.
Indeed, after the Berejikilian government repealed the Native Vegetation Act 2003 (NSW) in 2017, the Nature Conservation Council found that over the first 12 months of the change, koala habitat was being destroyed in NSW at the rate of about 14 football fields a day.
But Faehrmann still has faith in Gladys Berejiklian. The NSW Greens environment spokesperson believes that the Liberals may not be aware of just how dire the new legislation could prove to the herbivores that the Nats refer to as tree rats.
Tabling its report in June this year, the NSW parliamentary inquiry into Koala Populations and Habitat found that “koalas will become extinct in NSW before 2050 without urgent government intervention”. And Faehrmann chaired that inquiry.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Faehrmann about the recommendations made by the koala inquiry, why there’s a growing issue over private native forestry, and how Gladys Berejikilian could still be the premier who saves the koala if she acts now.
Firstly, in September, Barilaro backed down on the changes he wanted made to this state’s koala protections.
But you’re warning the Nationals are now back trying to remove koala protections under the Local Land Services Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2020.
Cate, what are the implications of this legislation?
It goes far further than simply winding back a few of the potential changes contained in the Koala SEPP.
The National Party seems to have seized this opportunity to make changes to the Local Land Services Act that the timber industry and the farming lobby have been after for some time.
It’s called a “miscellaneous” bill, but it’s anything but miscellaneous. The bill makes changes to the way that private native forestry is carried out.
This includes removing the dual consent provision, so that councils can no longer have any say in development consent. And it doubles the duration of private native forestry plans to 30 years.
In terms of local environment plans and their ability to create e-zones – sensitive environmental lands – it removes the ability of local governments to prohibit activities in e-zones on rural lands.
It’s a complete overreach. It’s going to mean a lot more core koala habitat can be cleared.
It also has this bizarre effect of freezing the koala plans of management that have been approved in NSW up until the 6 October.
There’s only six of them that it freezes. And it says that any other koala plans of management will not apply to rural lands. This is absolute madness.
So, protection plans that are already in place would be removed?
Yes. And there are a range of councils that have had draft plans of management before the Department of Planning for years.
There have been delays. And for whatever reason, the bureaucrats or the minister have refused to sign off on these plans of management.
Now, these koala plans of management will never be signed off on and they have the ability to prevent the clearing of core koala habitat on land zoned rural or environmental. This is for the purposes of private native forestry.
It’s complicated. It’s an extremely dishonest move by the agricultural minister. And it’s a dishonest move by the government, which has said, “It’s just a compromise. And it’s strengthening the SEPP.”
Well, it’s not. This is going to see far more core koala habitat cleared than before the National Party had their dummy spit.
Back in September, when the Nationals were having their dummy spit, there were reports that Gladys Berejikilian wanted to be the premier who saved the koalas. So, has her desire changed?
Her desire may have changed, or she’s been duped by the National Party. I can’t work it out.
I can’t work out if the Liberals have completely backed down on koala protection, or the National Party agriculture minister has pulled a swifty, because when you look at the changes under this bill, they go so far beyond any effects or impacts of the Koala SEPP.
There’s a review underway at the moment in relation to private native forestry. A lot of stakeholders have had input into this review at the beginning of this year. So, for this bill to come out before that review has been finalised is extraordinary.
It also makes changes to the land management framework. A number of changes came into force in 2017, in terms of the Local Land Services Act and the Biodiversity Conservation Act.
There was a mechanism within those bills for a review after 5 years. However, Mark Speakman was the environment minister at the time, and he committed to a review after 3 years.
So, there’s been an independent panel established looking into this framework that has made a number of recommendations. But this bill completely usurps all of that work.
This outrageous bill comes in on the back of consultation with just the farming lobby – essentially the NSW Farmers’ Association – the timber industry and local National MPs. And it allows huge swathes of core koala habitat to be cleared on private land.
The biggest threat here is private native forestry. Huge swathes of state forest were burnt during the bushfires. And there’s a lot of forest now on private land that has native forestry plans. It’s over 450,000 hectares of land.
So, why is private forest a threat?
Well, what we’re seeing is a shift. Half of our timber comes from native forest on private land. And there’s an increasing need for private land forest to make up the wood for our wood supply agreements.
But private native forestry isn’t regulated anywhere near the extent that forests on public land are regulated. So, they can get away with much more.
Now, some of our best koala habitat is found on private land on the Mid-North Coast and the North Coast.
So, with this bill, any of this forest that hasn’t been mapped in an existing koala plan of management – which is only a handful of local governments areas – is now open for logging and it cannot be classified as core koala habitat.
You chaired the 12 month NSW parliamentary inquiry into Koala populations and habitat. It tabled its report in June.
What did the inquiry find in terms of the state of the koala populations in NSW?
The core finding was that without urgent government intervention koalas will become extinct in NSW before 2050.
It found that the most serious threat to koalas was the ongoing loss and fragmentation of their habitat.
It recommended that the NSW government amend the Local Land Services Act to reinstate thresholds, so that its application improves or maintains environmental outcomes and protects native vegetation of high concentration value.
It also recommended that the government review the impact on koala habitat on the application of regular land and self-assessment frameworks under the Local Land Services Act.
It also found that 30 percent of the NSW koala population died in the fires. And this is potentially much higher. This is particularly on the Mid-North Coast and the North Coast, where it’s potentially up to two-thirds of koala populations.
But the government claims that it’s duplicating protections to have the Koala SEPP applied to rural lands as defined under the Local Land Services Act. That is rubbish. Again, it’s potentially deliberately misinforming the community about this.
This is what we found during the koala inquiry as well. Under the Local Land Services Act, it says there’s an ability for land to be declared category 2 regulated land.
There is a whole suite of land that falls underneath category 2. And that includes land that’s been designated as koala habitat via a koala plan of management under the SEPP.
So, there’s that handful of local government areas that are mentioned in the Act, which would be frozen. And basically, what this bill does is remove that core koala habitat.
So, if it goes through, there won’t actually be any definition of core koala habitat.
And this is from the premier who wants to save the koalas?
I feel that the Liberals do not know what they’ve agreed to here and they do not know the details of this bill.
Because the very protections that they say are there in the Local Land Services Act are being removed by this bill. That’s how extraordinary it is.
Either the government has just agreed to a compromise, and they’ve agreed to give up on saving the koala, or they’ve had a massive swifty pulled on them by the National Party.
So, lastly, Cate, the Nats seem intent on exterminating the NSW koala population, but you’re in two minds about the Libs. What are you calling on Liberal members to do at this point?
I urge minister Stokes, environment minister Keen and the premier to get independent legal advice as to what this bill does, because it goes much further than I think they’re aware.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.