By Head of Policy and Law Reform Rachel Walmsley
In the dying hours of the NSW parliamentary session on Thursday 19th November the Government attempted to pass a bill through the Upper House to reduce protections for koala habitat under land clearing laws – the Land Services Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2020. The Bill was purportedly to ‘decouple’ koala policy requirements from land clearing laws on private rural land and was hastily passed by the Lower House in October.
On closer examination by the EDO it became clear that the Bill went far beyond simply clarifying application of koala policy, and included changes that would, for example, potentially override protections for coastal wetlands and littoral rainforests on rural land, allow a new category of clearing in certain environment zones and make changes to the separate framework for private native forest logging.
These changes would have impacted koala populations already vulnerable and at risk due to ongoing habitat loss, climate change and last summer’s bushfire disasters.
A heated debate resulted in the bill being sent to inquiry by 1 vote, due to a brave and principled crossing of the floor by Liberal MP Catherine Cusack – a member of the recent parliamentary inquiry into koalas. The Premier has since indicated the bill will now not go to Inquiry and will be withdrawn, with new negotiations to restart next year.[i]
Had the bill gone to an inquiry, evidence would have been presented regarding the actual implications of the proposed changes, and there would have been scrutiny of the unsubstantiated claims that there would be no reduction of protection of koala habitat. EDO has previously published our analysis of the Bill detailing these issues. It is understandable that the Coalition would want to avoid such scrutiny of this ill-conceived and disingenuous bill. As previously stated, this bill was 100% politics and had very little to do with koala habitat protection.
We therefore welcome the withdrawal of the bill. It means that existing processes under planning policies and environmental zones can continue to apply to rural land; and land clearing laws will not be further relaxed in sensitive areas.
What happens next?
The suggestion that negotiations on koala policy must go back to the drawing board is of serious concern. There was extensive consultation on the development the new Koala SEPP that commenced in March. It has taken the NSW Government 10 years to update the list of koala habitat trees to make it more scientifically accurate, and there was significant and protracted delay between consultation and finalisation of the updated SEPP.
The parliamentary inquiry into koalas[ii] found that without intervention – including making our laws stronger – koalas could be extinct in NSW by 2050. Some experts predict extinction even sooner, and certainly some local populations are in immediate peril due to recent development approval decisions.
Frankly, we can’t wait another decade to debate the wording of a new koala policy or guideline. We need to address the fact that our laws currently allow clearing of important koala habitat.
This Bill was the exact opposite of the law reform that is needed to save NSW koalas from extinction. And the decision to revert back to the former SEPP 44 is also a significant backwards step. Let’s hope the next legislation we see before the NSW parliament actually addresses the threats, puts in place evidence-based protections such as off-limits areas, and protects our iconic koalas for generations to come.
[i] See https://www.nsw.gov.au/media-releases/gladys-berejiklian-john-barilaro-media-statement-local-land-services
[ii] See https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/committees/inquiries/Pages/inquiry-details.aspx?pk=2536