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Barilaro's gift to the koala

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NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (Screenshots via YouTube) have had a very public stoush over the beleaguered koala (Imaga via Koala Crisis / Facebook) but protections for the species remain weak

The NSW Government’s record on koala protection is as appalling as Barilaro's threats, writes Sue Arnold.

NEWS SOUTH WALES Deputy Premier and National Party Leader John Barilaro has done the koala a massive favour.   

Barilaro’s latest threat to take National Party ministers and members to the crossbench over the Koala Habitat Protection (SEPP 2019) legislation has the beleaguered marsupial gracing the front pages and news bulletins of the mainstream media. And there’s no doubt about the extent of public anger over the National Party’s anti-koala, anti-environmental platforms.

With NSW Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her ministers now crowing over their “victory”, along with mainstream media compliments on "standing firm” and “staring down” Barilaro, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Liberals are the koala's staunchest allies.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Mainstream media has, as usual, omitted some key facts which are entirely relevant to this latest political reality show.

The new SEPP habitat legislation came into effect from 1 March 2020. This is an important date as NSW was in the midst of catastrophic bushfires. In January, Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley stated her concern that over 8,000 koalas had been incinerated on the mid-north coast.

By March, it was unclear how many koalas had died, how many remained but that the extent of koala habitat loss was at least 24 per cent, according to a report by the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment.  

Has the koala mapping on which the new SEPP policy relies been updated?

The new SEPP is even weaker than the previous SEPP 44. Neither planning policy document is mandatory. This is an important point. The Coalition leaders in NSW are arguing over a policy which has no mandatory legal status, no compliance, no monitoring and highly questionable public interest standing in any legal challenges.

When the new SEPP was put out for public comment by the Department of Planning last year, Independent Australia went through every submission on the departmental website. Not one submission supported the changes. 

The new SEPP koala map:

'...reduces the total land application of the SEPP from approximately 54 million hectares to approximately 25 million hectares across NSW (councils can now only survey for core koala habitat to be included in Koala Plans of Management within the mapped area).'

A key issue in the old and new SEPPs is the "koala plan of management" (KPoM). A number of councils who have submitted plans under the old SEPP 44 can demonstrate the failure of the Department of Planning to approve the KPoMs years later. 

Nor is there any mandatory obligation for councils to prepare KPoMs. And if a developer breaches a KPoM, the record demonstrates few, if any, legal actions on the part of councils. 

The new SEPP relies on a different definition of core koala habitat.

The legal firm, Holding Redlich, provides an excellent analysis of the latest SEPP definition:

Updates to the definition of "core koala habitat"

The definition of core koala habitat under SEPP 44 was criticised for being difficult to narrow as it required evidence of resident populations, including evidence of breeding females. The new SEPP simplifies this by stating that core koala habitat will include land where koalas are present, land where koalas have been recorded as being historically present, and will also extend to land which has been assessed as highly suitable koala habitat.

IA notes that this would require a major environmental assessment of remaining populations surviving the catastrophic bushfires, together with a current, independent post-bushfire assessment of any mapping by the NSW State Government of known koala habitat.

Given that the Berejiklian Government has consistently refused to undertake any population assessments of remaining populations, the new definition can hardly be described as a "simplification".

As well, a recent study by WWF demonstrates that 71 per cent of the state's koalas have perished since the bushfires, combined with three years of drought. 

The yet to be adopted Koala Habitat Protection SEPP, according to the Holding Redlich analysis,

...provides that a council may prepare a koala plan of management in respect of whole or part of its local government area. This koala plan of management must be prepared:

  • by a suitably qualified and experienced person, being a person with a degree in ecology, environmental management, forestry or other qualification, and with experience in conducting koala surveys
  • in accordance with the *Guideline issued by the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (Department)
  • having regard to a survey of the land for core koala habitat.

Land may only be identified in a Koala Plan of Management if it is identified on the Site Investigation Area for Koala Plans of Management Map, and is core koala habitat.

(*IA notes this Guideline is only available in draft form and has not been formally adopted.)

The introduction of two new maps means councils and landholders are no longer required to identify potential koala habitat and this definition has been removed.

Exempt and complying development, as well as State significant development and State significant infrastructure, continue to be exempt from the Koala SEPP.

Forestry on private land is a big issue for the Nationals. 

Under frequently asked questions, this departmental response raises important concerns:

Does the Koala SEPP stop me from undertaking Private Native Forestry on my land?

The relationship between the Koala SEPP and other legislation remains exactly the same. That is, land identified as core koala habitat has the same impact now as it did under SEPP 44. The Koala SEPP can only prevent you from undertaking PNF on your land if your council prepares a KPoM and identifies your land as core koala habitat.

The NSW Audit office released a report last year on vegetation clearing, which has profound implications for the latest Berejiklian/Barilaro koala stoush:

The report found the clearing of native vegetation on rural land is not effectively regulated and managed. The processes supporting the regulatory framework are weak and there is no evidence-based assurance that clearing of native vegetation is carried out in accordance with approvals. 

Clearing of native vegetation on rural land has increased in recent years, OEH estimates the rate of loss of woody vegetation from cropping, pasture and thinning increased from 9,200 hectares in 2013–14 to 20,200 hectares in 2016–17. Over the same period the extent of unexplained clearing of woody vegetation has almost doubled from around 5,600 hectares to around 10,300 hectares. The latest information compiled regarding the amount of land cleared (that is, for 2016–17).

Despite the high number of reports and the substantial number of investigations opened, only two or three prosecutions for unlawful clearing take place each year, and few remedial directions and penalty notices are issued to landholders.

The NSW Coalition Government’s record on koala protection is as appalling as the threats by Barilaro and his national cronies.

The main game is political expediency and public perception. Koalas have zero priority except as political spin.

On the plus side, the extent of public concern for koalas is significant. Politicians who ignore this reality will surely pay at the polls.

Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.

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