The Berejiklian Government is boasting the creation of jobs in mining and land-clearing during the pandemic crisis, writes Sue Arnold.
IT HAD TO HAPPEN. Sooner or later, a state government was going to take maximum advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic. An obvious need that the economy would require a great deal of help has created fertile opportunities to make hay when the sun eventually shines, at the expense of democratic rights.
Any bets on the Berejiklian Government taking the lead would have cleaned up.
Shockingly, albeit predictably, it didn’t take long for the NSW Government’s priority agenda to seep out. One of the first indications was the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment’s approval in March of Peabody Energy’s extension of coal mining under one of Greater Sydney reservoirs.
According to environmental organisations Greenpeace and the National Parks Association, the extension could affect the water in the drinking catchment. A petition opposing the extension and signed by more than 10,000 people was made moot by the approval which wiped out any possibility of a parliamentary debate.
Historically, the approval is the first in the last 20 years allowing coal mining under a Greater Sydney reservoir.
In March, Independent MLC Justin Field was able to force the release of a previously secret report by the Natural Resources Commission on the impacts of the NSW Government’s changes to land clearing laws in 2016. The report revealed that land clearing approvals have increased by 1,200% since 2016.
Justin Field summed up his concerns in an email to IA:
The results are heartbreaking and evidence of the environmental vandalism being encouraged under the policies of the National Party in NSW.
The Natural Resources Commission report described land clearing as a “statewide risk to biodiversity.”
We always knew these laws were going to lead to more land clearing but I’ve been shocked by the results and even the few limited protections the laws give are not being complied with.
The NRC’s report found:
- in 2018/19, over 37,000 hectares were approved to be cleared, almost 13 times the annual average rate of approval in the ten years prior to 2016/17 of approximately 2,700 hectares;
- land clearing approvals almost doubled between 2018 (25,247 hectares) and 2019 (43,553 hectares) just after the most controversial element of the land clearing reform was implemented;
- almost 60% – or 7,100 hectares – of clearing between August 2017 and January 2018 was “unexplained”; and
- nine of 11 regions in NSW were assessed as a “high biodiversity risk” because of high levels of clearing and insufficient areas set aside for conservation, seemingly in contravention of the regulations.
Justin Field wrote:
Our environmental protection laws in NSW are broken. Rampant land clearing, the logging of burnt and unburnt forests and the diversion of billions of litres of water from our rivers are leaving forests, woodlands and grasslands and the biodiversity they support scarred and starved.
We are in a climate and extinction emergency, clearing more vegetation and releasing its carbon into the atmosphere is pouring more fuel onto the fire, it has to stop.
Last year, over half of north-east NSW's remnant native vegetation was burnt with the likely death of over 350 million native mammals, birds, lizards and frogs, including thousands of koalas.
Many species of plants and animals have had their populations decimated and are teetering on the brink of extinction, it is outrageous that the NSW Government is now allowing land-clearing and logging to push many populations over the brink.
Around the same time, the Australian National University released its report, Australia’s Environment in 2019. Their Environmental Condition Score (ECS) is data collated from‘a vast number of measurements on the state of our environment: weather, oceans, fire, water, soils, vegetation, population pressure, and biodiversity’.
Australia scored 0.8 out of ten. The report says that ‘immediate action is needed to put Australia’s environment on a course to recovery’.
The report indicates that the entire nation suffered terrible environmental conditions in 2019. Conditions which can be traced back to dry, hot conditions. Drought.
Even a cursory check of the report makes very grim reading. Dust storms, dieback of forests, wind erosion, dried up inland water systems, catastrophic biodiversity loss as a result of bushfires and drought have created a dire situation.
NSW scored 0.3 out of 10.
Undeterred by this critical report, NSW Planning Minister Robert Stokes announced that the Government ‘will cut red tape and fast track planning process to keep people in jobs and the construction industry moving throughout the COVID-19 crisis’.
The Planning System Acceleration Program will:
- create opportunities for more than 30,000 construction jobs in the next six months;
- fast-track assessments of State Significant Developments, rezonings and development applications (DAs), with more decisions to be made by the Minister if required;
- support councils and planning panels to fast-track local and regionally significant DAs;
- introduce a “one-stop shop” for industry to progress projects that may be “stuck in the system”;
- clear the current backlog of cases stuck in the Land and Environment Court with additional Acting Commissioners; and
- invest $70 million to co-fund vital new community infrastructure in North West Sydney including roads, drainage and public parks to unlock plans for the construction of thousands of new houses.
Unfortunately, pandemic restrictions make the likelihood of any legal action to restrain Minister Stokes’s enthusiastic eradication of planning legislation and the public interest somewhat difficult.
But it’s hard to believe Stokes could ‘clear the current backlog of cases stuck in the Land and Environment Court’ without a state takeover of the judiciary.
However, as Stokes appears to be the driving force for development at any cost alongside his premier, one unknown side effect of the mental state caused by the pandemic could be delusions of grandeur.
In March, again, there was another clear indication that any environmental epiphany at a government level as a result of the bushfires was wishful thinking. Forest destruction continued in spite of massive protests by the scientific and environmental communities. The NSW Forestry Corporation continued to log unburned forests.
Trucks were reported moving into areas which are part of the proposed Great Koala National Park.
A new State Environmental Planning Policy ( Koala Habitat Protection) 2019 was released further weakening any protection of koalas and their habitat. The SEPP has met with stiff opposition from beef producers, the timber industry and farmers.
An earlier search by IA of submissions to the draft SEPP failed to demonstrate a single submission in favour of the changes from the previous SEPP 44 (koalas).
In March, the NSW Government began its program to airdrop one million baits to kill predators of native animals.
A 2018 trial found non-target species consumed more than 71% of ground-laid meat baits, including ravens, crows, goannas, monitor lizards, marsupials and ants.
According to the report:
Four young dingoes died during this trial, representing only a 1.25% uptake by target. Despite monitoring with cameras and sand traps, 599 baits out of 961 in the trial disappeared without a trace.
These baits are not benign. Repeat doses can kill marsupials; non-lethal doses can kill pouch young. Secondary poisoning can also be lethal.
The day after April Fools' Day, Berejiklian gave Deputy Premier and National Party heavy John Barilaro his very own department. The Department of Regional NSW will be a voice in government for the bush.
Barilaro’s raison d’être can be summed up in a scathing attack on his Liberal colleagues last year.
Insisting he will ‘not allow the regions to suffer to appease city moderates and the crossbench, the party will also continue to allow and trust farmers to manage their land under the Biodiversity Laws, without the fear of prosecution and being treated as criminals by overzealous government agencies’.
If wildlife could pray, there would no doubt be a statewide vigil in the face of these appalling decisions by the NSW Government.
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