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Berejiklian Government's latest koala plan out of touch with reality

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The Berejiklian Government refuses to take koala protection seriously (Image by Dan Jensen)

The latest koala plan from the NSW Government has outraged conservationists and destroyed any remaining credibility, writes Sue Arnold.

A RECENT Sydney Morning Herald editorial urged NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian ‘not to abandon her environmental policies’.

The statement beggars belief. Given the recent approval of a new state environment planning policy for koalas effectively giving Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s department control of koalas on private land, the Berejiklian Government has abandoned any shred of credibility.

The record speaks for itself. On 3 March, at a Budget Estimates hearing, NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean claimed the number of koalas in NSW was 20,000 and that he planned to double the state’s population.

Labor’s Penny Sharpe asked Kean where the 20,000 figure came from. Kean replied it was “the number that was included in the Parliament Inquiry report, referring to the Legislative Council’s inquiry into koalas last year.

Kean was either unaware of his own government’s submission to the inquiry which cited research from 2012 estimating 36,000 koalas in the state or he mislead the Budget Estimates Committee. He would also have to have been aware that the NSW Chief Scientist’s report on koalas in 2016 claimed 36,000 in spite of the fact that this number contradicted the Federal Government assessment of 21,000 in 2010. Not only do koalas not breed like rabbits but the methodology used by the Chief Scientist, relying on desktop estimates, was highly questionable.

In response to Kean’s answer, Sharpe – a member of the Parliamentary Inquiry into koalas – commented that as 90 per cent of koala populations are in decline, how did Kean plan to double the population by 20,000? A reasonable question. One that neither Kean nor anyone in the Berejiklian Government can answer.

In fact, no one has any idea how many koalas remain in the state. What is known is that Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley announced in January 2020 that 8,000 koalas had been incinerated on the mid-north coast during the bushfires. Since that announcement, the Berejiklian Government has ensured no population surveys would be undertaken to establish remaining koala numbers.

Government ministers’ statements on koala numbers relying on significantly out-of-date question estimates are unacceptable. However, this major policy failure doesn’t constrain the Government from continuing to play the numbers game.

At the Parliament Inquiry into koalas last year, Dr Matthew Crowther, Associate Professor of the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at Sydney University, explained that the koala population is difficult to estimate:

“Numbers are very difficult. They range from people who have done very good, localised surveys to people who just make it up. I would never want to give an estimate in NSW. Many populations are very low density and very hard to estimate.”

Dr Crowther also indicated another reason it was difficult to estimate koalas number was that “one could not predict what changes there could be in the future”. He advocated for the precautionary principle.

A major drought preceding catastrophic bushfires resulted in concerning reports of mortality from wildlife shelters and hospitals as koalas died of starvation and thirst. These numbers have never been estimated or taken into account.

Kean’s response to the Budget Estimates Committee on how he planned to build up koala numbers is eye-watering:

“I have assembled an expert panel on some of the country’s leading scientists... the science will look at a number of things which include how to treat disease, how to protect from vehicle and dog attacks, how to do translocations. It would also look at things, the most important factor being the protection of habitat, both on private and also obviously public land.”

This response can only be regarded as spin. Just five days later, the Department of Planning announced the new state environmental planning policy for koalas.

The Koala SEPP 21 has outraged conservation organisations. It does not apply to rural and forestry zones which comprise 90 per cent of private forests in northeast NSW. Further, a new provision allows the secretary of the department of regional NSW (National Party leader Barilaro’s bailiwick) to have a concurrent role in any future koala plans of management.   

Development controls over koala habitat and rezoning will also be subject to agreement by the secretary of Barilaro’s department. Once private native forestry codes are developed in line with the SEPP, development consent for private native forestry will be removed.

In the department’s frequently asked questions flyer, the document indicates that code updates will be made by Barilaro with the agreement of Kean.

In other words, Barilaro is now in charge of koala conservation in NSW.   

The planning departmental blurb outlines the principles of the Koala SEPP 21 as to:

  • help reverse the decline of koala populations by ensuring koala habitat is properly considered during the development assessment process; and
  • provide a process for councils to strategically manage koala habitat through the development of koala plans of management.

Noting there is no consideration of any protection of remaining habitat.

Minister for Planning Rob Stokes is responsible for the new SEPP. In a recent publication of Pittwater Life, a popular magazine in the northern beaches which includes his electorate of Pittwater, Stokes made more outrageous claims.

Stokes claimed 20-30 thousand koalas in the wild in NSW. His statement asserts the Government has already protected almost 8,000 additional hectares of core koala habitat in national parks and conservation areas. In contrast to the campaign focused on the creation of the Great Koala National Park encompassing approximately 300,000 hectares, Stokes’ claim of 8,000 hectares is insignificant in terms of any species protection.

Stokes further asserts that the new SEPP has already enabled a plan to better protect koalas in Campbelltown. This is a statement that is guaranteed to disgust local conservation organisations fighting massive urbanisation by LendLease, the Walker Corporation and the Greater MacArthur Project — projects destined to eradicate the last healthy surviving koala population in not only southwest Sydney but potentially the state. Projects all approved by Stokes.

In the article, Stokes indicates that Bellingen will be the next plan for protecting koalas. Bellingen has recently been described as a wood bowl for the forest industry. Industrial logging of critically important forests is escalating and “renewable energy” targets low lying forests, regrowth areas and native vegetation to be burnt for electricity. 

Stokes said:

I have seen first hand the impacts of poorly designed urban development on koala habitat. The new koala SEPP is a big step forward in protecting koala habitat from inappropriate development.

 

More needs to be done to protect the negative impacts of logging or intensive agriculture in the wrong areas.

 

It is vital to ensure that developers are forced to take koala protection seriously.

Indeed.  

Forest activists and community campaigners would be happy to show Stokes the negative impacts of his approvals.

In reality, it’s long overdue for the government he serves to be forced to take koala protection seriously. Undertaking a population survey to find out how many koalas remain in NSW has never been more urgent.

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

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