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Gloves come off between Berejiklian and Barilaro over 'koala war'

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John Barliaro threatened to split the Coalition by taking his MPs to the crossbench over the divisive koala planning policy (Image by Dan Jensen)

The future of Australia’s wildlife is at the mercy of political gamesmanship and politicians who don't understand its importance, writes Sue Arnold.

THE STOUSH over koalas between NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Nationals leader John Barilaro has, according to The Sydney Morning Herald front page, become the ‘koala war’, with Barilaro threatening to take his MPs to the crossbenches unless a new extremely weak State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) for koalas is made even weaker. 

Barilaro is having a temper tantrum. It’s familiar behaviour, although more appropriate in kindergarten.

This is the same man who backed overturning the nuclear power ban; vowed to introduce legislation stripping protection of the 42,000 hectare Murray Valley National Park, opening it up to logging; paid a visit to his luxurious $2 million holiday house hired out via Airbnb to “feed chickens, mow lawns and tend to maintenance” during the height of the COVID-l9 crisis banning travel.

Not forgetting the Eden-Monaro election debacle with Barilaro at war with Liberal MP Andrew Constance.

The ABC aptly described the Nationals’ efforts:

‘But the behaviour of the Nationals concerning the pre-selection of a candidate for the seat of Eden-Monaro is a timely reminder that this rump is not just a self-indulgent rabble but also a menace to orderly government.’

The same article quotes Barilaro’s comment on Minister Don Harwin’s escapade during the height of the COVID-l9 epidemic:

‘In the public eye, it looks like politicians believe they're above the rules and above the law and we're not.’

On the other side of the boxing ring is Berejiklian, her statement after the release of the Upper House inquiry into koalas one of the best examples of political spin:

“I want to be the Premier that saves our koala population into the future.”

Perhaps “into the future” is the key to this statement given that logging continues in koala habitat, mines are being given approval and a huge quarry extension at Port Stephens will impact koala habitat in an area where koalas are on the brink.

Unfortunately, there’s no relief in switching to federal politicians and their virtually non-existent environmental credentials.

The Streamlining Environment Approvals Bill was passed in the House of Representatives with the Government gagging any debate or amendments.

The Bill will transfer development approval powers to state and territory governments with no national standards included or independent regulator as recommended by Professor Graeme Samuels in his interim review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

In much the same way as certain groups in the Native American Indian tribe, the Makah of Washington State, argued that killing grey whales would help young people get off drugs and alcohol, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Environment Minister Sussan Ley argue that changes to the EPBC Act are necessary for economic recovery from the COVID-19 epidemic.

Ley attempts to reassure a very concerned scientific and environmental community that:

“There will be more reforms to follow. We will develop strong Commonwealth-led national environmental standards, which will underpin new bilateral agreements with state governments.”

The complexities raised if the Senate passes the legislation are mind-boggling.

For starters, the available evidence indicates that bilateral agreements between states and the Federal Government have provided the green light for massive developments without adequate independent scrutiny. Wildlife or the environment are paying the price. So the rationale for further weakening any Commonwealth protection is moot.

At a time when the koala is on the precipice of extinction in NSW and Queensland, there’s no mention of the long-awaited Koala Recovery Plan which has now spent eight years in the government closet.   

Will states be expected to create their own recovery plans for not only koalas but any wildlife species impacted by developments?

What about climate change impacts? Seriously, the evidence is irrefutable.

The NSW Bushfire Inquiry found that climate change made a significant contribution to the fires. The World Weather Attribution consortium estimated climate change boosted Australia’s bushfire risk by at least 30 per cent.

What role will the Common Assessment Method play given that only one national listing of a species is now permitted?

Then there’s questions about how a nation which has sustained a loss of over 3 billion animals in catastrophic bushfires can justify a complete lack of focus, policy and action which ensures wildlife survival.

The Commonwealth Government has ratified some 33 international treaties, including important conventions dealing with environmental issues and biodiversity. Will the Commonwealth retain any role in abiding by its international undertakings?

Does the Streamlining Environmental Approvals Bill comply with the Commonwealth’s international obligations?

The Australian Government Productivity Commission, in its Resources Sector Regulation published in March 2020, made the following observations in a section subheaded ‘The EPBC Act’:

The Constitution does not confer a general power on the Commonwealth to regulate the environment or resources. As such, environmental regulation is primarily the responsibility of state and territory governments.

 

However, the Australian Government has relied on its other constitutional powers, including those over external affairs (such as giving effect to international treaties), water, trade and commerce, and corporations, to pass laws relating to environmental matters such as the EPBC Act.

 

Matters protected under the EPBC Act include both matters of national environmental significance and those involving the Commonwealth (such as actions on Commonwealth land or actions by the Commonwealth).

 

Each of the matters of national environmental significance in the EPBC Act are linked to these constitutional powers (such as Australia’s international obligations to conserve particular environmental features).

 

The matters of national environmental significance include:

 

  • the world heritage values of World Heritage properties and the national heritage values of National Heritage places;
  • the ecological character of Ramsar wetlands;
  • listed threatened species, ecological communities and migratory species;
  • nuclear actions, including uranium mines (the “uranium trigger”);
  • Commonwealth marine areas and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park; and
  • water resources in relation to coal seam gas development and large coal mining developments (the “water trigger”).

The Law Council has called for a parliamentary inquiry expressing its concern that the Bill must not be rushed through:

The Law Council stresses the importance of placing approvals bilateral agreements within a strong assurance framework that clearly demonstrates how the Commonwealth Government will ensure that its obligations under international law will be met. 

 

This assurance framework must be clear, transparent to the public and properly developed. We have an independent inquiry that has not even had the chance to complete its final report and reflect on over 3,000 unique submissions by concerned people and organisations. We must let that run its due course before embarking on this significant change.

Survival of Australia’s unique, iconic wildlife species is at the mercy of political gamesmanship, outdated understanding of the importance of a healthy environment and politicians who are clearly unfit for office. 

The solution is simple — strengthen environmental protection by upgrading state and federal environmental legislation to allow for independent scientific assessments, ensure the national focus on repairing, restoring and protecting remaining wildlife and ecosystems.

That way a healthy environment guarantees a healthy economy. 

Meantime, University of Sydney constitutional law expert Professor Anne Twomey is reported in The Sydney Morning Herald saying:

“All National Party ministers who support this policy [moving to the crossbench over the SEPP] would have to resign immediately [because] their continuance in office would be a fundamental breach of the constitutional principle of responsible government.”

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

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