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Return of Mike Baird to NSW politics would be an environmental disaster

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Former NSW Premier Mike Baird cause great destruction to the environment by repealing protective legislation (Screenshot via YouTube)

Reports of Prime Minister Scott Morrison trying to persuade former NSW Premier Mike Baird to contest Tony Abbott’s old seat of Warringah, now held by Independent Zali Steggall, should give any conservation-minded person considerable cause for concern.

It was Baird who was responsible for the collapse of NSW environmental legislation. His 2015 election promise to the National Party resulted in NSW Liberals scrapping laws that protected threatened species and native vegetation.

The Threatened Species Act, Native Vegetation Act and parts of the National Parks and Wildlife Act were repealed and replaced with the Biodiversity Conservation Act and the Local Land Services Amendment Act which resulted in massive land clearing, loss of biodiversity and public interest legal challenge rights.

In 2016, a report on native vegetation clearing showed clearing had skyrocketed from 40,500 hectares in 2011/12 to 105,900 hectares in 2012/13. Destruction of the native vegetation continued under Baird’s legislative changes.

A NSW Audit Office report in 2019 demonstrated almost 170,000 hectares had been cleared over the previous 18 months.

Alongside the Biodiversity Conservation Act, a Biodiversity Offsets Scheme was approved ‘to avoid, minimise and offset the impacts of proposed development and land use change on biodiversity’. A regulation allowed the proponent to buy credits, establish its own offset site or pay the Biodiversity Conservation Trust to find the offset. 

In other words, a legal morass was created ensuring that developers could buy approval for habitat destruction.  

The Baird Government cut funding to the Office of Environment and Heritage subsequently eradicated by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian in one of her first acts in office after the 2019 Election.    

In 2016, Labor’s former Shadow Minister for the Environment, Penny Sharpe, accused Baird of conducting a war on trees. A minor skirmish in comparison with the destruction which followed.

A war against nature has continued without pause with the state’s environment reeling under a sustained and potentially irreversible attack by the Coalition Government.

In March 2020, Justin Field, MLC obtained a previously secret report by the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) into the impacts of the NSW Government’s changes to land clearing laws in 2016. The report demonstrated land clearing approvals had increased by 1,200% since 2016. The NRC report described the land clearing as a ‘state-wide risk to biodiversity’.

The Department of Planning published a report in January 2020 indicating 5.3 million hectares of land, 40% of state forest land and 37% of national park estate had been burnt in the 2019-2020 bushfires.

In spite of damage to the state forests, logging was approved in 11 burnt state forests with experts warning that vulnerable species will be pushed to extinction.

Important reports have been ignored.

The Federal Government’s Threatened Species Scientific Committee 10-point Bushfire Response Plan defined critically important objectives to deliver an efficient and effective response including:

1. Advise the Minister on species that may be eligible for listing and uplisting as quickly as possible;

2. Accelerate processes for assessment and re-assessment of priority species; and

4. Respond to community interests about the impacts of the 2019-2020 fires on biodiversity.
(a) Accept public nominations for assessment and re-assessment of species and ecological communities at any time and continue to consider them in proposed priority assessment list process.
(c) Consider potential for listing/uplisting of species that are highly valued by the community ( e.g. koala) by undertaking preliminary evaluations immediately.

The Berejiklian Government’s response? A complete rejection and refusal to undertake any population surveys to establish how many koalas survived the fires. No effort was made to uplist the koala or other wildlife significantly impacted. All recommendations of the TSSC were ignored.

There was to be no let up in forestry operations, major urbanisation projects and infrastructure which impacted remaining koala habitat.

The environmentally destructive juggernaut rolled on, ignoring a report by the Department of Planning which demonstrated:

‘...that a preliminary analysis by the threatened species scientific committee found that several critical habitat attributes have been extensively lost or reduced by the bushfires, limiting the capacity of animals species to recover and repopulate burnt areas.

 

...further identifying two key threatening processes that will significant impact the survival and reoccupation of burnt forest habitat by fauna: the loss of hollow bearing trees and the removal of dead wood and dead trees.’

In June 2020, the findings of Upper House Committee of inquiry into koala populations and habitat was tabled in Parliament, together with 42 recommendations. The Government finally responded in December 2020 indicating a new NSW koala strategy which ‘will set an ambitious, long term agenda for doubling koala numbers by 2050’.

Response to the recommendations are either ‘noted’ or ‘supported in principle’.

In March 2021, the Government approved the SEPP Koala 2021, effectively removing any control over rezoning, koala plans of management by local councils, rural land and private native forestry. Decisions are to be made jointly by the Minister for Agriculture and Regional NSW, Deputy Premier John Barilaro, with the agreement of the NSW Minister for the Environment, Matt Kean. A curious shift in responsibilities.

A Budget Estimate hearing in March into the proposed expenditure for energy and environment, Kean’s bailiwick, demonstrated an extraordinary attitude by the Minister. Labor’s Penny Sharpe asked Kean to explain the science behind his statement in July 2020 indicating his desire to increase koala populations by 20,000 given that 90% of the state’s population is in decline.

When questioned on the current status of the koala population, Kean insisted his estimate of 20,000 was based on a “report to the parliamentary inquiry”. In fact, the Government’s own submission detailed a population of 36,000 citing research dated 2012.  

Asked how the Government planned to achieve any doubling of the population, Kean replied that he was ‘not going to apologise for setting ambitious plans to protect our most loved and iconic animals’. The Minister was unable to provide any plans or scientific proposals.

More recently, Planning Minister Rob Stokes, in an article he wrote for Pittwater Life, claimed a population between 20,000-30,000 with no published or peer-reviewed survey to support the estimate:

‘More needs to be done to protect koala habitat from the negative impacts of logging and intensive agriculture in the wrong areas.’

Given that the Forestry Corporation is now targeting critically important koala hubs in Newry, Nambucca and Pine Creek state forests, these are weasel words. Stokes is a growth devotee as evidenced by the Great MacArthur Growth Area with plans for 750,000 residences which will wipe out remaining southwest Sydney koala habitat.

A cursory check of the NSW Government’s complete failure to protect koalas and other wildlife impacted by the bushfires is bad enough. But when ongoing efforts to actively destroy remaining habitat are increasing exponentially, protected by legislation and blocking of public interest, there must be accountability.

Yet the Government continues to get away with spin. A dire situation.

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

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