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Speech: Matter of Public Importance - NSW Koala Population

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 18 Sep 2018

Koalas in New South Wales face extinction by 2050. This is the harsh reality that we are grappling with today. This is no accident. It is due to the continued, insistent effort of the New South Wales Liberal-National government in pushing these species to the brink through badly planned infrastructure, through logging of native forests and through their ecocidal land-clearing laws. This is a matter of public importance because we are losing an iconic species, and we know exactly why that is happening. Koalas, trees and forests are an inconvenience for mining companies, for big agribusinesses and for big property developers. They want the ability to clear what they want, when they want and they're willing to pay big in corporate donations.

Koalas are on the pointy end of corrosive and corrupt conduct in politics, and the federal government is doing nothing. It is sitting on its hands, waiting for this destruction and devastation to happen. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is meant to be the Australian government's central piece of environmental legislation. It is meant to provide a framework to protect and manage nationally and internationally significant plants and animals. It was established because we recognised that there is an appropriate role for the Commonwealth in relation to the environment by focusing Commonwealth attention on matters of national environmental significance. With the ongoing and accelerating decline of koalas in my home state of New South Wales under the helm of the worst-ever state government for the environment, it is clear that these Commonwealth laws need a rewrite. They provide for ministerial discretion over concrete action far too often. The Commonwealth must have the power to step in and protect iconic species like the koalas.

In New South Wales, koala populations have shrunk by ¼ over the last 20 years to just 36,000, according to the New South Wales chief scientist. Koala numbers in the Pilliga have dropped by a staggering 80 per cent since the 1990s while, west of the Great Dividing Range, 90 per cent of known populations are in decline. It is estimated that only about 8,000 koalas remain on the New South Wales North Coast in several colonies. Almost every koala population in New South Wales is believed to be in decline, and those that are not are coming under pressure from inappropriate development like at Macarthur, Camden and Campbelltown. No comprehensive koala management plan, no consideration of connectivity corridors and pandering to greedy developers are exacerbating the destruction of koalas.

Koalas, like many other threatened species, also bear the brunt of global warming and climate change. They are one of 10 species worldwide recognised by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to be highly vulnerable to climate change. Again, what is the coalition government doing to tackle climate change? Zilch, zero, nothing! We can only expect this to accelerate under the policies of the federal and New South Wales Liberal-National governments.

I'm sure many of you are aware of the New South Wales government's disastrous land-clearing laws, which are a catastrophe for our environment, threatened species, biodiversity, climate and, of course, koalas. For those of you who don't know the full story, let me say it in a nutshell: in late 2016, the final week of parliament for the year, the New South Wales Liberal-National government pushed through—literally in the middle of the night—legislation to abolish laws that protect biodiversity, native animals and vegetation. They have replaced them with a much weaker and flawed model that will lead to more and more land clearing and loss of habitat. Instead of rules that stop broadscale clearing, native trees can now be bulldozed using self-assessable causes with little or no oversight. We won't even know what we've lost until it's gone. Just before the laws were run through parliament, the World Wildlife Fund released modelling that showed that 2.2 million hectares of koala habitat could be cleared under the proposed weak laws. That represents about 10 per cent of known or likely koala habitats in New South Wales. As shocking as that is, I'm sorry to report that those WWF numbers were very wide off the mark.

We know the real numbers from a document obtained by the Nature Conservation Council. This document was produced by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. This was the document the New South Wales environment minister signed to enact these laws. It talks about losses of not 10 per cent of koala habitat, not 20 per cent of koala habitat or even 80 per cent of koala habitat; literally 99 per cent of koala habitat can be legally cleared under these laws. The government and the minister for the environment knew full well that they were signing the death warrant for koalas, and yet they went ahead and did it.

The community, the Greens and I, as the New South Wales environment spokesperson at that time, fought tooth and nail to stop those laws. Every environment group opposed those laws. The esteemed Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists opposed those laws. Even their own adviser on the laws, Professor Hugh Possingham, quit in disgust. Josh Gilbert resigned as chair of New South Wales Young Farmers, arguing in New Matilda that the policy risks not only the repetition of past errors but also the trading of long-term profitability for short-sighted practices. They didn't take this seriously. The minister at the time even said:

The great majority of land that may be legally capable of being cleared will not be cleared.

I think this sums up the fairytale land that they live in.

Now we are facing the grave on-ground reality of the consequences. A recent report from the World Wildlife Fund and Nature Conservation Council has confirmed that, since the laws passed, more than 5,000 hectares of koala habitat have been bulldozed in the New South Wales district of Moree and surrounding areas at a rate of about 14 football fields a day. That's 14 hectares every single day. At this rate, soon we'll have nothing left. Underpinning all this is the Biodiversity Offsets policy. Let me be clear: we aren't fooled by the government's spin doctors. No amount of scam that is biodiversity offsetting can replace an ecosystem once it has been destroyed. Once gone, it's gone forever.

Where is the Commonwealth government in all of this? Documents obtained under Freedom of Information show that the predecessor for the current offsetting policy, the New South Wales government's Biodiversity Offsets policy, for major projects was found by federal government environment experts to be significantly weaker than the national standards, but it was, nonetheless, shamefully approved anyway. The federal government has responsibility to protect koalas, but they are failing dismally. The Australian and New South Wales governments are jointly funding the Woolgoolga to Ballina Pacific Highway upgrade. I'm an engineer, so of course I agree that we need to upgrade our roads, but we can do it without destroying the environment. They have gone out of their way to choose an option that was the most destructive, cutting into core koala habitat. I've been to that region many times and it is absolutely heartbreaking to see the bulldozers ramming through core koala habitat. We can and must be much smarter. We could have had both a safer Pacific Highway and a protected koala population.

Finally, the federal government has failed to take action to protect koalas from forestry in New South Wales. In recent years, koalas have been injured, killed or found in really poor health in logging operations. According to the National Parks Association, regional forestry agreements allow proposals to log in public forests and these proposals do not require the usual approvals under the EPBC Act. This has devastated koala habitats over the past two decades. All this is nothing short of ecocide. I don't use the term 'ecocide' lightly, but what the Liberals and the Nationals are doing is deliberate, it is wilful and they know full well of the destructive consequences of their actions. The Australian government needs to see koalas as a national treasure, deserving of protection so that they can not only survive but also thrive way into the future.

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