Biodiversity Conservation Bill 2016; Local Land Services Amendment Bill 2016

16th November 2016

Mr GREG PIPER ( Lake Macquarie ) ( 17:52 :45 ): I say at the outset that I will not be making reference to the Orange by-election in my contribution to debate on the Biodiversity Conservation Bill 2016 and Local Land Services Amendment Bill 2016. I will not dwell on the problems of The Nationals over the past weekend because these bills were prepared well before that debacle. I understand it is a sore point. I offer my commiserations to The Nationals.

I oppose the significant and complex Biodiversity Conservation Bill 2016 on a number of grounds but acknowledge that there is a need to address areas of failure within the existing legislation and the complex web of regulation and State environmental planning policies that provide the framework for environmental and biodiversity protection in New South Wales. In the relatively short period since European settlement we have had a huge impact on the natural environment and only relatively recently have we have taken serious steps to try to address it. A big step towards doing that was the introduction of the Native Vegetation Act 2003 by the Carr Labor Government.

Some Government speakers have levelled quite a lot of unfair criticism at that Act and at Bob Carr, a Premier who at least for his understanding of and action on the environment should be hailed rather than derided. I believe that in that period Bob Carr changed our mindset about caring for the environment, even though we could argue about the way in which it was done. The Native Vegetation Act was widely consulted on and enacted with the best of intentions. Indeed, contrary to some claims, it has delivered significantly to protect endangered flora and fauna. Could it be better and does the suite of environmental protection legislation need updating? Of course. No-one would argue otherwise.

I acknowledge that the Government has engaged widely with the community in a bid to find a balance between key stakeholders, the competing demands of a modern world and the needs of our natural environment. However, I do not believe this bill achieves that balance. It does not reflect the substantial amount of advice and feedback the Government received during the public engagement process. I would go as far as to say that while the Government consulted it did not listen to a great deal of the advice and feedback it got.

Despite the best of intentions—and I believe that we all have good intentions in regard to this matter—no-one has found a sure way to sustain our farming and food growing interests, protect and restore our failing environment or reverse the rise in the number of species lost forever. The New South Wales State of the Environment Report told us in 2015 that the numbers of species and ecological communities facing obliteration were continuing to increase. At the end of 2014 there were 999 fauna and flora species and 108 threatened ecological communities listed under the State's threatened species legislation. We know that figure is continuing to climb.

Lake Macquarie is one of the largest and fastest-growing council areas in New South Wales. Western Lake Macquarie is taking much of the growth in the Lower Hunter, which is placing a great strain on it to accommodate that growth while protecting the environment. The pressing need for conservation in western Lake Macquarie has only increased since the release of the Lower Hunter Regional Conservation Plan in 2012. That plan identified the area as "supporting a diverse range of vegetation communities, most of which are not yet adequately represented in..." reserves or parks. It went on to say "...the area provides critical corridors for these species between the Watagan Mountains and Lake Macquarie" and acknowledged "additional conservation areas in west Lake Macquarie are clearly the next highest priority for the future".

With the exception of some minor improvements there has been no further significant action to conserve and protect major tracts of land with high environmental value. That is despite significant pushes from the community to do so, particularly in the Awaba district. I have never been a great supporter of biodiversity offsets within planning instruments. There is a need to address the problems with the provisions that in some cases seem like a shell game and do not provide the benefits to the environment for which they are so often lauded.

I note the findings in successive New South Wales State of the Environment reports that show the extent of the deterioration in native vegetation in this State. As the last report shows, only 9 per cent of native vegetation in New South Wales is regarded as being close to its original condition. To a degree I accept the comments from the Minister for Primary Industries, and Minister for Lands and Water, the Hon. Niall Blair, who told the other place that "the burden of protecting biodiversity on privately owned land will no longer be borne by farmers alone". I agree that the burden should not be carried by one particular group. I also agree that existing native vegetation laws do not provide enough incentive to landowners to improve and protect biodiversity on their land. This bill goes some way towards improving that with the provision of carrots, but its other provisions risk environmental protection because of a lack of so-called sticks.

In August we learned that the amount of land being cleared for crops and pasture is accelerating at a rapid rate in New South Wales. More than 13,500 hectares of land were cleared in the three years to 2014, yet 59 per cent of it was unexplained clearing. No doubt the vast majority of farmers do the right thing and I know that there are many who are passionate conservationists when regulation does not improve the outcome on their property. However, clearly some landowners are not doing their bit for conservation. Land clearing is the overwhelming concern for the many individuals and groups that have contacted my office about this legislation, and I share their concern. These bills will significantly expand the potential for private landowners to clear their properties of native vegetation—that is inarguable. I believe the use of code-based land clearing provides a system that increases significantly the types of clearing that can be carried out without oversight.

Land that is categorised as "blue" or "exempt" fails to consider that land cleared 25 years ago may have been rehabilitated at some stage and therefore offers a new conservation value. Just because a parcel of land was cleared 25 years ago for some farming purpose does not, and should not, automatically qualify it as land that can be cleared again without any checks and balances. When similar legislation was passed in Queensland—the Government does not want this comparison to be made but inevitably it will be—the rate of land clearing tripled in just five years. That legislation is now regarded in many quarters as an unmitigated environmental disaster. It is now widely argued that code-based land clearing should apply only to small-scale, low-impact land clearing and not as a blanket, one-size-fits-all rule—and I agree.

As to biodiversity offsets, I am particularly concerned at the removal from existing laws of the "maintain or improve" standard. This standard rule requires the environmental cost of any land clearing to be offset by improvements elsewhere on the same property. We need new regulation to repair and restore our biodiversity and to conserve what we have left, so this is truly reflective of the shortfalls in this legislation. I understand the need for a balanced approach to land use but the continuing loss of native vegetation, or maintaining the status quo, is simply not sustainable and creates a very bleak outlook for future generations. Indeed, the creation of new State parks and reserves has stalled significantly since the Government's election in 2011, and there has been very little investment in areas that are currently protected. In 2016 our environment is suffering. We should not need to debate environmental protection continually. We know that plant and animal species are disappearing and we know that large tracts of land are being decimated, but this legislation does not give adequate attention to any future impacts on the environment from climate change. [Extension of time]

More than 100 species have disappeared from this State over the past 200 years. If we continue down this path, 1,000 others will go the same way and even more species will be added to the endangered list. Everyone apparently loves a koala, and koalas are being pushed to the edge. As sad as the impact on that emblematic species is, the loss is much wider and more critical than that. This Government, like all governments, has an obligation to protect what is left for future generations. It has the opportunity to make the tough calls and start repairing and restoring some of the damage caused by those governments that came before it. This legislation certainly has elements that are worthy of inclusion in a biodiversity strategy, such as addressing compensation for landholders so that any financial burden of conservation is shared, but it will potentially result in a regrettable return to large-scale and unwarranted land clearing.

This legislation is a radical change to the status quo and if the Government has got it wrong the impact on our flora and fauna will be huge. The Government has the numbers to advance the bill and by the time we leave here tomorrow the bill will have passed both Houses. Many farmers and landholders will be delighted, and I wish them no ill will. I trust that, having received the outcome many of them sought, they will prosper but that they collectively ensure that the natural environment also benefits and prospers. In closing, I am frustrated that our environment is once again a political football driven by deep ideological convictions and rifts. Indeed, our future generations, and the environment we are leaving them, deserve more. This legislation does not strike the right balance between competing demands on land uses and it will not deliver the positive environmental outcomes that the Government is so proudly proclaiming. I am swayed by the contributions to this debate by the peak environmental groups, scientists and many farmers who share a very different view from that promulgated by proponents of this legislation. I oppose the bills.

Website: Read full Parliamentary debate

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