Local Land Services Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2020

21st October 2020

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (12:32:19): At the outset I note and appreciate that the Minister responsible for the Local Land Services Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2020 is present in the Chamber. I also acknowledge the return to the Chamber of the Deputy Premier and note his participation in debate on this important bill. Of course, members understand that the Deputy Premier was absent owing to personal circumstances. There has been a lot of discussion about the rift over koala protection legislation among members of the Liberal-Nationals Coalition. Setting all that aside, I always wished the Deputy Premier well and it is excellent that he contributed to debate on the bill today.

However, from listening to the debate one would think that opposing the bill is equivalent to being anti?farmer. That is just not the case. I do not believe that is the case on the part of the Opposition, The Greens and other members of the crossbench—in fact on the part of any of the people who have raised valid concerns about this legislation. I point out to the Minister and other members of the Government that what we all want is for koalas populations to be viable and to be able to survive in the wild in perpetuity not only in New South Wales but across Australia. Everybody knows that farming is a tough occupation and that farmers do not need ill?considered and unnecessary burdens. But I make the point strongly that opposing this bill does not make someone anti-farmer. Opposition to the bill acknowledges the sins of the past. While the State has excellent farmers, we all know that massive mistakes have been made by individuals, corporations and certain regulatory process that has allowed bad things to happen.

If past mismanagement had not occurred, there would not be as great an impact on broadacre farming, the environment in western New South Wales, water security and biodiversity as currently exists. It is simply not fair to say that farmers know how to farm and we should let everything else go. I acknowledge that probably the majority of farmers are good farmers, but it is a shame we are not debating legislation that will do more to aid in the recovery of the State's koala population or to restore the devastating loss of koala habitat that has occurred in recent decades, as well as during the past year's bushfires. It is also a shame that we are not debating legislation that will restore and protect our native forests but instead argue about how we manage what already has been logged. I also acknowledge that balancing competing interests is a complicated issue. I note the comments made by the Minister for Water, Property and Housing and member for Oxley about logging, the use of native hardwoods and the alternative of using imported timber from South-East Asia. However, in South-East Asia it is absolutely true to say that timber is being ripped out in enormous quantities with severe adverse impacts upon the native species, such as orangutans.

The production of cement also is hugely damaging to the environment. The point I make is that there are many factors and points of view that need to be taken into account when debating legislation on complex issues. However, one thing is clear: We could be doing a lot more to improve management of native forests and native species and we have a long way to go before we can be satisfied we have done enough. I acknowledge the aspirational goal of the Minister for Energy and Environment to double the State's koala population by 2050. I note it is not a goal of government policy. With all due respect, this legislation will not achieve that aim. In fact, the argument has been advanced that this bill will be neutral in its effect on koala populations in New South Wales. But some people believe it will be detrimental.

For the sake of argument, let us take at face value that the effect of this bill will be neutral. Maintaining the status quo when koala populations have been so devastated by urban expansion and broadacre clearing is not what we need right now. I find it difficult to reconcile the fact that only eight or nine months ago the world's eyes were on New South Wales as we struggled to extinguish the biggest bushfires in living memory. The fires claimed the lives of millions, if not billions, of native animals; yet today we are considering new legislation that the Minister describes as only maintaining the status quo and going only some way towards arresting the slide of koalas towards extinction.

As I hope I have made clear, the bill traverses the path of complex matters. I note the assurance by the Minister for Agriculture and Western New South Wales that the Government is pursuing other legislative reforms that better aim to protect koalas and increase koala habitat, but this amending bill is perhaps a better indication of the Government's immediate priorities. The bill appears to be more about mending the very well?publicised rift between the Coalition partners over the koala SEPP. I am still not sure who actually wins. This bill may go some way towards cutting some red tape for farmers and may restore some credibility to the Coalition in relation to this issue; however, in my opinion the bill does very little to help with the decline in the koala population in New South Wales. Over the 2019-20 summer we witnessed the devastating bushfires that resulted in a 50 per cent decline in koala populations in the Northern Rivers. The fires burned more than 322,000 hectares of native forests that in all likelihood was koala habitat. Sadly, it appears to many people in the community that sealing fractures in the Coalition and reducing red tape for farmers takes priority over doing something substantial about the catastrophic loss of koalas and koala habitat.

I cannot accept that we are debating this bill before we see the outcome of the Government's inquiry into this issue, which is currently underway by the upper House. Furthermore, this bill is inconsistent with recommendations made by the State's Independent Biodiversity Review Panel, the Natural Resources Commission and the NSW Audit Office. We speak here today about using the best possible science, so then why are we ignoring these expert bodies? [Extension of time]

In 2019 a review of the Land Management Framework by the Natural Resources Commission found that land clearing rates in New South Wales had increased by 13 times the amount cleared under the old laws—from an average of 2,703 hectares annually to 37,745 hectares annually under the new laws. Doesn't that raise a red flag? Further, the review reported that biodiversity in nine out of the 11 regions studied were now regarded as "at risk". The 2019 review by the Audit Office of New South Wales expressed similar concerns about environmental risks. The review said that not enough was being done to address unlawful land clearing. Doesn't that raise another red flag? Yet here we are, making it easier to clear land instead of focusing on the environmental disaster that is staring us in the face.

All of these reviews have another common denominator, which is that private land plays a vital role in protecting and indeed rebuilding koala habitat. I accept there are benefits in separating or decoupling various controls over private native forestry [PNF] plans, and I accept that there needs to be clearer rules for farmers and owners of agricultural land. I also accept that someone who wants to repair a fence should not be required to jump through legal hoops to do so. But one look at schedule 5 to the Act shows many "low?impact activities" that, in my opinion, are not necessarily low risk at all. Clearing a tract of native forest to build a new machinery shed is not, in my view, necessarily always a low?impact development. Yes, there needs to be a balance between agricultural purposes and activities such as logging and the demands of maintaining a working, healthy environment. Clearly, we have not been getting that balance right, and I am not sure that we are now.

Private native forestry plans already cover 467,000 hectares on the North Coast alone. Timber harvesting has already been approved on more than 200 properties where PNFs are in place. Also on the North Coast, 45 per cent of land currently controlled by a PNF was burnt in last summer's bushfires. That is not good for anyone: not for farmers, and certainly not for the koalas and other endangered native wildlife. Since 1995, SEPP 44 has required local councils to prepare koala plans of management [KPoMs]. Many have done so and I acknowledge that some of them are recognised in this bill—including Port Stephens, to the north of my electorate. Bellingen is an area I know quite well and I was surprised to hear that its KPoM was not recognised by the bill in the same way as those of Port Stephens, Lismore, Kempsey, Coffs Harbour and Ballina.

I would appreciate the Minister addressing this matter, as I had been given the understanding that Bellingen would be included with the five other local government areas with KpoMs if, indeed, it had been completed. From my discussions with the Minister and his staff, and with the staff of the planning Minister, I understand that may well occur. Otherwise, the exclusion does not stand to reason. We already know that koala populations in this State, along with a host of other native fauna and flora, are declining rapidly in number. We already know that the koala is well on its way to extinction. We talk a lot about getting the balance right on these issues, but at this point the balance is not right. We need something better than a status quo approach to fixing this problem, and we need it very soon. At the very least, we should wait for the results of the current inquiry, add them to the numerous reviews that have already given us the same answers on koala populations and habitat, and act. For those reasons I cannot support the bill at this time.

Debate interrupted.

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