(Debate, 16 November 2016, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
I strongly oppose the Biodiversity Conservation Bill and the Local Land Services Amendment Bill. These bills will gut a world class regime that has significantly helped reduce the massive rate of biodiversity loss in this state and replace it with one that will substantially increase destruction of native vegetation and return New South Wales to the dark days of broadscale land clearing.
Protecting biodiversity is vital: biodiversity supports human life, clean air, clean water, fertile land and pollination. It is even more important at a time when climate change will challenge our future through extreme weather events.
Australia has a shameful record of biodiversity loss with the highest rates of species loss among developed countries and New South Wales has the worst world extinction record for middle-sized mammals. Nearly 1,000 animals and plants are at risk and 59 per cent of animals are listed as threatened. We have already lost over a third of our native vegetation and almost all of our rainforests.
Any changes to the existing land management regime should be to reduce the rapid loss of species, ensure biodiversity gains, protect habitat and respond to climate change.
But the bills will achieve the opposite. Let me take the house through the most dire parts.
The existing land management scheme, which requires landowners to maintain and improve biodiversity, and underpins all land clearing decisions will be significantly watered down.
Biodiversity values will be redefined to remove reference to important environmental and agricultural values such as soil quality, water quality and salinity.
A new weaker Biodiversity Assessment Methodology will replace biodiversity assessment processes and species impact statements.
The new methodology will adopt the lowest threshold for offsetting, currently used only for major projects – so low it is unlikely to meet federal standards – and apply it to the entire state.
Multiple options that have no guaranteed outcomes for offsets will be available.
One will be mine rehabilitation, which should occur as part of any mine’s consent conditions anyway, not as compensation for destruction elsewhere; this is double dipping.
Consent authorities will have discretion to lower the inadequate offset requirements.
There are various steps landowners can take to avoid having to produce ‘like for like’ outcomes when offsetting, putting all unique ecological communities at risk.
Offset sites will not even be protected in perpetuity and can be cleared in the future for offsets elsewhere.
Loss of high conservation land can never be compensated and so far offsetting has not achieved the outcomes it set out to achieve. Any regime must be adopted with caution and based on the most rigorous scientific evidence, not disguise and facilitate mass destruction.
The legislation must clearly define what areas should never be cleared such as high conservation grasslands, private native forestry areas, core and potential koala habitat, coastal zones, land with littoral rainforest or Ramsar Wetland features; but it does not.
No-go zones or red flag areas that currently identify and protect areas of high conservation value will be used only in very limited instances with a ‘red flag’ only triggered where it could cause yet-to-be-defined serious and irreversible biodiversity loss. Clearing will never be excluded for major projects.
All land that the new framework will apply to will be zoned into two categories: category one: exempt and category two: regulated. The government will draft maps.
There is no clear requirement for maps to identify areas off limit with no ‘excluded’ category provided for.
Exempt land will be subject to a wholesale exemption from any authorisation with landowners able to clear land without any oversight. There will be significant political pressure to have land categorised as exempt to enable unchecked clearing.
Land considered cleared of native vegetation on the 1st of January 1990 or not subject of a land clearing conviction since then, low conservation grasslands, regrowth and any land deemed by regulation, will be exempt land.
This will capture incredibly large portions of land, some of which provide vital conservation values.
Regrowth occurs in land that has been cleared and this often provides much needed habitat for native animals. Land cleared within the last 26 years in many instances is showing signs of regeneration and will increase in value progressively.
Most of New South Wales land has been cleared – largely as a result of past poor and short-sighted government policies like this one – and land that is starting to serve ecological functions again should not be destroyed.
All other non-urban land will be regulated under a new land management framework, including vulnerable land, which scientists and environment groups agree should be off limits.
Clearing of regulated land for routine land management and rural infrastructure will be permitted without any oversight. The broad criteria go beyond minor farm works like clearing fence lines to permit significant development without assessment.
Other clearing activities will be subject to four self-assessable codes.
Self-assessable codes caused colossal clearing of high conservation land in Queensland. Nearly 300,000 hectares of bushland was cleared in the 2013/2014 financial year – three times the rate of what was cleared in 2008/2009 before the codes were introduced. Bushland in catchments that drain onto the Great Barrier Reef were cleared.
Here in New South Wales the 10/50 self-assessable code in fire prone areas led to the destruction of over 5,000 trees in less than a year including habitat trees used by threatened species.
The bills will go further than Queensland through a new ‘equity code’ that will give landowners the right to clear a set amount of hectares. The limit has not been established in the legislation but I understand could be up to 625 hectares.
Self-assessable codes do not provide a robust system for safe clearing but give licence to clear vast amounts of land without oversight or regard for environmental values.
Urban areas will be removed from coverage of the land clearing regime to come under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act with a new State environmental planning policy to be developed. The earlier white paper indicates that the SEPP will be geared at fast tracking approvals on the assumption that towns do not provide habitat for important flora and fauna, or that existing native vegetation in town environments is not important.
Towns support important wildlife and what remains of their natural environment significantly contributes to their liveability. Remnant biodiversity in urban areas should be protected, not destroyed.
A new Native Vegetation Panel will have the approval role for land clearing applications under the Local Land Services Act. Biodiversity management in urban areas will go to the Minister for Planning and local councils under the planning act.
It is deeply concerning that biodiversity management is being removed from the Minister for the Environment who is the traditional custodian of the environment and this shows the true motivation of the bill.
Our native vegetation provides significant carbon sinks and clearing releases damaging carbon dioxide. But the bills fail to recognise this important role and protect our remaining carbon sinks. Australia only met its Kyoto targets while emissions from other sources rose because laws stopped broadscale land clearing in New South Wales and Queensland.
Decades of broadscale land clearing have devastated our natural environment: fragmenting the habitat of native species, killing threatened plants, animals and ecosystems, eroding water, soil and air quality, and releasing massive amounts of climate change inducing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
I acknowledge the struggles of some farmers and why clearing can be an attractive option to expand productive land, but it can be unsustainable and requires rigorous independent checks and balances. Clearing can increase salinity, decrease fertility and diminish fresh water sources, and it can have global impacts such as climate change and biodiversity loss. Most farmers are good custodians of the land and many do not support this legislation because they know it will cause long term damage to the land. The drivers of this legislation seem to be large agri-businesses which buy up and amalgamate small family run properties.
The $240 million over five years and $100 million for the Saving our Species program should be used to support landowners under the current regime.
The bills are a recipe for massive devastation of the state’s native vegetation and biodiversity; they will put threatened species at risk of extinction and result in new species being added to the threatened species list. The legacy of destruction that these bills will leave will be exorbitant.
The government should be an environmental steward not an environmental vandal.
The bills are shameful and retrograde and will have devastating impacts for future generations. They should be abandoned immediately rather than rushed through.
I oppose the bills.