Monday, 30 November 2020
Private Members' Business
That this House:
(1) notes that:
(a) the koala is an iconic Australian species;
(c) vast numbers of koalas were killed in last summer's national bushfire crisis, including an estimated third of the New South Wales population;
(d) in the wake of the fires the koala is being considered for up-listing (an increased threatened listing status);
(e) habitat loss is among the most significant threats to koalas;
(f) the Government is years overdue in making a Threatened Species Recovery Plan for the koala, which was initially due by 2015; and
(g) the National Koala Conservation Strategy ran until 2014 and has yet to be replaced by this Government; and
(2) therefore calls on the Government to prevent further habitat loss through yet-to-commence development in areas in which the koala is listed as vulnerable, pending the completion of the formal assessment for up listing, the making of a Threatened Species Recovery Plan, and the making of a new National Koala Conservation Strategy.
This motion calls on the Morrison Liberal-National government to prevent further habitat loss through yet-to-commence development in areas in which the koala is listed as vulnerable, pending the completion of the formal assessment for up-listing and the making of a threatened species recovery plan and a new koala conversation strategy.
Australia's environment is in decline. Today, as we're about to head into summer, Australians are anxiously following the news of some of the first of the season's bushfires. They're looking to the nation's government to take a stand for wildlife, but national icons like the koala have died in record numbers and environment department funding has been slashed by 40 per cent. Successive ministers have run the department into the ground, and the Morrison government, frankly, has very little idea what has happened to our threatened species.
The motion I've moved today calls for new developments in koala habitat areas to be stopped unless and until the government gets its act together on koala conservation. There's no national koala conservation strategy. In fact there hasn't been since the last one ran out, in 2014. There are 171 outstanding threatened species recovery plans, of which 170 are overdue. The koala is among the species for which a threatened species recovery plan is well overdue. It was originally due to be created by 2015. It's now 2020, and still there's no sign of a recovery plan from this government. There's also no threat abatement plan that is relevant to the koala, despite the threats to this iconic native species. Koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT were listed as vulnerable in 2012. In 2019 and 2020, the national bushfire crisis raged throughout the land, burning millions of hectares of land and killing or displacing three billion animals, tens of thousands of koalas among them. Yet the government waited until the September just gone—a year after the national bushfire crisis kicked off—to formally request that the koala be considered for up-listing to a higher conservation status. A New South Wales inquiry found that the koala is heading for extinction in that state by 2050.
None of this is good enough. This passed 'good enough' a long time ago. I don't want future generations to have to learn about koalas in the history books, but that's the path that we're on right now. I don't want to lose this national iconic species, and I don't want to lose all of our other threatened species either. The government should put the brakes on any yet-to-commence development in koala habitat areas. Loss of habitat is a key threat to the koala, and that was true even before the national bushfire crisis burnt so much of Australia's land. The government should get the up-listing sorted out and put the threatened species recovery plan in place. This should be done urgently. And, of course, they should finally get around to replacing the National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy. It expired six years ago. It's time the government got their act together on this.
Once these instruments exist, they can assist the government, along with scientific and other expert advice, in understanding how best to conserve the koala. The government should listen to the science. The parliament shouldn't have to step in and say, 'We better put a stop on development because you haven't got your act together.' Actually, the government should be listening to science and getting the instruments in place that can conserve the koala. The fact is that right now we are in a policy vacuum. Parliament shouldn't have to do it, but we do because the government has been so poor at taking action to support and conserve the koala. Until the instruments that are informed by that science exist, we are in a policy vacuum and new development shouldn't go ahead.
I put this motion on the Notice Paper back in early November. Since then, the government has come up with a hastily cobbled together package of reannounced funding to support koalas. In it is a $2 million koala census. Labor has been calling for a national ecological audit since the height of the fires, when we made the call in January 2020. It should not have taken the Morrison government until November 2020 to undertake an audit, albeit only of the Koala population. The bushfire crisis was quickly followed by the pandemic and the recession, but neither of those crises is an excuse for failing to deal with the consequences of the bushfires, and neither is an excuse for being slow to act on the urgent priority that is saving Australia's koalas. One of this government's big problems is that it is always there for the photo-op and never there for the follow-up. We're certainly seeing that in relation to koalas. At the May 2019 election they promised up to $6 million for a major koala initiative. We're still waiting for that to be continued to roll out. The government must do better at protecting this national icon.
I do like the member for Griffith, but there is much in her contribution that I would like to disagree with. There are many things in this chamber and across the chamber that we can agree on, and I think one of those is that the koala is one of our iconic species. We see the koala in all forms. We see them printed on mugs and tea towels when they get sold to tourists and locals alike. We see them on our TV screens, in the form of Binky Bill, the iconic children's TV show that graced our television screens for every decade. They come in chocolate form with caramel inside. And they come in a foam suit—I'm referring to Borobi, the mascot for the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. They are very much an iconic species, and we as a nation need to do everything possible to protect and preserve them for future generations.
It is our duty to preserve and maintain our environment for future generations to enjoy and ensure they have the opportunity to enjoy our natural environment as we do. I think that's one thing in this place we can all agree on. What we may not agree on is how we get there. But, unlike those opposite, members on this side of the House have a record to stand on when it comes to not only protecting koalas but looking after our environment. We actually have a very good record. One of the things we don't do is talk about it very well, but we do have a very good record in the environmental space more generally.
Just last year we announced the delivery of over $3 million to the Australia Zoo, the Queensland RSPCA and Currumbin Wildlife Hospital, providing each with over $1 million in funding for each hospital to create an important network of services to support koala populations. These animal hospitals are located in areas of high koala population and, sadly, were largely affected by last year's bushfires in Queensland. We've supported these hospitals and we're delivering the funding to show and support the great work that they are doing in helping our koala population in South-East Queensland.
At the time, Dr Michael Pyne, Senior Veterinarian at Currumbin Wildlife Hospital, welcomed the funding, saying that the generosity of this federal grant will allow Currumbin Wildlife Hospital to expand its veterinary services to cope with the rapidly growing number of koala admissions. He went on to say, 'Currumbin Wildlife Hospital will also participate in crucial koala research projects looking to unlock the cures and identify the prevention options for many of the Koala diseases that are threatening the species.' This is important groundbreaking work that the Morrison government is delivering in partnership with experts, the people on the ground each and every day working hard to support our koala populations.
Just last week we announced an $18 million package to protect koalas with $2 million going towards a national audit of koala populations, looking at where koalas are, where the habitat areas are and can be expanded, and establishing an annual monitoring program. We all want to see koalas prosper, but we can't do that until we know where they are and the best ways to help. The scientists are telling us that there's a serious lack of data about where these populations are, how they are faring and the best ways to help them recover. This census will create a picture that we just don't have at present. The big picture will help us understand the important local places for our koala population. Another $2 million will be invested in koala health research and veterinary support; and $14 million will help restore impacted koala habitats in both bushfire and non-bushfire affected areas and provide targeted funding for koala habitat in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland.
Since 2014 the government has invested $26 million into projects that have benefited koalas directly and indirectly. When it comes to looking after our iconic Australian species of koala, we won't be taking lessons from those opposite because it is this side of the chamber that has the record on delivering for koalas and continues to do so; they don't.
I thank the member for Griffith for moving this motion. I've never heard so much rubbish from the other side before. This environment minister has been invited to my electorate many times to see our wonderful koala population. It's been studied and studied and studied, and I make mention of the work of Professor Robert Close from the University of Western Sydney who's done some wonderful population work, tracking our koalas, checking their health. We have one of the only chlamydia-free koala populations in urban New South Wales.
As we speak, koala habitat is being bulldozed. I've invited the federal environment minister many times to my electorate to see what's happening. She's refused every time. She is the environment minister like Nero: fiddling while Rome burns. She's watching the destruction of our iconic Australian wildlife, the koala in particular, and doing nothing about it. This government is doing nothing about it, allowing developers to reap hundreds of millions of dollars in development payments for their land while destroying our iconic koala population.
Habitat loss is amongst the most significant threats to our koalas, and the constituents in my electorate are crying out for action on the dire land clearing that's been allowed to occur under the watch of this government. It is an absolute tragedy that's evolving before our eyes. This government and this Clayton's environment minister are doing absolutely nothing about it. It is an evolving tragedy. On numerous occasions I've invited the federal Minister for the Environment to come and see our koala populations. More recently I invited the state environment minister, Matt Kean, to come and see our koala population. He came and was amazed by what we have in Macarthur. It should be a national park. As we watch, bulldozers are clearing koala habitats. It's a shame and it's a shame on this government that they're doing nothing about it.
Not to my surprise, this environment minister has refused to act and to even visit our electorate. The government is currently six years overdue in making a threatened species recovery plan for the koala. Yet this government is kicking the can down the road, saying they're going to have a census. I can show you: our koalas have had multiple census over many years by Professor Robert Close. All the information's here: the koalas have been tracked, named, checked for health; their breeding's been checked; and the genetics are all known. This is what's happening in my electorate, yet this environment minister, this government, just wants to kick the can down the road. It is just shameful that they would do this.
We've seen on so many occasions our really unique koala habitat destroyed for development. We're really frightened that the remaining koala habitat in my electorate could be the subject of bushfires this coming bushfire season, and nothing has been done to protect it. Labor has long called on the federal government to immediately work with the states and with each electorate, on an electorate-by-electorate basis, to save our koalas. We have schools in my electorate where the students are distracted by watching the koalas through the windows of their classroom; yet the government want to see that destroyed. When I say 'want to see that destroyed', it is quite clear what their policy is doing. They're kicking the can down the road so their developer mates can continue with development and habitat destruction until there is nothing left. They should be ashamed of themselves.
Since I have come into this parliament, I have written to every environment minister requesting urgent action, but nothing has happened. Yet we hear again from this minister, 'We'll just kick the can down the road and we'll ignore them.' Labor has, of course, called for comprehensive ecological audits. In my electorate of Macarthur, in south-western Sydney, we know the koalas—we know their names, we know their habits, we know their breeding patterns and we know how they track. They go between the Georges River and Nepean River. We know what is happening and we are watching their habitat being destroyed as we speak. It is a huge shame.
I commend this motion to the parliament and I call on the government to act. If they don't act soon, there will be nothing to act for. The only koalas left will be, as the previous member said, chocolate koalas that you can buy in a confectionary shop, and you won't be able to see them in the wild. This is an absolute tragedy that is evolving in front of our eyes, but this government does nothing.
Koalas are synonymous with the township of Port Macquarie in my electorate. When you drive into Port Macquarie and exit off at the Pacific Highway, at the service station there you will see Oceania, Mr T, Koala Z and Kirralee—four individually painted koala sculptures standing at a metre high. And if you enter from the north end, you won't drive far before you see another one-metre tall koala sculpture named Douglas. Hello Koalas is an award-winning tourism conservation initiative coordinated by Margaret Meagher. It has been in operation since 2014, and there are now about 77 koalas in the Hello Koala sculpture trail. One of the latest is Frankie the Firefighter, a koala dressed in the proud yellow and red uniform of the Rural Fire Service.
In Port Macquarie, we also have the Koala Hospital, which rates as the No. 1 reason on tourism app Trip Advisor to visit the town. The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital has been outstanding in its actions to assist koalas from across New South Wales since its inception in 1973. During and after the Black Summer bushfires it raised about $8 million through its gofundme page and constructed and distributed 140 water drinking stations in koala habitat areas. The Koala Hospital is run by four paid staff and 140 passionate local volunteers. In fact, there is a waiting list to become a volunteer at the hospital. The hospital consists of one treatment room, eight intensive care units, six outdoor intensive care units and 33 rehabilitation yards, many with trees. But it is not only a hospital to treat sick and injured koalas; it is an organisation that assists with koala research, by partnering with the University of Sydney and the Queensland University of Technology. About 250 koalas are admitted through the hospital annually, and they come from all over New South Wales.
The hospital is about to embark on a world-first facility, delivered through its gofundme page and the state government's generous gifting of the land along with a further $5 million state grant. I am told that the new wild koala breeding facility will not only increase the number of koalas but also dramatically increase their chance of survival when released into the wild, due to extensive research. Port Macquarie Koala Hospital Director Cheyne Flanagan says that it will be a partnership project with universities and other research bodies as well. I know Ms Flanagan supports the member for Griffith's motion today to consider up-listing the koala status of 'vulnerable' under national environment laws. I also know the environment minister, Sussan Ley, who visited my electorate on 13 January, following the bushfires, also supports its consideration. The Threatened Species Scientific Committee is currently assessing all available information and will be undertaking a full assessment of the combined koala populations of Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT. This assessment will consider the impacts of the devastating summer bushfires on koalas, as well as threats such as chlamydia and other diseases.
With the potential up-listing of the koala's status, the Morrison-McCormack government is acting. Indeed, the coalition government, since 2014, has invested over $26.4 million on projects supporting outcomes for koalas. Projects have included tree planting, propagating food trees and reconnecting corridors. Under the Environment Restoration Fund, a total of $6 million has been allocated for koalas, including $3 million for koala hospitals in South-East Queensland. The remaining $3 million from the Environment Restoration Fund is for projects that will improve and protect important koala habitat in New South Wales and South-East Queensland. But we must ensure our investment in the restoration and enhancement of koala habitat is targeted and backed by science. This is why, on 23 November, the environment minister announced our government will be providing $2 million for a national koala census. The environment minister knows many states and territory agencies, researchers, community groups and volunteers are collecting good information about koalas in the wild, but there are gaps and there is a need for coordination and reporting. I look forward to working with the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, its volunteers and other residents and encourage them to become involved in the census.
I thank the shadow minister for the environment, the member for Griffith, for bringing this motion forward for our debate. It's a critical topic at a critical time. The country is again in the grip of a heatwave, which of course freshens the still raw memory of last summer's awful devastation. It was our first national climate change disaster. It included the largest single fire ever recorded, 12 million hectares scorched, three billion animals dead, including many koalas, and a number of species and ecosystems pushed closer to the brink. Since that time, we've had the interim report of the EPBC review of Graeme Samuel, who said, quite plainly, that Australia's environment has been seriously degraded, that our environmental protection framework is not effective and that the present trajectory is of further decline. So, we have to ask: when exactly is the government going to start acknowledging the environmental reality and its responsibility to do something about it. When is a seven-year-old, three-term government going to take responsibility for presiding over the serious mismanagement and neglect of one of its core tasks, and that is national-level environmental protection and biodiversity conservation? How can it be that there isn't a threatened species recovery plan for an iconic species like the koala when it was due in 2013? The only possible excuse, if you can call it an excuse, is that the koala is not alone in being neglected.
Under this government, 170 out of 171 threatened species recovery plans are overdue. If it's too much to ask that the government do their job when it comes to environmental protection, they could try to stop actively making it worse: stop cutting resources to the environment department; stop weakening our environmental protection framework; stop ignoring the reality of climate change; and stop undermining the efforts of Australia's scientists and conservation sector. It could be made even simpler than that. The Minister for the Environment should see their chief responsibility as standing up and speaking up for the environment all day, every day, and that hasn't been the case. Instead, the various ministers for the environment in this government, because there have been four of them in the last five years, have consistently made it their priority to slash green tape. In other words, despite being ministers whose job it is to protect our environment and biodiversity, they have focused their attention on weakening regulation and in always seeking to accommodate economic interests at the expense of our wildlife, our landscapes and our marine environment.
The bottom line is that Australia's biodiversity is under enormous pressure and it has already suffered significant harm. We are, sadly, a world leader when it comes to mammal extinctions, and now the koala, as a species, is drifting from its present vulnerable status towards a situation where its survival may not be just threatened but it may be endangered. Of course the greatest danger to the koala comes from the destruction of their habitat, the destruction of the trees in which they live—the 50 different species of eucalypts, out of 700 species in total, that provide the kilo or so of leaves that koalas eat each day. Yet, despite the clarity we have in relation to the chief vectors of harm and risk, we also have a minister who is looking to make the environment become second best at every turn, never minding that in present circumstances, as Australia's wildlife battles against deforestation, invasive species and climate change, second best will inevitably deliver more extinctions and more irreversible environmental harm.
It's for all these reasons that Labor, through the shadow minister for the environment, have called for a full ecological audit in the aftermath of the bushfires—not just a koala census but a full ecological audit. We've called on the government to reverse its cuts to the department and to scientific organisations like the CSIRO, and we've fought against the government's effort to ram through legislation that would undermine the EPBC at a time when it desperately needs to be improved in accordance with Graeme Samuel's advice. It requires significantly improved and in some cases uncompromising national standards, and it requires an independent and properly resourced tough environmental watchdog and oversight agency. The fact that the government has ruled out such a watchdog before the final report has even landed tells you everything you need to know about this government's lack of commitment.
In conclusion, I take this opportunity at the end of what has been a very difficult year and at the beginning of another challenging summer to acknowledge the incredible work and effort of the people around Australia engaged in our great shared cause of looking after our remarkable and distinctive environment. I say to all Indigenous rangers and traditional owners, to the fire response volunteers, to people in rural and regional Australia working on revegetation and salinity remediation projects, to those who support local animal rescue centres and hospitals, to those who work in the sustainable timber industry and fight to protect old-growth forests and to those who turn up to beach clean-ups and work to reduce the harm caused by marine plastics—to everyone who makes environmental conservation, restoration and activism a part of their lives, whether professionally or as a volunteer: thank you. You are all engaged in a vital effort. Keep going.
Certainly I can agree with the member for Griffith on this aspect of the motion: the importance of protecting our koala population and particularly our local koala population in the Ryan electorate. However, the statements made in the motion that this side of the House, the government, is not steadfastly committed to this task is simply not the case. Since 2014 the government has invested over $26.4 million on projects for the support, the protection and the growth of our local koala population—projects like tree planting and reconnecting vital koala corridors and preserving our important koala habitat. This month we have announced an $18 million package to protect Australia's koalas, including a national koala audit that will help scientists better understand the locations and the movements of our local koalas and enable us to better determine how best to support their continued growth as a population.
I know in particular that my good friend in the neighbouring electorate, the Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management, the member for Brisbane, is very passionate about this particular issue. He knows, as I do, how important the local koala population is, particularly to our home city of Brisbane. Throughout my time as a local councillor and now in this place I've been proud to support koala facilities, particularly those in our electorate of Ryan. It's ironic that it's the member for Griffith who has moved this particular motion when her electorate is in the city of Brisbane where the local council invests more in protecting koala habitat and supporting the koala population than any other local government around Australia.
The Ryan electorate itself is home to two fantastic koala facilities. I want to take the opportunity of this particular motion to highlight them because their volunteers and staff are out there on the ground every day helping to protect our koala population. The first is Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, the world's first and largest koala sanctuary, right in our electorate of Ryan at Fig Tree Pocket. It's home to 130 koalas, which is a decent sized population in itself. It is a fantastic tourist attraction of course, but Lone Pine as a koala sanctuary serves a very important purpose of helping to do further research on koalas and helping to rehabilitate injured and sick koalas as well. Through its efforts with tourists, it is of course continuing to preserve our Aussie icon by ensuring that the world knows how precious the koala population is.
COVID-19 has proven itself to be tough, and this year has proven to be tough for all of us. But it has proven to be tough for our zoos and aquariums. Through the federal government's $94.6 million support package, Lone Pine was able to continue to care for its animals. Robert, the then general manager of Lone Pine, described it in these terms: 'Even though tourists weren't able to visit the sanctuary during the lockdown, it's important to remember vet bills, food costs and other maintenance for the animals did not stop. The government's support was essential in ensuring the ongoing costs could be met.'
Lone Pine is also home to the Brisbane Koala Science Institute. This was an election commitment of mine in 2016 when I was a local councillor. The Brisbane City Council put $3 million towards establishing it. It is a fantastic addition to Lone Pine's sanctuary efforts. The Koala Science Institute brings together koala scientists and environmentalists from around the nation, along with the universities and our next generation of scientists, to further their research in a collaborative manner and to further the cause of our local koala population. Their current research focuses on trying to understand why some koalas developed severe disease when they are infected with chlamydia, which is a threat, of course, to our declining northern wild koala population, including the role that genetics can play. They are looking at the way that they can sequence those genetics. The facilities at Lone Pine will allow other researchers to analyse samples from koala populations right across South-East Queensland. The work being done at Lone Pine is helping to pioneer Australia's conservation efforts in this related field and will play a crucial role in protecting the koala species.
Our electorate of Ryan is also home to the Moggill Koala Rehabilitation Centre, which was opened in 1991 to provide care for injured, sick or orphaned koalas. The Moggill koala centre is part of a greater network of wildlife facilities in South-East Queensland serving our injured koala population. Just like these two great Ryan institutions, this government will be focused on practical measures to protect our koala population—not the virtue signalling of the opposition but practical, on-the-ground measures and funding, where we can, to help our koala populations.
It isn't unusual for constituents in my electorate to post photos and video on Facebook of koalas in trees in their backyards. This is not something we go to a zoo or a facility to see, because we live in World Heritage, and it's World Heritage that creates the habitat for these koalas to not just pass through but to breed and establish themselves in. The bushfires, which went through 80 per cent of the Greater Blue Mountains Area World Heritage area, took a terrible toll on the koala populations that we had. Vast numbers were killed in last summer's bushfire crisis. It's estimated that around one-third of the koala population across New South Wales died. Nationally, the figure was 30,000. Locally, it has been devastating for those who care for koalas through WIRES and volunteer organisations and also for our NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, who now go through bush not seeing the things they had seen for so many years.
The thing that troubles me is that we have had so little trickle-down of promised bushfire funding to try to support the existing koala populations or even get in early and find them. Volunteers did so much, just as they did during the fires. They organised parties to go in and rescue as many koalas as they could. What we're seeing is an incredibly endangered species. It is time for this government to get serious about what it's going to do to ensure these populations come back and then thrive.
In the first really comprehensive scientific study that has been done of the New South Wales koala population post the bushfires, which was done mainly on the North Coast, they found 70 per cent of the population had been killed. That's the sort of scale we're talking about. In my own area—in particular, in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury—Science for Wildlife's executive director Kellie Leigh organised an incredible rescue operation when the bushfires began to take over at this time last year. These were koalas that had been fitted with radio collars. Authorities gave her team just two days to get in and try and save as many koalas as they could, because they thought that, if it all burnt, at least there'd be some good genes that had been rescued. Her volunteers searched through smoke and scorched earth. One person scaled a 130-foot tall eucalyptus tree to retrieve animals. They saved 10 adults and two juveniles. A koala named Houdini had to be left behind because there was just no time to extract him from a deep ravine. These were really difficult things to do. In the fires that burned through this area, Kellie thinks that around 1,000 koalas died.
The challenge we have is to try to bring all this back, and the lands that border national park are so important for this. One of the challenges is that there is pressure in relation to development for those areas. Two incredible WIRES volunteers, Morgan and John, have cared for 10 or 11 koalas just since September. They say they've just been smashed this season, because, while there is growth happening, if there aren't enough trees and fresh leaves for these very fussy koalas to make a meal of, we're going to lose them. Everyone knows that the biggest threat in our area is the destruction of habitat as the result of urban development. Kurrajong Hills is a real epicentre for koalas. Just recently an 800-acre farm has been subdivided into 10-acre lots. The EIS for this was done in 2007. It was done 13 years ago. The EIS said it was a poor habitat area for koalas. We all know that that is absolute garbage. It is really ideal country for koalas, particularly when the World Heritage area has been so devastated by fires. So there is a need for this government to take it seriously. Dr Kellie Leigh is surveying people and asking, 'How much do you want to save koalas?' I'm going to put a link to her survey on my website and my Facebook page so that we can do something, even if this government won't.