Monday, 22 February 2021
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Save the Koala) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I rise this morning to speak in favour of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Save the Koala) Bill 2021. This is an important piece of legislation which this chamber needs to consider, because for far too long the plight of Australia's iconic furry friend the koala has been ignored. Last summer's bushfires ripped through parts of the Australian bushland in a way that we'd never seen before. Sixty-one thousand koalas were killed and much of their habitat was destroyed. This piece of legislation seeks to stop the further destruction of the limited amount of koala habitat that is left. For far too long, precious koala habitat has been allowed to be destroyed due to mining, big property development, logging and other types destruction. Couple that with the destruction of last summer's bushfires, fuelled by the climate crisis, and Australian koalas now face extinction. It is just unthinkable that, on the east coast of New South Wales, Australia's koala could be extinct within the next 30 years. It is just unthinkable that this iconic creature, which right around the world is considered so emblematic of Australia's wildlife, bushland and environment, could be gone, to exist only in zoos as a reminder of what used to be. We need to act now and we need to act fast. The biggest threat to Australia's koalas is the destruction of their homes, their habitat. As less and less habitat is available we see the koalas moving closer and closer into urban areas. This puts them at further risk of harm and injury. When the bushfires ripped through the Australian forest, bushland and scrub this time last year, the images of burnt koalas, dead koalas and injured wildlife went around the world and shocked people right across the globe, because it was just such a fundamental destruction of what Australia is known for.
Under the 22-year-old environment laws currently in place in this country, under the EPBC Act, koalas have lost almost one million hectares of critical habitat. Overall at least 7.7 million hectares of critical habitat have been destroyed, specifically for mining and development, over the last two decades—enough is enough. There is not much home left for the koala. We need to protect that which exists. Of course, this is an important issue not just for the koala; this is important for the rest of Australia's wildlife and native species too, because if we are to protect koala habitat it protects the homes of many other animals as well. For far too long we have simply let rip, let log, let dig, let destroy Australia's precious places and our environment. If you destroy the bushland, if you log forests, you're taking away the very homes of these animals.
At present, despite how at risk these animals are, the government refuses to guarantee that not one more hectare of critical koala habitat will be lost, and that is shocking. When everybody knows—in the government, in the minister's office, in the department, amongst the experts and those who work carefully and considerably and hard every day to protect our wildlife—that koalas are facing extinction, how can the government continue to allow the destruction of habitat? This will fast-track the extinction of this iconic species.
Indeed, the government has done the exact opposite. Despite 61,000 koalas being killed last year, the environment minister has continued to sign off on, give approval to and give a green light to the destruction of even more koala habitat going forward—doing the exact opposite to what needs to be done. It is not good enough to want to stand and have a photo with the cute koala at Australia Zoo or at Taronga or a number of the other wildlife sanctuaries and then to turn around and to sign the death warrant of these creatures by allowing the destruction of their homes from big mining companies and developers.
The environment minister's job is to protect the environment, to make sure there is a check and a balance on those who just wish to just cut, dig and destroy senselessly. These koalas need the protection of this environment minister, and currently the environment minister has failed. The Threatened Species Commissioner, the expert and the key adviser to the minister herself, told this Senate in November last year that the biggest threat to koalas was habitat loss and the degradation and fragmentation of their homes.
The environment minister knows what she needs to do. The environment minister knows what needs to be done to save these koalas from extinction. The environment minister needs to stop approving the destruction of their habitat through mining, development and logging projects. The ongoing destruction of koala habitat through land clearing for agriculture, development, mining and forestry is currently unchecked and has been going on like this for decades and decades. And now we have a situation where, unless we act today, there will be no koalas in 30 years time. Perhaps there will be a few in zoos, perhaps there will still be an opportunity for a politician to have their photo shoot with a cute and cuddly koala, but there won't be any living in the wild and there won't be any in our Australian bushland.
The New South Wales parliament last year was so exercised by this issue that they conducted their own inquiry. They found evidence, time and time again, that, unless koala habitat was protected, these animals will become extinct. It just beggars belief that no-one in this place, no-one in the government, is seizing the opportunity to do the right thing. Saving Australia's koalas is not just important for protecting our wildlife. It is important in our further challenge in tackling climate change—because, as more and more koala habitat is destroyed, less and less forest and bushland is protected, thus making climate change even worse.
Last summer's 'climate fires' were a wake-up call to the Australian community. They were a wake-up call for all of us. We were pretending climate change is something out there in the distant future, but it was right here on our doorstep. Canberra itself was engulfed in hazardous smoke for weeks and weeks on end. Sydney, Australia's biggest city, was engulfed in toxic smoke for weeks and weeks on end. Towns and communities throughout the eastern seaboard, southern Victoria, the Gippsland region and my home state of South Australia were devastated by the fury of the flames. And while we might be able to rebuild, reconstruct our homes and put our communities back together—although that takes time—our native animals are gone forever. The three billion native animals destroyed in this fury of fire destruction are gone forever.
There is very little Australian koala habitat left. All this bill is seeking to do is put in place a moratorium to stop the minister from being able to approve any more destruction of it. There should be no more bulldozing of the trees that koalas live in, no more logging of the trees and the bushland that koalas and their fellow species rely on, no more destruction of koala habitat for the sake of a quick buck for the mining industry and big property developers. For far too long, these big corporations have brushed away the long-term impact of destroying these important pockets of bushland. 'Oh, koalas can go and live somewhere else,' they say. As the minister signs on the dotted line, she says: 'Yes, you beauty, you can log there; you can mine there; you can bulldoze there,' expecting that the koalas will simply be able to pack up their bags and move next door. We need this country to get serious about protecting our environment and what is left of it.
We lead the world, shamefully, when it comes to our list of threatened species and those that are already on the extinct list. That's not a league table I want Australia on and neither do most Australians. The Australian people ask us to debate a lot of complex issues in this place. This isn't one of them; this is not a complex issue. This makes perfect sense. There's very little habitat left. If we want to save Australia's koalas from extinction, we need to protect their homes. We need to stop the chainsaws and stop the bulldozers. We need to protect our iconic species not just for their sake but for the sake of every other species that relies on native bushland, native scrub and protection from destruction. I commend the bill to the Senate.
I too rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Save the Koala) Bill 2021, introduced by Senator Hanson-Young. I wish to acknowledge up-front her passion and deep interest in these issues. Having travelled as part of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee to Kangaroo Island in the aftermath of the bushfires, I have seen her deep interest in this and her passion for addressing these issues.
When it comes to the legislation, though, I come back to the maiden speech I made in this place—that good intentions and passion alone don't necessarily make for good legislation. I do have some concerns with the amendments that have been proposed in this bill, which I will speak to now. As Senator Hanson-Young has said, the bill aims to introduce a moratorium on the clearing of koala habitat, and, if you go back to the EPBC Act and look at what critical habitat for vulnerable species, the koala in particular, is defined as, it's defined as any habitation that contains a food tree or a food source for koalas, so it's a fairly broad definition of what koala habitat is. The bill would prevent the minister from approving an action under the EPBC Act where that action consists of or involves the clearing of koala habitat. It also goes on to remove an exemption for regional forest agreements, which I'll come to a little later on. Specifically, section 18B refers to the concept of a significant impact on koalas as set out in the new section 527G and it applies this concept to section 18A of the EPBC Act. The effect then of section 18B in conjunction with 18A and 527G is that taking an action that has, will have or is likely to have a significant impact on koalas is prohibited. At the end of section 139 the bill goes on to insert a new subsection that has the effect of preventing the minister from approving an action consisting of or involving the clearing of koala habitat. As you'll recall, the definition of 'habitat' for vulnerable species, the koala in particular, is essentially any forest or other growth that has either emergent trees or trees that constitute a food source for koalas.
The concern in part for me comes back to my own state of South Australia. An exemplar is Kangaroo Island, to which, in the 1920s, a number of koalas, given that they are not native to Kangaroo Island, were introduced from Victoria. I think fewer than 20 were released on the island. They have bred extensively on Kangaroo Island. Before the fires of last year there were an estimated 50,000 koalas on Kangaroo Island, roughly half in native vegetation and roughly half in blue gum plantations. This immediately raises an issue with the prohibition in that, if the koalas have chosen to live in blue gum plantations because they provide a food source, then here we have a situation where what is essentially an introduced species to this island has chosen to live in and use as a food source a plantation timber, for which the natural expectation of somebody who's planted trees as a plantation is that they will be able to harvest those trees. But this prohibition would actually prevent a normal commercial activity of planting timbers for the purpose of harvesting because koalas have chosen to live in that area. So, fundamentally, there is a problem with the nature of the bill because it will interrupt not the logging of native forests or clearing of native areas but actually commercial operations that have seen a massive increase, through the presence of those trees, of a koala population.
Kangaroo Island was an interesting case even before the fires that went through last year and that were devastating to many landholders, property owners and wildlife because the koala population does not respond to environmental stress like kangaroos do. Scientists have studied them and made it clear that kangaroos, in the face of environmental stress, can actually regulate their population growth to adapt to those changing circumstances. What they've found with koalas is that koalas are not capable of that self-regulation, which means that over time they have created unsustainable pressures on the food sources on the island. This means they are literally eating themselves to starvation. There has been a long program, a long debate and discussion, in South Australia about how you deal with this burgeoning population. Culling is not an option. There has been some attempt at translocation back to the area where these koalas originally came from. Given that they are disease free—and certainly the only ones in South Australia and potentially nationwide that are disease free—it's a very good breeding stock to try to translocate. There have also been attempts at sterilisation. But importantly, as Senator Hanson-Young has indicated, the habitat that koalas use is also the habitat for other species. One of the great environmental concerns on Kangaroo Island is the overpopulation of koalas, which eat trees not just to the point where there is no more food for them to eat. If the trees are devoid of all leaves, they die, which means that the habitat for other native animals is actually being reduced. That has been a significant environmental concern in South Australia. Kangaroo Island is an exemplar of a case where there are reasons why this prohibition on the clearing of habitat has a commercial imperative. But there are also reasons why various controls may be required.
You can also go to other parts of South Australia. In the Adelaide Hills, for example, in the Mount Lofty Ranges, there is a population that is measured to be around 150,000 which is thriving. There are large contiguous forested areas and natural bushland, even down into the suburbs. In fact, the creek out the back of my own house has koalas that populate that and keep us awake at night with various territorial growling. But it indicates that there is a healthy population there, and this prohibition could prevent quite reasonable development of properties across a large swathe of area or pockets within that area that would have no material impact on koalas. So there are some fundamental concerns about the black-and-white nature of the prohibition which is placed in this bill.
The extant provisions recognise that there are areas which are complex. The guidelines published by the Department of the Environment, in relation to the EPBC Act, say:
The koala has one of the largest distributions of any terrestrial threatened species listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). It occupies a variety of vegetation types … is capable of moving long distances and is variably affected by a range of threats. Determining significant impacts on the koala is therefore complex and varies between cases.
This shows that we do need to take account of the habitat of koalas and their population but a blanket ban is not the best way to manage that. There needs to be a scientific approach that understands the impact on the koala as well as other species, balancing that with developments—whether that be in industry or for housing or transport— and the authorities and minister need to be able to look at these case-by-case rather than being hamstrung by a blanket ban.
As the chamber would be aware, the EPBC Act is due for a reform and there are reforms underway. The Environment and Communications Committee reviewed late last year some of the first tranche of reforms to make it more effective, in terms of how we care for the environment and balance the needs of other parts of our society. It's worth pointing out that, in terms of the extant provisions, habitat protections and matters of land clearing are predominantly the responsibility of state governments. But, when it comes to threatened species, the EPBC Act does provide protection for threatened species and the koala is listed as one of those, particularly the combined populations of Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT, which are regarded as matters of national environmental significance.
So under that federal act, any action that's likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environment significance, such as the koala, must receive approval from the government before it can proceed. In order to obtain approval, proposed developments are subject to an rigorous and transparent environmental assessment process under the EPBC Act. We heard a lot of evidence last year about the processes in that act and the fact that there are opportunities for improvement, and I would welcome those as we go forward. But at the heart of that act and those processes is the assumption and the principle that you treat the koala population, particularly on that east coast area, as a population of concern but you deal with each case according to its merits. I will come to the issue of the forestry agreements now, just in that context.
Between 2015 and 2017 the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries undertook a large-scale study on koala occupancy in north-east forests of New South Wales, including their response to timber harvesting. What they found was that koala occupancy was not influenced by timber harvesting intensity, time since harvesting, land tenure or landscape of harvesting or old growth forest extent. There were other factors sometimes associated with the forestry industry, but often not, that had a greater impact. So to have a blanket ban on exemptions for RFAs ignores what the science has collected, in terms of data.
So I am not denying that, particularly on the east coast, there is cause for concern, there is action that is required, but the substance of this bill and the operative measures which actually prevent—they have a hard prohibition—that don't allow the science for any particular business case to be considered when somebody comes for approval or, worse, in the case of something like Kangaroo Island, where there has been a commercial planting of trees that, by definition, have now become a habitat for koalas because they are a food source for koalas, would be that somebody who's made an investment to plant a plantation couldn't even harvest those trees because of the operation of this bill. So for those reasons, while I respect the good intentions and the depth of passion of Senator Hanson-Young, I cannot support this bill in the Senate.
One of the iconic images of Australia's bushfires is a firefighter sharing a water bottle with a scared and singed koala. That picture was shared around the world and, in part, that's because the koala is so intrinsically and recognisably Australian. The koala might not be on our crest but it is a national symbol. It has featured in countless tourist ads and has been taken back home on countless kitsch souvenirs. It is not only an essential component of the concept that the world has of us but also of the conception we hold about ourselves. In 1933 Dorothy Wall published Blinky Bill, the quaint little Australian. A year later in 1934, the Sydney Morning Herald called the koala Australia's 'national pet'. But right from the beginning, being Australia's national pet hasn't been enough to guarantee the koala's safety. In 1936 the Evening News in Rockhampton wrote:
It seems extraordinary that this animal which is so greatly admired, not only by overseas visitors, but by Australians, is being allowed to suffer extinction.
In the early part of the 20th century, the koala was ruthlessly hunted for its fur. The threats to its safety today are different but no less grave. The koala is facing habitat loss and mounting ecological pressure in a warming world. Being an iconic Australian animal will not be enough to save the koala without our help. Even before last summer's bushfires, koalas were in trouble. Koala populations in my home state of New South Wales have been in decline for decades. One study suggests that koala numbers may have dropped by as much as two-thirds over the last 20 years, just 20 years. Although estimates vary, there is no dispute that koalas are in real trouble in New South Wales.
A few years back, on a pleasant afternoon, I met volunteers from an organisation called Bangalow Koalas. They have planted over a thousand trees to generate koala corridors to compensate for key koala habitat lost to highways on the North Coast of New South Wales. These corridors act as both travel pathways for koalas and areas for them to live. The trees were planted on private land with support of local landowners and they want to see koalas protected. Those volunteers are stepping up to fill the void that has been left by the Commonwealth and the New South Wales government and their destructive actions. New South Wales now has fewer than 10 per cent of the nation's koalas and it is harrowing to know that koalas in the Pilliga have declined by 80 per cent by the 1980s. The New South Wales coalition government's policy agenda of increased land clearing, building highways through key koala habitat, has been a contributor to their decline, and the bushfires have only made things worse. The government's own estimate suggests that at least a quarter of koala habitat in eastern New South Wales has been affected by fire; 5,000 koalas may have died in the fires. A New South Wales parliamentary inquiry found that without urgent action koalas may be extinct—completely extinct—in New South Wales by 2055. Well, what was the response? What was the response from the Berejiklian government? Predictably enough, it was a self-interested internecine fight between the National Party and the Liberals.
In September last year, the Nationals threatened to leave the coalition over a very modest plan to protect koala habitat, which the New South Wales Deputy Premier branded a 'land lock-up' policy. It is staggering that the issue that the New South Wales Nationals sought to weaponise to blow up the government was the protection of koalas. It's actually hard to think of a more tone-deaf political position than that advocated by the Deputy Premier, but it's typical of the approach from a coalition that persistently makes policy decisions that threaten the New South Wales natural environment.
The state government's recklessness is visible from space, literally. The North Coast has one of the highest land-clearing rates in the world. It has been identified as a deforestation hotspot on par with Brazil and the palm oil plantations of Indonesia. Early in my career I had the great privilege of working for Bob Debus, former New South Wales Labor Minister for the Environment, when he and Premier Carr passed legislation to protect hectares of woodland across New South Wales for conservation—350 new parks created in that government; between 1995 and 2011 more than three million hectares protected in the conservation system. It is so disappointing to watch the New South Wales government fail to implement anything remotely similar. In fact, their approach has been to hasten at every step the destruction of irreplaceable wildlife and their habitat.
Unfortunately, here in the Australian Senate, a private senator's bill is unlikely to be the solution. This bill has no chance of becoming law. Even if it were to pass the Senate, the government would never bring it on for a vote in the House of Representatives over in the other place. It is why being in government matters and it's why, as a conservationist, I am a member of and participate in a party of government. Labor would take a different approach to the approach outlined in this bill.
This bill is a blunt instrument. It introduces an indefinite moratorium on clearing koala habitat. It removes the exemptions from the EPBC Act for forestry agreements where there is a significant impact on koalas. What this means, in effect, is that large parts of the eastern seaboard would be affected by this bill because koala habitat is extensive throughout the region. Now, it's possible that this is the right solution. Maybe this is the workable solution for the communities of New South Wales, but we wouldn't have any idea about this because there is no evidence of any discussion at all in the development of this bill with the communities that it would affect. Indeed, what's lacking in this bill is any consideration whatsoever of local communities.
This bill would have an impact on people and their livelihoods. Every natural resource decision does, but this bill doesn't establish, contemplate or reference any mechanism for a conversation with community about how to approach this problem. It doesn't reference or contemplate any mechanism to balance competing demands for land use, and this should matter to conservationists as well as communities that are dependent on forestry. This approach runs the risk of undermining support for conservation in the rural and regional communities where koalas need that support most.
We know from experience in government that the best approach to conservation lies in creating lasting compacts that recognise the legitimate needs of local communities to sustain themselves through a local economy that will support them and their families. That kind of compact matters and the stakes are too high for the koalas for us to take any other approach. If there is anything that we've learnt from the last few years of politics here and abroad—years which have seen simply frightening developments in some examples—it's that politics requires an inclusive approach that brings people together, that brings local communities along with change.
Politics does not work when solutions are dictated from afar. And, when that happens, there are reactions which are sometimes uncontrollable, sometimes unpredictable and not helpful for democratic systems. Our democracy works best when we have honest and open conversations with communities—conversations that acknowledge, recognise and respond to the genuinely divergent and diverse interests in those communities, because people who haven't been listened to will find a way of making their voices heard.
This is the approach that Labor takes in relation to nature conservation. It's the approach we took to protect so many assets in our periods in government, here in the federal sphere and in state parliaments. Labor protected the Daintree and Kakadu, stopped drilling on the Great Barrier Reef and protected the Franklin and Antarctica. We created Landcare. We created the largest network of marine parks in the world. Labor reduced Australians' emissions. Every major achievement in environmental protection in this nation's history has been delivered by a Labor government. Only Labor has the will and the capacity to protect Australia's environment.
At every stage, the coalition has failed to fulfil that role. The Commonwealth government is years overdue in making a threatened species recovery plan for the koala. It was initially due in 2015, five years ago. Labor's National Koala Conservation Strategy ran until 2014. It's yet to be replaced. We are still waiting for the government to make a decision on increasing the threatened listing status of the koala, and that is why Labor has called on the Morrison government to cease development in areas where the koala is listed as vulnerable until the formal assessment for up-listing the koala has been determined, a recovery plan for the koala is produced and a new National Koala Conservation Strategy is in place.
Labor has a real plan for protecting the koala. We need stronger protections. The koala, as a national icon, does need federal protections. We need tougher penalties. The federal environment laws should impose strict penalties for acts of deliberate animal death and a national approach. The government has to work with the states on a consistent approach to protecting the koala and it should undertake a comprehensive ecological audit to assess the damage to populations from bushfires.
But it's not just the koala that needs protection. Fewer than 40 per cent of threatened species have a recovery plan. The Morrison government doesn't know—it has no idea—which recovery plans are actually being implemented. Under the coalition, 170 out of 171 outstanding threatened species recovery plans are overdue, and the Morrison government has no plan to get them done. Bushfires didn't threaten just koalas in New South Wales. Native wildlife from Fraser Island to Kangaroo Island was affected, and that is why Labor called for the national ecological audit at the height of the fires, in January 2020. It took a whole year for government to respond.
Meanwhile, after spending millions of dollars and countless hours on the review, the government is pursuing second-rate so-called standards that are fundamentally inconsistent with the Samuel review's final report. This government appointed a highly respected Australian regulator and businessman, and then it encouraged environmental science, business, industry and legal stakeholders to devote a vast amount of time to a review that it seems it always intended to ignore.
Delay and neglect are the hallmarks of the Morrison government's approach to environment protection. It is simply not something that the government cares about one jot. All the Senate motions and private senators' bills in the world aren't enough to undo the harm that can be done by a Liberal government that sees our wilderness as unimportant, that sees wildlife as an impediment to development and that sees proper process as mere 'green tape'. We need real change, and the only way to protect koalas is the election of a federal Labor government.
I rise to speak to the bill introduced by Senator Hanson-Young to save the koala and to put a moratorium on clearing of koala habitat. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Save the Koala) Bill 2021 is an urgently needed bill. Our koalas face extinction by 2050. Make no mistake; it is the Liberals and Nationals sitting opposite us here, and the ones that sat opposite me in New South Wales, who are killing our koalas. It is your hands that have the blood of koalas on them.
I remember the joy of seeing my first koala in natural habitat. We used to frequently see these amazing and unique animals in our front yard in Port Macquarie during the day and hear them loudly grunting at night. But those days, sadly, are long gone. And this is a town which used to be the koala capital of New South Wales, if not Australia. If governments continue to make reckless, irresponsible and greedy decisions that keep pushing koalas to the brink of wipe-out, our future generations will only see them in museums, and that is an absolute tragedy.
Koalas across the state are being driven to extinction not by some natural phenomenon or some evolutionary phenomenon; they are being driven to extinction by rampant land clearing. They are being driven to extinction by human-made global warming. They are being driven to extinction by ecocide. The terrible reality is that where I see magnificent trees and beautiful bush with glossy black cockatoos, powerful owls, eastern water dragons and koalas, all the Liberals and Nationals and their political donors—big mining, big development and big agriculture—see are dollar signs and a commodity to be ruthlessly used and abused. You are all environmental vandals.
The climate-induced bushfires of 2019 and 2020 destroyed more than 12 million hectares and killed more than a billion animals and devastated communities. The loss of koalas during and after New South Wales bushfires is one of the most significant biodiversity disasters in our history. Now, even when we have lost so much habitat and wildlife, even when swathes of our bushland and millions of animals have been destroyed, forests are being opened up for logging. This loss is made much worse, because of the disastrous New South Wales land clearing laws pushed by the Liberals to appease the Nationals that I and many others fought hard against. It's under these laws that 99 per cent of koala habitat can be chopped down. They have already resulted in a massive 13-fold increase in approvals and land clearing.
We already know that koala habitat is badly fragmented, making it even harder for the species to migrate and survive. New South Wales is leaving no stone unturned in making this even worse. They recently fast tracked the approval of the Brandy Hill quarry expansion, knowing full well that it will affect koalas and other endangered species such as the grey-headed flying fox. We know the Port Stephens koalas are at high risk of local extinction, yet they gave a green light for their destruction.
If you come further south, the Campbelltown local government area in south-western Sydney is unique as it supports a growing and chlamydia-free koala population in the Sydney Basin. But does the Liberal-National government give a damn? Of course they don't. Communities in south-west Sydney who care about these koalas are fighting the Lendlease Mount Gilead development in the Campbelltown LGA, which will destroy the current transit points of koalas between the Georges River and the Nepean River, and make it near impossible for koalas to travel between these river corridors.
The federal government has not lifted a finger to stop the destruction of koala habitat. In fact, you facilitated it. We know that only 10 per cent of the koala habitat cleared in New South Wales and Queensland between 2012 and 2017 was assessed by the federal government, despite national environmental laws requiring the protection of threatened species. Habitat clearing was again and again approved by states, and developers were not referred for assessment to any level of government. Surely these facts point to better and stronger oversight by the federal government, but, in the parallel universe that the Liberals and Nationals live in, they are doing the exact opposite. You want to hand over even more power to states. Your solution to this reckless destruction of the environment is the streamlining environmental approvals bill, which is much better described as the let's-kill-the-koalas-quickly bill. You want a one-stop-shop. You just want to fast track land clearing. You just want to fast track extinctions. I hope that the opposition and the crossbenchers care about these national treasures enough to support Senator Hanson-Young's bill to stop this major threat of land clearing and fragmentation facing koalas by putting a moratorium on clearing koala habitat. We will not be giving up our fight to save the planet or for all creatures, big and small, that call it home. I commend the bill to the Senate.
I rise to speak to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Save the Koala) Bill 2021. The effect of the bill, if passed, is to introduce a moratorium on the clearing of koala habitat. The bill, in essence, prevents the minister from approving any action under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conversation Act that consists of or involves clearing of koala habitat. The bill also removes the exemption for regional forest agreements from the requirements of the act where they will have or are likely to have a significant impact on koalas. The bill seeks to do this technically, by adding, at the end of section 139, the words:
… the Minister must not approve an action consisting of or involving the clearing of koala habitat.
The bill further seeks to insert additional definitions, for 'koala', 'koala habitat' and 'koala habitat tree', and also expands on the definition or sheds some light on the application of the words 'significant impact'. 'Koala habitat'—and here I'm paraphrasing—means 'an area of vegetation in which koalas live and includes a koala habitat tree, an area of vegetation that consists primarily of koala habitat trees and which is reasonably suitable for sustaining koalas, and partially and completely cleared areas used by koalas to cross from an area mentioned in the previous sections of this definition'. 'Significant impact' includes:
… any substantial loss of genetic diversity, or any loss of connectivity or available koala habitat, of any population of koalas such that the population is placed at greater risk of extinction.
The effect of the amendments, if passed, create in me some reservations about efficacy. Whilst I acknowledge the strong passion of the mover and the mover's party, and in many ways I myself share many of those passions for saving and also increasing and renewing these habitats, I think the bill in its current form allows for the exercise of sufficient discretion by the minister; therefore, the moratorium does not really add anything to the application of the current act.
When I was reviewing the amendments I was reminded of an American writer whose political persuasions I don't actually follow. He said: 'The value of our forests and their spirits must never be forgotten, because under the layers of law and memory it is effectively the spirit of ourselves. We can't deny it and it must lead us into action.' As I said, I share many of the passions of the mover. But the government has done much for koalas in its funding, both pre the bushfires and post the bushfires. It has also initiated the Samuel review, which is still formulating its response to those recommendations. That government response must be based on proper consultation, so I think it's a little unfair of some honourable senators to describe us as vandals. I know many on the coalition benches who are as passionate as I am for the natural environment.
This weekend, in fact, I was in the Adelaide Hills, many parts of which have been devastated by bushfires, volunteering for a veterans not-for-profit, Disaster Relief Australia, which was clearing dead wood to allow for regeneration and also for the planting by farmers of the natural environment. As I said, it is unfair to describe modern farmers as environmental vandals. In fact, most of the custodians of the land and all of the farmers that I've worked with in this organisation are totally committed to regeneration. They need to have volunteers on their properties so that they can get that process underway as soon as possible, as well as reduce the fire risk of the dead wood.
I want to turn to the operating provisions of the existing act. As I've indicated, it's my view that the act already affords extremely strong protections for threatened species, particularly koalas, as they are listed in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT, for particular protections, as being environmentally significant. Senator Fawcett has already set out, for the benefit of honourable senators, the circumstances in South Australia, my own state, and the fact that the inability of koalas to regulate their breeding has caused environmental issues, particularly on Kangaroo Island.
There are a number of processes under the existing act where applications need to be made for development. There are a number of provisions that restrict what the minister can and cannot do, but, in essence, the minister has discretion, based on scientific advice, either to protect or to approve economically sustainable development. In essence, this bill removes any discretion, which, I think, has been described by my Labor friends as a blunt instrument, and I would share that view.
Pre the bushfires, the government committed considerable funds to a variety of projects to support the habitat of koalas. More particularly, in early 2020, after the bushfires, the government took urgent action by providing an initial $50 million recovery package to support emergency interventions and recovery actions for the immediate survival of affected native animals and plants. That included up to $3 million for Taronga Zoo and other zoos for the treatment of injured wildlife and the establishment of insurance populations. In relation to koalas, funding was also provided for radio-tracking in burnt and unburnt landscapes to assess the impacts of rescue and rehabilitation on reintroduced koalas. More than $1 million in Commonwealth and New South Wales government combined funding was provided to assess the genetic value of koala populations. Further funds have been provided to directly support koala conservation and recovery efforts.
It's my view that the government, in an administrative sense, has a substantial commitment to the koala in its habitat. No-one on this side is arguing that it's not an iconic animal and one we wish to preserve—we wish to grow its habitat—but communities need to make decisions for themselves in relation to their development, and that development needs to be sensibly checked. That is why the Morrison government initiated an independent review of the act. Professor Samuel has made a variety of recommendations. The government has said, on record, that it's committed to a sensible, staged pathway for change in the reform process. Therefore, I reject the criticism that the Morrison government is not committed to the environment. Indeed, what government could be criticised if it has a full review of the act?
Whilst the review of the act has occurred—and the response is coming—it underpins my reservations for the technical provisions of the amendment bill that is currently before us. I've personally never been one who believes in the unnecessary restriction of a minister's discretion. Whilst the crossbenchers can be particularly critical of the actual decisions, ministerial discretion is just that—a discretion. I think it is unwise to remove a large chunk of the minister's discretion when, in essence, it can only be exercised within a very limited framework under the existing act.
Therefore, honourable members, can I ask you to reflect on this bill and also reflect on its shortcomings. Can I say that many on this side of the benches have a deep and abiding commitment to the environment and that we reject the description of 'vandals'.
On a point of order: I understand that the list of speakers is arranged between the whips. I'm not aware of any alterations to that list. I would certainly ask that you stick to the list that's been provided to the chamber.
I'm not sure whether Senator McGrath desperately wants to stop me saying something in this place. I'll have to review my speech and try and work out whether there's something outrageous that I can say.
There is something about the politics of koalas that drives the National Party and the Liberal Party wild. I'm not sure what the hostility is to one of our favourite national creatures, but there's odd behaviour around koalas in this parliament and in the state legislatures. In fact it was just last year that the bloke who careers around New South Wales in a very untidy sort of way, the Deputy Premier and the leader of the Nationals party in New South Wales, threatened to split the coalition government in New South Wales over this very issue. In truth, he overstated the impact of what was a very bland set of changes, performed in regional communities, telling them something terrible was going to happen to their capacity to manage their own land—which was absolutely untrue, in true National Party form—and then, of course, faded from the scene. Another Barilaro effort, where all the noise is made in regional communities—a lion in Gunnedah, Armidale, Coffs Harbour and Lismore but a mouse in Macquarie Street—folded. It does make you ask the question, rhetorically: what has the koala ever done to the Liberal and National parties? How much, indeed, can a koala bear?
The bill proposes an indefinite moratorium on clearing koala habitats. It is a not the approach the Labor Party would take in government. Our approach would be a more targeted and more temporary moratorium in places where the koala is listed as vulnerable only until the relevant policy instruments that are required are in place—a threatened species recovery plan and a national koala strategy. The Samuel review commenced in October 2019 and reported to parliament in 2020. It made 38 recommendations, including the immediate reduction of legally binding national environmental standards and filling the gaps between state and federal legislation.
While this bill would widen the gap between Commonwealth and state regulation and increase uncertainty, it is I think true that what is proposed here is unlikely to make its way into legislation. It's like some of the notices of motion that we see from time to time. It's an opportunity to put a bill with the word 'koala' in its title to a vote. There will be some social media presentations about this bill going through the parliament, but it won't in fact deal with the crisis that we're seeing in koala populations around Australia. Just like Bob Brown's convoy to Central Queensland this won't actually change the material facts on the ground for koalas. It's a big show for attention and donations, and in my view it undermines the actual effort to protect the environment.
There is a crisis in koala populations. It is estimated that in 1788 there were 10 million koalas on this continent. Since the bushfires, we have estimates that the koala population in New South Wales is down to about 36,000. It has been in dramatic decline since the bushfires. The Pilliga region once had a thriving population of koalas living on public land. The population began to decline in dry conditions, deteriorating foliage quality and a lack of water. By 2014 the population in that region had decreased by 80 per cent. In 2019 no koalas could be found. Across New England the population has declined 75 per cent in a decade. In 2019 there are fewer than 2,000 koalas in the Culgoa, Moree and Gunnedah areas combined—and that was before the bushfires.
In evidence given to the Senate inquiry into the bushfires, which I had the privilege of chairing, we heard that more than a billion animals were killed in the bushfires, including 143 million mammals. The inquiry heard about the destruction on Kangaroo Island in South Australia. Right across the country there's a crisis in koala protection and in the koala population. It's almost a year after the bushfires. The Morrison government, during the election, offered a grab bag of policies. They were announced at a press conference—true to form—about saving koalas. They shared a Liberal branded Facebook ad saying they were protecting the koalas and restoring their habitat. Of course, since then, the koala population has gone down, not up. Since then, the crisis has deepened. There have been no solutions, just a press conference, an announcement and an ad from this government—no action at all.
I propose to conclude my remarks there and seek leave to continue my remarks.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.