Thursday, 10 September 2020
Unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of talk about the strong unified action of the NSW Nationals today, as announced by our leader John Barilaro. I fully support, along with my colleagues, this course of action.
All the way back to my time as Mayor of Gunnedah Shire (badged as the Koala Capital of the World), I have always been a massive supporter of having a robust Koala SEPP (State Environmental Planning Policy) in NSW to help protect and enhance our vulnerable koalas and core koala habitat.
Many people may not be aware, but there has been a Koala SEPP in NSW since 1995, which was working very well. This latest update, however, has been a gross overreach and will hurt farmers while failing to deliver positive outcomes for koalas.
Planning Minister Rob Stokes presented the guidelines for the policy at the beginning of the year. Since then my colleagues and I have been working constructively to fix what are some glaring problems with the policy.
What’s wrong with the new SEPP?
Nobody is arguing about the intent of these new regulations, least of all me. Everybody can agree it’s important to protect koalas and our farmers already do a lot of the heavy lifting in this regard.
As the Member for Northern Tablelands and our State’s Agriculture Minister, what I am concerned about is the many unintended consequences these regulations will have.
The fact is, the new SEPP, in its current form, will tie our farmers up in green tape, lock up their productive land and ultimately drive many of them away from farming.
The definition of ‘core koala habitat’ is too broad
They key issue with the SEPP is that it creates such a broad definition of ‘core koala habitat’ that it covers nearly every aspect of agricultural land in NSW. Any land that falls within this area becomes effectively un-farmable.
If a farmer wants to undertake a routine agricultural activity, like build a new fence or a machinery shed, he or she will now have to lodge a development application (DA) with their local council, which could very well say no. If a farmer wants to grow their business by, for example, expanding cropping operations, they could also be told no by their local council.
A recent case of this came across my desk just the other day from a farmer whose property falls within an E-zone. Under the new SEPP all areas of purported koala habitat would become an E-zone under our State’s planning system. This is another major change in the new SEPP.
The farmer is from Ballina and is trying to put up a boundary fence to contain his cattle. He has been told by his local council that before he does that he needs to fork out over $30,000 to complete an environmental assessment. The fence itself would only cost $15,000 to build. So in other words, what the farmer is being told is ‘fork out more than double the amount you would spend on the fence itself for an environmental study.’
But the worst part about this is that even then, after he’s spent the $30,000, there’s no guarantee he could actually build his fence. The council could very well turn around and say, ‘no, sorry. You can’t build that fence here.’ The new SEPP allows this to occur – the old one does not.
The areas identified as ‘core koala habitat’ aren’t accurate
Now, maybe you could accept these extra regulations if the areas identified actually had koalas on them, but the methodology behind this is just plain mad and plain wrong.
We’ve seen some of the mapping of where this purported ‘core koala habitat’ is meant to be. It covers everything, from irrigation channels in the North West to Jacaranda trees in the main streets of coastal towns, garden hedges, driveways, rooftops, entire suburbs on the south coast…
I’m not sure about you, but when was the last time you spotted a koala on your roof or in the main street of town?
These examples are laughable and show just how shoddy these new regulations are.
You don’t actually need a koala to be present on your land to be captured by the new SEPP. The only threshold is an unverified report of a single koala over the last 18 years as well as 15 per cent presence of listed trees, some of which contain invasive species.
Councils don’t even have to verify the area designated as ‘core koala habitat’
What makes this policy even more grossly unjust is that before declaring ‘core koala habitat’ local councils don’t even have to prove there are koalas present on someone’s land.
They can impose these new regulations with a stroke of a pen and then it’s up to a farmer to prove there aren’t koalas present. In other words, there’s a presumption of guilt not innocence.
So what we could see is a situation where a farmer’s property is declared ‘core koala habitat’ and in order to continue growing their operations they would be forced to fork out anywhere between $30,000 and $80,000 for a survey to prove there aren’t actually koalas on their property.
But even then, if the survey shows there’re no koalas, under the new SEPP a council could simply choose to ignore the survey. This is ludicrous and demonstrates the policy isn’t really about protecting koalas.
Rather, it’s another backdoor attempt to strip farmers of their property rights and lock up their land.
What changes are being proposed to the new SEPP?
What we’re proposing is actually very modest and is backed by science and a regard for our farmer’s property rights.
We want to fix the SEPP so it continues to protect koalas while not unnecessarily and arbitrarily locking up land where there aren’t actually any koalas.
Fixing the definition to make sure there’re actually koalas in the areas covered by the policy
As I’ve said earlier, the definition of ‘core koala habitat’ under this policy is too broad and as a result locks up swathes of land where there simply aren’t any koalas.
Under our proposal, there would be a requirement to demonstrate:
- There are live koalas in the area, and
- There are enough habitable trees for the koala to live in the area.
This isn’t particularly radical and ensures the policy delivers what it’s intended to do – protect koalas.
Making sure the trees covered under the policy are of the most value to koalas
This new SEPP increases the number of ‘koala trees’ from 10 to 123. That creates a really low threshold for what might constitute ‘core koala habitat’.
There was no doubt more trees needed to be included in this update to the SEPP, however this increase goes way too far. It now covers everything, including trees koalas can’t eat and won’t eat and are some that are classified as invasive species.
Surely, if we’re looking to protect core koala habitat we should be focused on trees where they actually live and eat.
Ensuring councils have to conduct surveys to prove there’s core koala habitat present before locking up private land
You would think that before government allowed a local council to lock up someone’s land there would be a requirement to prove there was actually core koala habitat present.
But no, under this policy a council can simply rely on a couple of trees being present and a dodgy map that can’t even tell the difference between a eucalyptus tree and a rose bush in someone’s garden.
Why should a farmer have to pay to prove council wrong? Since when did government impose a reverse onus of guilt onto our citizens? This is simply unfair and unjust.
Under our proposal, a local council would have to conduct an on-the-ground survey to prove there’re actually koalas present on someone’s land before locking it up.
If you ask me, that’s a pretty reasonable ask.
Specifying a minimum habitat area to ensure land locked up is actually land where a koala could live
At the moment, a couple trees in the middle of a paddock can be designated ‘core koala habitat’. We know that koalas don’t just live in any old tree in the middle of a paddock. So if a koala can’t actually live there why would we lock it up?
It’s clearly just a stealthy attempt to stop a farmer from managing vegetation on their property. What we’re proposing is that there must be a minimum density and area footprint of trees in order for it to be listed as core koala habitat.
Again, the entire objective of the action taken today and the sensible amendments put forward is to ensure that the policy and the new SEPP protects areas of habitat where koalas actually live, eat and breed and does not impede the agricultural sector in NSW to continue its essential work within the current land management framework.
I hope and trust this matter can be resolved to our satisfaction and for the betterment of rural and regional NSW, before Parliament resumes next Tuesday.