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Dust-up looms as NSW Nationals seek to cut environmental oversight

Policy stand-off: Deputy NSW Premier John Barilaro (left) with Dubbo MP Dugald Saunders and Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean (right) visit a solar farm near Dubbo in June.

Policy stand-off: Deputy NSW Premier John Barilaro (left) with Dubbo MP Dugald Saunders and Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean (right) visit a solar farm near Dubbo in June.Credit:Janie Barrett

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The Herald, though, understands Mr Marshall approached Premier Gladys Berejiklian on concurrence matters. The issue remains on cabinet’s agenda.

Some Liberal MPs have been wary of handing more power to the Nationals, particularly after the government loosened native vegetation laws in 2016.

That wariness has been been prompted in part by an audit that found land-clearing rates had risen 13-fold. The report was triggered by a secret agreement by the parties to review deforestation if applications to clear land exceeded 20,000 hectares in any six-month period.

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Water-sharing plans, some of which are still to be signed off by Mr Kean, have also been controversial with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority signalling it may recommend against their accreditation.

Independent Justin Field said it’s been clear for years the Nationals resented having a Liberal MP sign off on some policies involving the regions.

For instance, a new code sought by the Nationals allowing easier land clearing in northern regions such as Moree would be made harder if concurrence remained, he said.

“The National Party can’t be trusted on the environment,” Mr Field said, citing the rapid surge in deforestation, devastating fish kills and rivers running dry.

“Controversial water-sharing plans, new dam infrastructure, a new land-clearing code for the north west and the gutting of marine protections up and down the coast – it’s unsurprising the Nationals want to remove environment considerations from this equation,” he said.

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David Morris, chief executive of the Environmental Defenders Office, said any attempt to remove the requirement for Mr Kean’s concurrence on land-clearing or water policies “would be a regressive step”.

Environment ministers “are pre-eminently responsible in government for the protection of biodiversity”, Mr Morris said. “If that step was proposed, it would require legislative amendment and I suggest would be met by enormous community concern.”

For their part, both farmer and irrigator groups called on the Coalition partners to cooperate on agriculture policies.

“It’s up to the Liberal and National parties to work collectively together as a coalition to improve and properly manage the state’s biodiversity and water policies,” James Jackson, NSW Farmers’ president, said.

“We need all Coalition members to support land and water policies which underpin investment confidence, avoid unnecessary green tape and deliver financial support to farmers.”

Claire Miller, interim chief executive of the NSW Irrigators’ Council, said her organisation hadn’t asked for concurrence changes to water policy.

“It’s an important check and balance in the process,” Ms Miller said. “We expect all ministers to work cooperatively and constructively on these matters.”

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