NSW voters might have thought the government would get back to focussing on navigating the economy through the pandemic and leave our koalas alone.
After all, the emblematic marsupial was already on track for extinction in NSW before 2050 without last summer’s infernos incinerating them in their thousands and so many of the trees they feed on.
Hints that the Nationals weren’t done surfaced in October when the party – sans the absent Barilaro – demanded in cabinet that farmers be given the right to clear 50-metre fire breaks on their properties and that Environment Minister Matt Kean be instructed to do the same on the periphery of national parks.
Eager to avert another breakdown, Berejiklian barely spoke in what one colleague described as a “trainwreck” session, and agreed on a compromise of a 25 metre fire break for private land.
The concession came despite its own inquiry into bushfires making no such recommendation among its 76 findings, nor the existence of research by agencies backing such a move, as a call for information about boundary clearing of vegetation found.
The clearing rate passed into law this week following amendments to the Rural Fires Act.
According to WWF-Australia research the change would potentially expose nearly 12,000 hectares of koala habitat to destruction in just four local government areas in NSW alone.
As destructive as those new provisions were, the wick leading to another political powderkeg lay elsewhere.
But there was more. During Barilaro’s absence, the Liberals stepped up negotiations to resolve differences with the Nationals over that new SEPP 44, a policy update led by Planning Minister Rob Stokes that had led to the September stand-off.
Stokes had introduced changes including lifting the number of tree species identified as important for koalas from 10 to 123 based on better science since the original policy was struck in 1995.
Other modifications included further checks on developers buying up land. Around the state’s towns and cities, but especially Sydney, speculators with little interest in farming buy land in anticipation of sub-dividing it for housing lots when the suburbs eventually sprawl their way.
“Essentially, it’s about sterilising rural land,” says Steve Douglas, an ecologist who has spent years consulting on planning issues. “What [these landholders] are really about is building their retirement income so they can sell up and move to the damn Gold Coast.”
Douglas says the old SEPP was “quite basic….and easily loop-holded”, with properties smaller-than-a-hectare in size excluded. That typically meant “death by a thousand cuts” for habitat for koalas and other wildlife as land got divied-up for housing.
Still, Rachel Walmsley, director of policy at the Environmental Defenders Office, says Stokes’ revisions only delivered modest increases to habitat protection.
“The old SEPP 44 was a pretty weak instrument and the updates were still pretty weak,” Walmsley says. Among the limitations identified by the EDO, was that farmers could still apply and get approval to bulldoze their woodlands by applying under the state’s land-clearing laws.
Lands would also not be rezoned under the updated SEPP and it was voluntary for councils to create their own koala plan of management (KPoMs) and only a handful had.
Stokes, though, knew he couldn’t achieve all he wanted and his hand wasn’t helped by the lack of accurate vegetation mapping from an underfunded environment department.
Seeking to reverse the policy, the Nationals jumped on the fact that outdated maps apparently missed areas where woodlands had been replaced by road roundabouts, prompting some wags to suggest lamp posts were now key koala habitat.
Still, in Stokes’s view, the new SEPP was a marked improvement on the past forcing would-be developers to at least go through a modicum of assessment before the bulldozers could start to move in.
But then, out of left field, came a legislative manoeuvre from agriculture minister Adam Marshall, a potential Nationals leadership rival, that would have nullified the koala protections and possibly all planning oversight of farmers in the state.
Charged by cabinet to make amendments to the Local Land Services Act (LLS), Marshall had inserted provisions that were not authorised, as the Herald reported earlier this week .
Barilaro, Marshall and Stokes have declined to comment on the legal wrangling.
Catherine Cusack, an upper house Liberal MP who was well-versed in koala matters after sitting on a lengthy inquiry, cried foul after looking at the LLS bill after it had been passed in the lower house.
The new law nullified the key environmental and coastal planning policies, effectively creating a parallel planning system for the state.
Stokes is understood to have been appalled and told close associates his position would be made untenable if the changes were allowed to stick.
A flurry of meetings followed, including with Barilaro – apparently more keen to defuse than incite differences this time – to force Marshall to withdraw his ambit move and restore protections for key environmental zones and coastal SEPPs.
One hint of the legal wrangle unfolding was a letter from the Parliament Counsel’s Office, the agency responsible for drafting laws, to the Premier. Its contents remain secret but it is understood to detail how the agreed cabinet minute on the LLS morphed into the final version that was voted on.
Among those watching on was Bellingen mayor Dominic King, whose shire’s voluntary koala management plan had somehow been axed in the LLS act that passed the lower house.
“It was the most shocking thing,” says King, adding the Nationals appeared to have made “a massive power grab…it was an attack on local government”.
Staking out such a position would be risky he says for the Nationals given the popularity of koalas and the changing demographics of the state’s north-east. More “tree-changers” are moving in from Sydney, shrinking the party support in increasingly marginal seats such as Tweed, Clarence and Coffs Harbour.
“People recognise the value of the environment,” King says. “They do want to have koalas on their land.”
Bemused upper house MPs, meanwhile, were being vigorously lobbied by Stokes and others to reverse opposition to a bill that would now oddly carry revisions from the government that submitted it.
“It’s completely unusual,” Cate Faehrmann, the Greens MP who chaired the cross-party committee that examined the plight of koalas.
Independent MP Justin Field was pressed to change his vote to back the bill but he, too, remains puzzled by the whole process: “It was a very specific inclusion [to override SEPPs] – how did it get in the bill in the first place?”
Cusack was similarly unimpressed, holding her line and voting to send the LLS bill to a committee where it will likely languish.
“My faith in the processes has been shattered,” she told Parliament, adding her colleagues had voted on a bill that was “not what you thought and intended”.
To quell Nationals’ anger, Berejiklian stripped Cusack of her Parliamentary Secretary title. In a bid to halt the feuding, she joined Barilaro in declaring the koala SEPP would revert to its old form by the end of the month but the next bid to revise it may fuel fresh intrigue.
And in a twist that may not be the final one, the government’s fixes to its own faulty bill were never tabled so upper house MPs still don’t know just what bullet had been dodged.
As Cusack texted one interlocutor, “you can see now why I said several times in my speech I can only go by the words on the table. Wowwww”.
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An earlier version of this article misspelt the Mayor of Bellingen’s surname.
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.