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Monday, 22 February 2021
Page: 1079

Senator McLACHLAN (South Australia) (11:19): 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'.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Fierravanti-Wells ): Senator McGrath, did you wish to speak?