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Monday, 22 February 2021
Page: 1081

Senator AYRES (New South Wales) (11:33): 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 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Save the Koala) Bill 2021 proposes an indefinite moratorium on clearing koala habitats. It is 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 later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.