This speech was delivered on 15.11.2016 in the NSW Upper House. You can read the full debate online here.

Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: As one of The Greens members in this House, I strongly oppose the Biodiversity Conservation Bill 2016 and the Local Land Services Amendment Bill 2016. This is, effectively, 258 pages of deregulation and self-assessment. It is designed to do two things—to reinstate broadscale land‑clearing of native vegetation in this State, and to allow for the unregulated killing of native animals. As a Greens member committed to our environment and to reducing cruelty inflicted on native animals in this State, I strongly oppose these two bills. The Australian Government says it is committed to the Paris Agreement on climate change, which is meant to see the Australian Government working with State and Territory governments to reduce carbon emissions by between 26 per cent and 28 per cent in 2030, as compared to 2005 levels. The single biggest threat to the modest Paris Agreement commitment is the expansion of the clearing of native vegetation across New South Wales and the country.

Since the passage of the 2003 Native Vegetation Act it is clear that clearing rates for native vegetation in New South Wales have generally been relatively stable, and substantially reduced from the very aggressive clearing that happened particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. What does that mean? According to the 2015 State of the Environment report from the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority [EPA], 61 per cent of New South Wales remains covered by native vegetation but only 9 per cent of the State has vegetation that is considered to be close to a natural condition. The condition is described as “variable” in the remaining 52 per cent of the State, but has deteriorated, in the words of the EPA, “largely due to the effects of different land use and land management regimes”. Any reading of the State of the Environment report reveals that the main threat to the extent and condition of native vegetation is not hidden—it is right up there, highlighted at the start of the New South Wales Government’s own report. The report states:

Land clearing has been recognised as the main threat to the extent and condition of native vegetation in NSW.

These two bills aim to remove restrictions on clearing native vegetation from parts of the State that have been set aside for agriculture but have had relatively low disturbances or limited changes to native vegetation. Much of the State is under threat from the deregulation bulldozer being rolled out by the Baird Government—no doubt to satisfy ultra Right ideologues like the Hon. Dr Peter Phelps, who thinks that any kind of environmental regulation is, somehow, property theft; or the extremely aggressive interests that have captured a part of The Nationals who think that farmers should be allowed to clear whatever they like because any intervention for the environment is an inappropriate restraint on farming practices.

How much of the State is under threat? So-called relatively natural environments in this State—that is, land that is used primarily for agriculture but with limited changes to native vegetation—comprise a staggering 40 per cent of the State. That 40 per cent of the State is being targeted by the Baird Government in order to pacify the far Right in The Nationals and their own crazy ideologues such as the former Government Whip, the Hon. Dr Peter Phelps. The part of the Native Vegetation Act that this Government hates is set out in the objects of the Act. This 2003 piece of legislation, while contentious at the time, has proven to be extremely important in protecting native vegetation in New South Wales. The objects of the 2003 Native Vegetation Act are:

(a)to provide for, encourage and promote the management of native vegetation on a regional basis in the social, economic and environmental interests of the State, and

(b)to prevent broadscale clearing unless it improves or maintains environmental outcomes, and …

Far Right property interests in New South Wales have been trying to tear down paragraph (b)—the provision that has protected native vegetation in this State for more than a decade. I give credit to the Labor Government—it was an achievement—which worked with Greens members in this Chamber to put in place that key provision to prevent broadscale clearing unless it improves or maintains environmental outcomes. That provision has been a target ever since for a minority of farming interests who want to be able to treat their land—their soil—as a disposable asset. They are prepared to beggar their neighbours and beggar the future. Good farmers have not had a problem with the Native Vegetation Act. They have recognised that they can work with it to protect their land and maintain an economic living off the land. But this angry minority that has empowered some of the ugliest behaviour in rural New South Wales has now captured the Baird Government—The Nationals and the Liberal Party—which is a disgrace.

Getting rid of key protections for native vegetation and reopening broadscale land clearing will ruin Australia’s capacity to meet the modest targets in the Paris Agreement, to which the Turnbull Government has agreed. We know that because this Government is trying to replicate the damage that has been done to native vegetation laws in Western Australia and Queensland. In Queensland, the ultra Right Campbell Government tore down the State’s native vegetation laws in 2013 and the clearing of native vegetation in Queensland skyrocketed. In 2013-14 Queensland cleared a staggering 300,000 hectares of native vegetation. That was a result of this style of law. That was more than double the rate of native vegetation clearing before the Liberal-Nationals in Queensland tore down their native vegetation legislation in 2011-12. In Western Australia in 2013, another ideologically driven attack from a Coalition Government stripped away key native vegetation protections in that State. Native vegetation is being lost again, at near historical levels in Western Australia. Now the Baird Government wants to replicate that in New South Wales.

The Hon. Rick Colless: That is rubbish.

Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: It is not rubbish; it is a disgraceful attack on the environment. This Government will stand condemned by future generations for what it is attempting to do. As other speakers have said, there is little consensus on this legislation and much opposition. There is no democratic mandate to shove it through the House. Whatever reforms are put through now, if the farming community thinks this will provide certainty they are dead wrong because this legislation has a target on it. It will be the work of a future government—hopefully in 2019—to strip back these laws, to go back to first base and to reinstate the key provisions of preventing broadscale clearing and maintaining and improving standards in the Native Vegetation Act.

If anyone thinks that this legislation represents longstanding reform in New South Wales, they are swimming against the tide of history. Come 2019, they also will be swimming against the tide of politics in this State. I have been greatly assisted, as I am sure have other members of this Parliament, by representations I have received from organisations around the State. I particularly note concerns that have been put onto the record by the Environmental Defenders Office [EDO] of New South Wales, which has its top 10 concerns with the former draft Biodiversity Conservation Bill and the Local Land Services Amendment Bill that unfortunately is now live legislation in this Chamber.

The Hon. Daniel Mookhey: Just 10?

Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: I note the interjection. It is the top 10 concerns of the Environmental Defenders Office of New South Wales. I will not read all the concerns. The first two concerns really sum up for many people what the key attacks are. The first is the repeal of the Native Vegetation Act and the environmental standards that go with it. The EDO submission states that the Local Land Services Amendment Bill replaces the Native Vegetation Act and its world-class environmental outcomes. It also replaces assessment methodology with self-assessable codes. It has exemptions and discretionary clearing. There are no clear environmental baselines, aims or targets. There is no ban on broadscale clearing and no mandatory soil, water and solidity assessment. There is also no maintain or improve standards to ensure environmental outcomes either at the site scale or at the landscape scale. Provisions are less stringent, less evidence-based, less accountable and are likely to result in significant clearing increases in New South Wales. That is the EDO’s first concern.

The EDO’s second concern is related to the heavy reliance on flexible and indirect biodiversity offsets; in other words, the ability for unscrupulous landholders to buy their way out of environmental protections and to destroy and pay repeatedly. The EDO states that the proposed scheme is heavily reliant on offsetting biodiversity impacts by managing other areas for biodiversity rather than preventing the impacts and adopts the standards of the problematic major projects offset policy. The biodiversity assessment methodology is therefore significantly weakened. For example, direct like-for-like offsetting requirements have relaxed and can be circumvented. The option to pay money in lieu of an actual offset will result in net losses of certain threatened species and communities. Offset areas and set-asides may be further offset later on rather than protected in perpetuity.

The EDO has those concerns about offsets, particularly the appallingly weak major projects offset policy, because it has seen it in action for years—for example, in mining approvals. Land that was once set aside for environmental protection in the initial mining approval is later cleared in mines in a subsequent approval. The EDO has seen how weak the offset policy is in situations in which environmentally critical land, in places like the Lower Hunter—where there are ecologically endangered communities—have been allowed to be cleared and destroyed. What is set aside? It will be 30 hectares somewhere up near Dubbo. The EDO has seen the rorting of offsets for years. Now the Government wants to expand that methodology across native vegetation in New South Wales. That is a future inquiry by the Independent Commission Against Corruption [ICAC] waiting to happen—unless, of course, this Government guts the ICAC.

I am also grateful for the briefing note that was provided by Stand Up For Nature, which is an extraordinary alliance of the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales, the Total Environment Centre, the National Parks Association of NSW, the Humane Society International, the Wilderness Society, the Colong Foundation for Wilderness, the NSW Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service Inc., Sydney Wildlife, the World Wide Fund for Nature [WWF], the National Trust, and BirdLife Australia. Basically they are the key interest groups in this State that have a deep understanding of and compassionate concern for the protection of our environment and our flora and fauna in this State as well as our natural and built heritage.

They describe the key political issues as follows: First, the reform package is not about biodiversity conservation. The process has been hijacked to deliver political outcomes, but some stakeholders will not be happy until all land-clearing regulation is removed. I know that is exactly what this legislation is. It is a hijacking of good policy that is based on science and study to deliver for an ugly and militant minor sector of both the farming lobby and a section within The Nationals. Secondly, the scientific community has raised significant concerns over the reform package. Key scientific advisers have gone to the extent of resigning and walking away from this reform package because they have seen how far it has strayed from science and reason.

Thirdly, there is significant public concern about the proposed changes that is coming not just from environmental groups that support strong biodiversity laws. Farmers, high-profile community members, scientists, councils and lead organisations all have raised concerns about the changes. They note that the proposed laws are similar to, and in many ways are the ugly child of, former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman’s land-clearing laws. There are inadequate safeguards in this legislation to prevent a return to broadscale land clearing and an increase in carbon emissions. We have seen similar laws fail in Queensland. Instead of learning from that, the New South Wales Government is replicating it.

Those who do not learn from history, particularly the mistakes of history, end up replicating them. Note it was the former Premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman—I emphasise “former”—who went so far into the lunar far Right—that is occupied by people such as the Hon. Dr Peter Phelps, who is part of the lunar Right fringe of the Liberal Party—that the Coalition Government in Queensland got thrown out of office. That is exactly where the Baird Government is heading with this type of ideologically driven attack on our environment. The Ecological Consultants Association, which was formed in 1999 to promote and enhance best practice in ecological assessment, planning and management in accordance with the principles of ecologically sustainable development, has listed concerns as well.

In a very clear and detailed dissection of the proposed Biodiversity Conservation Bill, key points are made. I will not read them all, but I recommend to Government members that they read the whole document before they vote for this appalling legislation. The association states that of its many concerns, first, this legislation will lead to a reduction in the protection of biodiversity; secondly, the legislation will be more complicated to interpret and implement because it combines Act and policy within the one document. I pause there to make the point that most consultants usually like complexity because they are paid more to deal with it, but this association is concerned about the impact of this legislation on the ground. Thirdly, the legislation does not conform to the scientific rigour statement of the Office of Environment and Heritage. In fact, this legislation is so far from scientific rigour that it is quite embarrassing. That is why the scientific advisers have resigned and walked away from the process.

Fourthly, the association says that this legislation is contrary to evidence-based policy because it significantly reduces requirements for field survey and other essential data collection. The self-assessable codes are really a manifestation of hope and prayer. Perhaps that is why the Christian Democratic Party has ended up supporting this legislation—it is all about hope and prayer, rather than anyone truth testing what the native vegetation is before it is cleared by the bulldozers that are unleashed by Mike Baird. Fifthly, the association states that the legislation is based on a system to determine the values of biodiversity—in other words, credits—that has been shown to be inaccurate, bases calculation of credits on cursory and, at worst, inaccurate ecological information, relies on maps that are compiled on broad-based data and modelling to provide and fine-scale assessment. In other words, the Government does not have the knowledge; nor does it have the mapping; nor does it have an understanding of the native vegetation to allow even its high-level objectives to be implemented. Worse still, members of this House are getting 250-odd pages of legislation when all the detail of the codes and the mapping is yet to be done. Talk about hope and prayer! There is the idea that it will just magically appear. The Government does not have the mapping and does not have the data, but the Government is putting through the legislation regardless.

Point 6 is where the ECA makes the point that this bill “is missing important information that underpins it, in particular the land category maps, threshold values maps, methods to assess habitat suitability, assessment thresholds and sensitivity classes. There is a real risk of the preparation of these documents being rushed to meet government requirements reducing the reliability of the data they contain”. The last point I raise from the ECA is that this bill will “not ‘slow the rate of biodiversity loss’ (Purpose (a) of the new Act). There is no procedure to measure biodiversity loss. Monitoring of species, their populations and factors that affect the status is the only way of measuring rates of biodiversity loss. The provisions of the proposed biodiversity conservation strategy are inadequate for this purpose”. This legislation is not fit for purpose if its purpose is to protect the biodiversity of this State. It is fit for purpose if its purpose is to unleash broadscale land-clearing and the destruction of native flora and fauna. That is what the bill is really. It is fit for the real political purpose, if not the stated objectives in proposed section 3 of the bill. It is an ugly piece of legislation coming from an ugly agenda that will not last long in statute books of New South Wales.