Crown Land Legislation Amendment Bill 2017

Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE ( 15:45 ): On behalf of The Greens I indicate that we have serious concerns in relation to the Crown Land Legislation Amendment Bill 2017. This Chamber has debated at length the issue of Crown land in New South Wales. The value of this Chamber was evident in that debate, when we amended the last Crown land legislation to save the commons in New South Wales and to remove the threat being posed to commons in New South Wales from the Crown Land Management Act 2016. Having moved those amendments on behalf of The Greens, I am pleased that the collective representation of the likes of the commoners at St Albans; the Christian Democratic Party, which indicated its support for protecting the commons; the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party; the Labor Party; and The Greens—

The Hon. Niall Blair: And the local member.

Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: And the local member. I do not agree on much with the local member, but I believe he also made a representation. I think there was a collective acknowledgement that the proposal to remove commons in New South Wales was a proposal too far and would cause far more damage than good. At the outset I commend the campaign of the people of St Albans and of the commoners across New South Wales. I also commend the fact that the abolition of the commons is not in this Act. It is a good start. However, much of this bill is of a machinery nature—and I think we should all acknowledge that. One of the proposed changes will be to abolish the Public Reserves Management Fund and establish instead a Crown Reserves Improvement Fund.

The Hon. Mick Veitch: CRIF.

Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: Is it a CRIF? All right, we will call it a CRIF. It is proposed that the CRIF be taken out of the Public Reserves Management Act, which will then be repealed, to bring the new fund and the machinery for it into the Crown Lands Act. The concept is six of one and half a dozen of the other as far as The Greens are concerned, whether it is a standalone bill or is brought under the Crown Lands Act. Rebadging it does not really change it. Largely that is a machinery change, and I think it is designed for administrative ease. It is easier to have all of the key provisions in relation to Crown lands found in one easy-to-find bill. I understand the reasoning behind this change. There are some minor changes to the wording as a result of this bill, and I will address those changes later. I note the principal concern The Greens have in relation to these changes is legislating for good practice on transparency—again, I will deal with that in more detail later.

The other significant change—a substantive change, not one of an administrative nature—is to amend the Roads Act 1993 and make further provision with respect to Crown roads and public roads primarily in relation to what are now being called local roads. Local roads are roads that will be handed over to and put under the control of the local council. Those changes to the management of Crown roads and public roads are designed to make it easier to sell council roads by removing the requirement for the concurrence of the Minister for Lands and Forestry. I acknowledge that there are some checks and balances in the bill. A shorthand summary of how the scheme will operate is that council roads cannot be closed unless the road is not reasonably required as a road for public use, is not required to provide continuity for an existing road network or—there is a much more complicated legislative formula for this—another road provides access to the same place.

Where it is proposed to sell a local road as a result of the changes in this bill, all adjoining landowners are required to be notified. There is a standard 28-day notice period, which The Greens would say has been proven to be inadequate, before the sale can happen. All notifiable authorities, which is a defined term in the bill, also have to be notified. I suppose it is ipso facto that a notifiable authority has to be notified. Notifiable authorities include the Rural Fire Service [RFS], Fisheries and other statutory authorities that would have an interest in the closure of local roads. Submissions about the closure can be provided to the local council if, by chance, as the Hon. Robert Brown indicated, someone saw the notice in the local paper and worked out that DP7025431/26 No. 3 is the local road they trot down to go to their local swimming hole. If they work that out, they could make a public submission to the local council, but so can the notifiable authorities.

If an objection is lodged by a local resident who has always loved going down that little track to the local swimming hole, it can be ignored by the local council. If a local fisher says, “That’s the way we get to our little patch on the coast”, that can be ignored by the local council. If a local mountain bike rider says, “That’s the way we get onto the track that leads into the State Forest”, that can be ignored by the local council. But an objection by a notifiable authority like the RFS cannot be ignored by the local council. Unless that objection is withdrawn, the local council needs to go to the NSW Land and Environment Court to set aside the objection if it wants to proceed with the sale of the land. That is the basic structure regarding local roads. The bill rebadges other bits and pieces, and there are some rats and mice amendments to tidy up things left undone in the 2016 Act.

Why is this bill important? The Crown Lands Act 1989 is important to the people of New South Wales because 42 per cent of the State, or 33 million hectares, almost half of the State, is Crown land. That is why debating this bill is important. The bulk of Crown land is west of the sandstone curtain, but there is a vast amount of it in coastal parts of the State and huge amounts in western parts of the State. Stewardship of such a huge parcel of public land is very important. The most recent report of the Auditor-General and the report of the inquiry of General Purpose Standing Committee No. 6, chaired by the Hon. Paul Green and of which I was a member, made it clear that a lot is going wrong in the management of Crown land in New South Wales and vast improvement is required. Getting the management of 42 per cent of New South Wales right is a hugely important task.

The parliamentary inquiry handed down 20 recommendations in its report, including some essential legislative protections for Crown land and the public interest. The Auditor-General’s report into the sale and lease of Crown land made stinging findings about how one-on-one backroom dealings were the order of the day when it came to disposing, selling or leasing of Crown land. A fair summary of the Auditor-General’s report is that the lack of adequate procedures, adequate process and adequate oversight in the Crown Lands department left the Auditor-General in despair. I personally found it frustrating that the department, which twice gave evidence before the parliamentary committee, said nothing about the Auditor-General’s extremely adverse draft report and draft recommendation, although it had already been provided with it. I am sure the chair remembers this. The department witnesses knew that at the time and said nothing. They acted as though it was all fine. They deflected the questions the parliamentarians asked them with bureaucratic disdain. If there is ever a warning bell about how a department operates, it rings when you see that kind of behaviour from bureaucrats. The secretary of the department should make a public apology for that.

Despite our political differences with the former Minister, I think he did an excellent job to try to right the ship. It was a hell of a job, and it was by no means completed at the time he exited. We have a new Minister now, one about whom I have some concerns, which I will not delve into now. There is a big question mark over the future of this department and about whether or not the promises made and initial reform steps will bear fruit, because historically this department has done its own thing. It needs very close ministerial and parliamentary supervision to ensure that things change fundamentally. That is one reason that The Greens will move amendments to this bill to require transparency in the way in which the Public Reserves Management Fund is operated. For most of its life, the previous Crown Reserves Improvement Fund operated with little or no transparency and little if any public reporting.

In the last decade more than $100 million has gone into and come out of that fund and been applied to ad hoc projects around New South Wales. For most of its history few people apart from the recipients knew how, why and how much was being distributed and for what purposes. I give credit to the department for significantly improved transparency as to the way the fund has been operated over the past few years. We receive annual reports, we are finding out what projects have been approved and we are getting the rationale for why certain projects have been approved and others have not. That is a good administrative change. I think it was driven by the former Minister, although I may be wrong about that, but it is a change of policy direction and there is no legislative requirement for it. It is the fundamental belief of The Greens that we should put in place a statutory reporting mechanism. We will move amendments that seek to insert such a mechanism into this bill.

The Greens are deeply troubled that statewide ministerial oversight will be lost in relation to the sale of local roads. Local roads can be essential. Earlier in my speech I identified some of the circumstances in which people rely upon local roads, made and unmade. Many unmade roads are well-known walking tracks or well‑known access points to get from a public road to a natural reserve, waterway, State forest or national park. Unmade roads provide essential linkages, many of which are not well known to the local council or State authorities. If a local road, unmade or not, is sold and privatised, that access disappears.

That is why we believe that the 28 day notification period is woefully inadequate. I know that the Opposition has some additional amendments in relation to local roads and they are amendments that we support. But we will also be moving amendments to increase the minimum statutory notice period from 28 days to 42 days, which is not perfect but we think would go some way to improving the public accountability in relation to local roads. We will also be requiring that the social and environmental issues that are relevant to the sale of a local road are also considered in the sale process. We think that is self-evident.

What on the face of it looks like a wholly administrative bill, we think contains some quite vexed public policy issues. We are very prepared to engage in good faith with our amendments and seek to improve the bill. If we do not get substantial improvements in the bill, we will not be able to support it at the third reading. I note that the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party and the Christian Democratic Party have basically said they will support it and hope that it all turns out right.

The Hon. Robert Brown: Accurate.

Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: I note the response from the Hon. Robert Brown. Our experience in this Parliament is that we may well hope for the best, but we are better off planning for the worst and legislating for the worst.

The Hon. Robert Brown: With Brad Hazzard, there would be no way.

Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE : Ministers come and go; one might think the current Minister will listen and that he will continue to put transparency into administrative practice, but that Minister can go and be succeeded by a Minister who just finds it is all too much bother and that it creates too much potential controversy: “We will just stop that transparency. We will just reduce the notification period and we will get on with business as usual in New South Wales”. We have had time to end business as usual through legislative amendments to make legislation transparent and fair, and that is the manner in which we will be considering this bill.

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