NSW government avoids shakeup over koala policy … for now

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday September 11, 2020

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New South Wales Public Service employees have avoided needing to adjust to new ministerial direction after state Nationals leader John Barilaro retracted his threat to pull the Nationals out of the Coalition.

On Friday morning Barilaro agreed to discuss the state’s koala-protection policy at cabinet on October 6 after Premier Gladys Berejiklian declined to hold talks this month.

Barilaro backed down after Berejiklian gave him an ultimatum on Thursday evening.

“I have just made it clear to the deputy premier that he and his Nationals colleagues who are members of the NSW cabinet have until 9am Friday 11 September to indicate to me whether they wish to remain in my cabinet or else sit on the crossbench,” she said in a statement.

“They cannot do both. If required, I will attend Government House tomorrow and swear in a new ministry.”

While the state government has avoided a mid-pandemic shakeup for now, no compromises have been offered on the provisions set out by the  State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) for Koala Habitat Protection as of yet.

On Friday, Barilaro told 2GB that he did not want to “destroy” the Coalition.

“We’ve been a bloody good government and it’s not the Liberals that have been a good government, ‘we’ have been a good government,” he said.

The chaos began last week, when Nationals MPs Chris Gulaptis and Gurmesh Singh threatened to move to the crossbench if the government did not review the koala policy, arguing it harmed regional communities. Several days later, Barilaro wrote to Berejiklian asking for her to call an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the issue.

On Thursday, the deputy premier threatened to end the Coalition by moving his 13 Nationals to the crossbench, stating that the changes to the koala policy were “wrong”. He said Nationals ministers would not surrender their portfolios.

“We will be abstaining from voting on government bills,” he said.

“By not voting or abstaining from voting from government bills we’re effectively on the crossbench.”

The policy

The new koala habitat protection policy has been designed to help the state government determine whether land clearing for development would threaten koalas, effectively making the process more difficult for farmers.

The previous policy was repealed on March 1. The new version includes a new definition of what constitutes a “core koala habitat”, and makes the development application process “clearer, more transparent and accountable for DA proponents”. The list of protected tree species listed under the SEPP has also been expanded from 10 to 65.

Under the old policy, a landowner could take their development application to the Planning, Industry and Environment department’s Environment, Energy and Science Group for approval without consulting their council.

The new SEPP requires a council to undertake stakeholder consultation for a 28 day period before a plan can be referred to the department, with secretary Jim Betts to make the approval decision.

A recent NSW parliamentary inquiry into koala habitats and populations found that “koalas will become extinct in NSW before 2050 without urgent government intervention”. Another key finding was that “amongst the multiple factors that threaten koala populations in New South Wales, fragmentation and loss of their habitat was perhaps the primary threat to their survival”.

But Barilaro has argued that the policy would “sanitise the regions, attack the property rights of landholders and do absolutely nothing to support koalas”.

On Thursday, planning minister Rob Stokes wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald  that some of Barilaro’s claims regarding the policy were “mistruths” .

“My colleague in the NSW government said farmers can’t build a feed shed or a driveway on their property without a koala study. This is not the case. You can erect farm sheds, pour driveways, clear fence lines and engage in any routine agricultural practice that has occurred for generations without the need for development consent or a koala study,” he wrote.

“Barilaro also said noxious weeds are listed as core koala habitat. Again, this is incorrect. There are no noxious weeds on the tree species list.

“This policy to protect koalas and their habitat was developed over several years on the basis of exhaustive scientific research and advice and through a process of thorough community and parliamentary consultation.”

At a press conference on Thursday, Gulaptis argued there was a “misconception that country people don’t care about koalas”.

“Farmers are the best custodians of the land and the timber industry, they certainly have protocols with how to deal with native fauna species. We shouldn’t be blamed, those farmers, those industries, should not be blamed for the death of three billion native fauna species that were killed in the hot fires,” he said.

“They’ve decimated their koala population and yet we’ve got people from the city telling us how to look after our animals and how to manage our businesses to protect iconic species which we’ve done for the past 200 years.”

While the parties remain divided, it will be up to the Nationals to decide whether Barilaro remains the state leader.

Labor Leader Jodi McKay plans to call for a vote of no confidence in the NSW government on Tuesday, and has called for Barilaro to resign.

“This morning what we’ve seen is a humiliating back down by the deputy premier. This is a capitulation that no one expected. He’s taken the government to the brink and his position is now completely untenable,” she said.

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