Second Reading Speech: Save The Koalas

01.08pm | March 12, 2021

One of the iconic images of Australia's bushfires is a firefighter sharing a water bottle with a scared and singed koala. That picture was shared around the world and, in part, that's because the koala is so intrinsically and recognisably Australian.

One of the iconic images of Australia's bushfires is a firefighter sharing a water bottle with a scared and singed koala. That picture was shared around the world and, in part, that's because the koala is so intrinsically and recognisably Australian. The koala might not be on our crest but it is a national symbol. It has featured in countless tourist ads and has been taken back home on countless kitsch souvenirs. It is not only an essential component of the concept that the world has of us but also of the conception we hold about ourselves. In 1933 Dorothy Wall published Blinky Bill, the quaint little Australian. A year later in 1934, the Sydney Morning Herald called the koala Australia's 'national pet'. But right from the beginning, being Australia's national pet hasn't been enough to guarantee the koala's safety. In 1936 the Evening News in Rockhampton wrote:

It seems extraordinary that this animal which is so greatly admired, not only by overseas visitors, but by Australians, is being allowed to suffer extinction.

In the early part of the 20th century, the koala was ruthlessly hunted for its fur. The threats to its safety today are different but no less grave. The koala is facing habitat loss and mounting ecological pressure in a warming world. Being an iconic Australian animal will not be enough to save the koala without our help. Even before last summer's bushfires, koalas were in trouble. Koala populations in my home state of New South Wales have been in decline for decades. One study suggests that koala numbers may have dropped by as much as two-thirds over the last 20 years, just 20 years. Although estimates vary, there is no dispute that koalas are in real trouble in New South Wales.

A few years back, on a pleasant afternoon, I met volunteers from an organisation called Bangalow Koalas. They have planted over a thousand trees to generate koala corridors to compensate for key koala habitat lost to highways on the North Coast of New South Wales. These corridors act as both travel pathways for koalas and areas for them to live. The trees were planted on private land with support of local landowners and they want to see koalas protected. Those volunteers are stepping up to fill the void that has been left by the Commonwealth and the New South Wales government and their destructive actions. New South Wales now has fewer than 10 per cent of the nation's koalas and it is harrowing to know that koalas in the Pilliga have declined by 80 per cent by the 1980s. The New South Wales coalition government's policy agenda of increased land clearing, building highways through key koala habitat, has been a contributor to their decline, and the bushfires have only made things worse. The government's own estimate suggests that at least a quarter of koala habitat in eastern New South Wales has been affected by fire; 5,000 koalas may have died in the fires. A New South Wales parliamentary inquiry found that without urgent action koalas may be extinct—completely extinct—in New South Wales by 2055. Well, what was the response? What was the response from the Berejiklian government? Predictably enough, it was a self-interested internecine fight between the National Party and the Liberals.

In September last year, the Nationals threatened to leave the coalition over a very modest plan to protect koala habitat, which the New South Wales Deputy Premier branded a 'land lock-up' policy. It is staggering that the issue that the New South Wales Nationals sought to weaponise to blow up the government was the protection of koalas. It's actually hard to think of a more tone-deaf political position than that advocated by the Deputy Premier, but it's typical of the approach from a coalition that persistently makes policy decisions that threaten the New South Wales natural environment.

The state government's recklessness is visible from space, literally. The North Coast has one of the highest land-clearing rates in the world. It has been identified as a deforestation hotspot on par with Brazil and the palm oil plantations of Indonesia. Early in my career I had the great privilege of working for Bob Debus, former New South Wales Labor Minister for the Environment, when he and Premier Carr passed legislation to protect hectares of woodland across New South Wales for conservation—350 new parks created in that government; between 1995 and 2011 more than three million hectares protected in the conservation system. It is so disappointing to watch the New South Wales government fail to implement anything remotely similar. In fact, their approach has been to hasten at every step the destruction of irreplaceable wildlife and their habitat.

Unfortunately, here in the Australian Senate, a private senator's bill is unlikely to be the solution. This bill has no chance of becoming law. Even if it were to pass the Senate, the government would never bring it on for a vote in the House of Representatives over in the other place. It is why being in government matters and it's why, as a conservationist, I am a member of and participate in a party of government. Labor would take a different approach to the approach outlined in this bill.

This bill is a blunt instrument. It introduces an indefinite moratorium on clearing koala habitat. It removes the exemptions from the EPBC Act for forestry agreements where there is a significant impact on koalas. What this means, in effect, is that large parts of the eastern seaboard would be affected by this bill because koala habitat is extensive throughout the region. Now, it's possible that this is the right solution. Maybe this is the workable solution for the communities of New South Wales, but we wouldn't have any idea about this because there is no evidence of any discussion at all in the development of this bill with the communities that it would affect. Indeed, what's lacking in this bill is any consideration whatsoever of local communities.

This bill would have an impact on people and their livelihoods. Every natural resource decision does, but this bill doesn't establish, contemplate or reference any mechanism for a conversation with community about how to approach this problem. It doesn't reference or contemplate any mechanism to balance competing demands for land use, and this should matter to conservationists as well as communities that are dependent on forestry. This approach runs the risk of undermining support for conservation in the rural and regional communities where koalas need that support most.

We know from experience in government that the best approach to conservation lies in creating lasting compacts that recognise the legitimate needs of local communities to sustain themselves through a local economy that will support them and their families. That kind of compact matters and the stakes are too high for the koalas for us to take any other approach. If there is anything that we've learnt from the last few years of politics here and abroad—years which have seen simply frightening developments in some examples—it's that politics requires an inclusive approach that brings people together, that brings local communities along with change.

Politics does not work when solutions are dictated from afar. And, when that happens, there are reactions which are sometimes uncontrollable, sometimes unpredictable and not helpful for democratic systems. Our democracy works best when we have honest and open conversations with communities—conversations that acknowledge, recognise and respond to the genuinely divergent and diverse interests in those communities, because people who haven't been listened to will find a way of making their voices heard.

This is the approach that Labor takes in relation to nature conservation. It's the approach we took to protect so many assets in our periods in government, here in the federal sphere and in state parliaments. Labor protected the Daintree and Kakadu, stopped drilling on the Great Barrier Reef and protected the Franklin and Antarctica. We created Landcare. We created the largest network of marine parks in the world. Labor reduced Australians' emissions. Every major achievement in environmental protection in this nation's history has been delivered by a Labor government. Only Labor has the will and the capacity to protect Australia's environment.

At every stage, the coalition has failed to fulfil that role. The Commonwealth government is years overdue in making a threatened species recovery plan for the koala. It was initially due in 2015, five years ago. Labor's National Koala Conservation Strategy ran until 2014. It's yet to be replaced. We are still waiting for the government to make a decision on increasing the threatened listing status of the koala, and that is why Labor has called on the Morrison government to cease development in areas where the koala is listed as vulnerable until the formal assessment for up-listing the koala has been determined, a recovery plan for the koala is produced and a new National Koala Conservation Strategy is in place.

Labor has a real plan for protecting the koala. We need stronger protections. The koala, as a national icon, does need federal protections. We need tougher penalties. The federal environment laws should impose strict penalties for acts of deliberate animal death and a national approach. The government has to work with the states on a consistent approach to protecting the koala and it should undertake a comprehensive ecological audit to assess the damage to populations from bushfires.

But it's not just the koala that needs protection. Fewer than 40 per cent of threatened species have a recovery plan. The Morrison government doesn't know—it has no idea—which recovery plans are actually being implemented. Under the coalition, 170 out of 171 outstanding threatened species recovery plans are overdue, and the Morrison government has no plan to get them done. Bushfires didn't threaten just koalas in New South Wales. Native wildlife from Fraser Island to Kangaroo Island was affected, and that is why Labor called for the national ecological audit at the height of the fires, in January 2020. It took a whole year for government to respond.

Meanwhile, after spending millions of dollars and countless hours on the review, the government is pursuing second-rate so-called standards that are fundamentally inconsistent with the Samuel review's final report. This government appointed a highly respected Australian regulator and businessman, and then it encouraged environmental science, business, industry and legal stakeholders to devote a vast amount of time to a review that it seems it always intended to ignore.

Delay and neglect are the hallmarks of the Morrison government's approach to environment protection. It is simply not something that the government cares about one jot. All the Senate motions and private senators' bills in the world aren't enough to undo the harm that can be done by a Liberal government that sees our wilderness as unimportant, that sees wildlife as an impediment to development and that sees proper process as mere 'green tape'. We need real change, and the only way to protect koalas is the election of a federal Labor government.

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