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Byron Shire
November 30, 2021

Local Nationals MLC defends ‘biodiversity’ laws

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Nationals MLC Ben Franklin. (supplied)
Nationals MLC Ben Franklin. (supplied)

Hans Lovejoy

Local Nationals MLC Ben Franklin has defended his government’s newly introduced Biodiversity Conservation Act and Local Land Services Act which environmentalists say will open the gate to large-scale land clearing, threaten vulnerable species and ‘significantly weaken wildlife, soil and water protections.’

Opposition to these complex and lengthy laws was staggering; groups against the laws include the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), Total Environment Centre, Nature Conservation Council, WIRES NSW, National Parks Association, Northern Rivers Regional Organisation of Councils (NOROC) and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. Oh, and the Greens.

Professor Hugh Possingham, a leading author of the 2014 report whose recommendations the government claims it is implementing, resigned in disgust.

Even Liberal MP Bruce Notley-Smith (Coogee) raised concerns over the negative impacts.

More than 700 farmers and land managers released a statement in September saying: ‘the changes will lead to wide-scale land clearing and land management practices that have no place in modern farming.’

The following is Local Nationals MLC Ben Franklin’s full reply to questions regarding the newly introduced Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 and Local Land Services Act 2016.

HL: Are you comfortable that this law will not end up contribute to large scale destruction, including habitat loss and exacerbating climate change?

BF: These laws will not lead to large scale destruction and habitat loss. There are a number of inbuilt controls in the system, including:

  • While the new system gives landholders the opportunity to improve the productivity of their properties, it does this in exchange for landholders making on-going commitments to conserve biodiversity on their property in perpetuity.
  • The new code based system put limits on the level of clearing that can occur and the rate at which it occurs – the maximum possible clearing using the equity code over a three year period is 625 hectares.
  • Clearing native vegetation is expensive and landholders will only undertake this if it makes economic sense to do so.
  • The government can suspend the operation of a code in a region if the amount of clearing is judged to be too high.
  • There are a number of environmental protections that will be in the Land Management Codes, including prohibitions on clearing in prescribed koala habitat, littoral rainforests, Ramsar wetlands, coastal wetlands, land mapped as containing Critically Endangered Ecological Communities or known to contain critically endangered species. There will also be limitations on how the Land Management Codes can be applied on vulnerable land.

These reforms will not exacerbate climate change. The Government is confident the medium term carbon balance of the reforms will be neutral to positive. In the short term there will be some carbon lost associated with the package but over time the system will become a net consumer of carbon emissions.

The key to this positive outlook on carbon is the adoption of an active and adaptive management regime for native vegetation. For example the Land Management Codes for invasive native species, thinning and grazing will initially produce carbon emissions but the result will be more productive land that is managed to deliver production and biodiversity outcomes and over time will sequester more carbon. In addition, the record $240 m investment in private land conservation will have significant emissions savings co-benefits.

HL: The EDO claims the existing laws were adequate, but needed to be properly resourced. Since the Native Vegetation Act 2003 came into force, EDO says ‘land clearing has reduced from up to 21,500 ha per year to 11,000 ha per year.’

‘Funding cuts to catchment management authorities after the initial four-year investment in Property Vegetation Plans (PVPs) caused delays in land clearing approvals and making property vegetation plans.’

Is this your understanding?

BF: The 2014 review by the Independent Expert Panel demonstrated the inadequacy of the current laws. A key finding was that the Native Vegetation Act was imposing unreasonable regulatory burdens on farmers, which constrained the adoption of modern farming technologies to enhance farming sustainability. The Panel found, that despite these controls, biodiversity was continuing to decline. The Panel stressed the importance of re-engaging with landholders and allowing them to undertake low risk activities without Government oversight.

The PVP requirement by its very nature took away people’s ability to make effective land management decisions due to the over-regulation of the sector. While there were PVP backlogs in some regions, this was a symptom of the complex and technical requirements.

The new system seeks to turn this situation around by engaging landholders, giving them more flexibility and establishing an active and adaptive management regime. Measuring the effectiveness of the Native Vegetation Act framework by the number of hectares cleared alone is simplistic. The framework also needs to be considered as part of the whole reform package – it is providing strategic funding for private land conservation aligned with State-wide biodiversity priorities, $240 million over five years and $70 million on-going as well as $100 million over five years for to continue the Saving Our Species program.

The following parliamentary speech is by local Greens MP Tamara Smith regarding the same laws

Ballina Greens MP Tamara Smith. Photo Tree Faerie.
Ballina Greens MP Tamara Smith. Photo Tree Faerie.

‘I speak on behalf of The Greens in debate on the Biodiversity Conservation Bill 2016 and the Local Land Services Amendment Bill 2016. These are cognate bills. The Greens do not support the bills. There are no surprises there. The Greens proposed 60 amendments in the other place that attempted to redeem the legislation. That says much about the extent of the problems with this legislation. Even though 60 amendments were proposed, in an attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, none of them were passed.

‘The Local Land Services Amendment Bill 2016 abolishes several key pieces of environmental legislation in this State. It abolishes the Native Vegetation Act 2003 and establishes a replacement native vegetation management system for private land that makes land clearing easier, in some cases without the need to obtain approval. The Biodiversity Conservation Bill 2016 abolishes the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995, the Nature Conservation Trust Act 2001 and the plants and animals provisions of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 and remakes elements of them in the new Act. It will expand biodiversity offsetting, change the way threatened species are managed and manage interactions between plants and animals. Both are inferior to the current laws and systems, which should be further strengthened and better resourced and implemented. There is no mention of climate change impacts on biodiversity, nor of the effects that land clearing has on increasing greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbating climate change. What a joke.

‘What we have under current legislation in this state are scientifically based principles, management and laws that protect our biodiversity from destruction. This is not a relative science or something that politicians make up; the State has a very high standard of science-based environmental laws in place. It is based on facts and the precautionary principle, which states that if an action poses a danger to a species that is threatened or of conservation value then you should not proceed with the action. That principle underlines the current legislation. The Government cannot talk its way out of it and argue that economic factors should outweigh that scientific principle. Underpinning the current protections afforded under the Native Vegetation Act and the Threatened Species Conservation Act and the plants and animals provisions of the National Parks and Wildlife Act is the scientific awareness that the biodiversity of our State, as it sits on the planet, belongs to everyone—including future generations.

‘Under these laws that has gone. Short-term thinking and economic vandalism are the hallmarks of this legislation. The bill proposes the nonsensical idea previously put by a Labor Government that we can transpose, transplant or relocate biodiversity. We cannot recreate, transplant or transpose biodiversity. The nature and the science of biodiversity tell us that it is unique in situ—in its place—because it relies on the soil, the microorganisms and the unique and often chaotic accumulation of specific ecological factors that create it. I note that the submission of the Environmental Defenders Office to the threatened species review refers to the fact that under the proposal the direct like-for-like offsets have been relaxed and can be circumvented. For example, offsets do not need to be of the same species or vegetation type as the one being impacted.

‘Under this legislation the Minister has the potential to allow rehabilitated mining sites as environmental offsets. Let us contemplate that for a moment; let us just think it through. Mining exploration and extraction licences are given out dirt cheap, and communities have no say about the impacts of mining on their food security, water security or the health of the communities. But after the mine has made its money, had huge negative impacts on the natural environment, jeopardised intergenerational resources and contributed to sealing the fate that looms before us on the hot planet—after all of that—the Minister can say, “You know what? Let’s count regenerating that mine towards your environmental offset.” The idea of that type of double-dipping is unbelievable; its logic beggars belief. Slam dunk, Minister, because that has to be the coolest sleight of hand I have seen in a long time.

‘This legislation comes from a Premier who is responsible for the biggest expansion in coalmine approvals in the State’s history and from a government that approved the destruction of the Leard Forest for Whitehaven’s mega mine and failed to solve the land use conflict between agriculture and mining. This Government abolished the Office of the Independent Western Lands Commissioner, which was supposed to protect the environment in the fragile western half of the State. This legislation comes from a government that has failed completely to take climate change seriously. This State ranks dead last in our nation for the supply of renewable electricity. This legislation has been panned by scientists and conservationists everywhere, including by the Government’s own scientific adviser on the development of these laws.

‘So great is our impact on the planet as a species that mounting evidence collected by scientists supports the idea that human activity has pushed the planet into a new geologic epoch: the Anthropocene. The science tells us that we have spread aluminium, plastics, concrete, carbon particulates from burning fossil fuels, insecticide and radioactive particles released by nuclear bombs across the landscape and our oceans—all evidence favouring the declaration of a new Anthropocene epoch, during which human activity is the dominant influence. Hippies are not telling us that; it is the scientists. In the future people on archaeological digs will find those substances embedded in this planet forever.

‘Tragically, this legislation bears that out. There is no scientific presumption of the precautionary principle and no acknowledgement of climate change. It is dinosaur legislation pushed for by the dinosaurs in The Nationals and it is a travesty for this State and for the planet. The farmers I know understand that to degrade the land is counterintuitive. Member of the farmers alliance visited Parliament House and we know that hundreds of farmers in this State are very comfortable with the current laws.

‘We know that most farmers respect and care for the land. My region, the Ballina electorate, is not only a biodiversity hotspot but also the home of world-class ecologically sustainable farming and rainforest regeneration. But it is the interests of a handful of magnates in the mega agricultural industry that could not care less about the future and the corporate owners of the mega mines that will be the beneficiaries of this legislation.

‘I turn to a statement from the Wentworth Group, which succinctly identified two major flaws in the legislation before us today. The first major flaw is the codes—activities allowable without formal application to government—that allow broadscale land clearing. Codes should facilitate farm management with respect to small-scale management actions, such as clearing to allow fencing buildings, not enable broadscale clearing. Codes that facilitate broadscale clearing should be removed from the legislation. If broadscale clearing is to occur, it must be consistent with the Independent Biodiversity Legislation Review Panel’s report, which means that it follows the mitigation hierarchy: avoid, minimise and offset.

‘Under this regime in the bill you can just buy your way out of offsetting. How does that even work? How does a stand of remnant tropical rainforest with a unique species of tree frog in Federal, in my electorate, get offset by some caterpillars in dry sclerophyll land 300 kilometres away? It is absurd. The second flaw is the lack of mapping for areas of high conservation value that was recommended by the biodiversity review panel. Reports have consistently told government that to propose ways to get around the values or allow any assessment analysis of vegetation clearance, mapping was essential. Local councils on the North Coast are being hampered in their ability to deliver management plans and local environmental plans because this mapping is no longer there.

‘It is sad to see an environment Minister whom I respect delivering this kind of legislation at a time when Australia is the laughing stock of the world for our arrogance when it comes to playing our part and preserving our native forests and keeping carbon in the ground. Communities all over the State will punish this Government in the ballot boxes in two years time for a range of things, but this will be seen as its penultimate act of near sightedness and environmental vandalism.’


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