New Greens Ballina Shire Councillor Simon Chate has lost a 10-15% target proposal for increased koala habitat, with the council only agreeing to have a cost analysis done.
Koala populations were ‘at a critical point’, Cr Chate told the ordinary Ballina Shire Council meeting last week.
The newcomer to the council referred to the upgrade of Australia’s eastern koalas from vulnerable to endangered and said elected representatives were in a unique position to achieve progress.
The Greens member wanted councillors to declare koala protection a priority and to set a 10-15% target for increased koala habitat in the shire within their electoral cycle.
Ballina’s koala management strategy released before Black Summer
Cr Chate also wanted council staff to provide a map of actual current koala habitat, as compared to mapping in a 2016 Koala Management Strategy [KMS].
The strategy was released three years before the so-called Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020, Cr Chate said.
‘What does our koala habitat look like today? Has it expanded or declined since 2016?’ Cr Chate asked the meeting.
‘Mature koala trees take years to grow,’ Cr Chate said.
Describing chopping of koala feed trees, Cr Chate said ‘deaths by a thousand cuts might be slow but it’s still a death.’
The Greens member was, he said, asking council staff ‘to act sooner than the twelve to fifteen months’ timeframe staff had specified in agenda notes for an upcoming biodiversity report.
Nobody spoke against Cr Chate’s motion, which was described by at least one other councilor as ‘worthy’.
Mayor proposes ‘status quo’ on koala protection
But then the mayor proposed an amendment.
Independent Cr Sharon Cadwallader also referred to the 2016 KMS and said she’d been chair of the KMS committee at the time.
She suggested the council stick with it as it was rather than try to set any new targets.
Her amendment was, she said: ‘‘that council affirms its commitment to the koala management strategy’.
‘There is very little public land in the shire for koala habitat to be extended,’ Cr Cadwallader said, adding ‘it’s always challenging when it comes to private property landowners.’
Cr Cadwallader said she could see Cr Chate’s target costing up to a million dollars.
‘And we are breathing down the barrel of a five million-dollar deficit in the general council fund’,’ Cr Cadwallader said.
The mayor said to ‘go outside the parameters’ of the existing KMS would be ‘to divert the course’ of what the council was doing.
Increased koala habitat could come at little to no council cost
Independent councillor and last year’s biggest competitor against Cr Cadwallader for mayor Jeff Johnson spoke up: ‘just wondering where the million-dollar figure to increase the koala habitat in our shire comes from?’ he asked.
Cr Cadwallader deferred to the general manager, Matthew Wood, who said he’d looked at what other councils had spent on land and it would likely cost the council upward of $700,000 if they had to buy land for extra koala habitat.
Cr Chate told the meeting other organisations existed that were already helping private landholders regenerate their land for koala habitat and that perhaps the target wouldn’t cost the council anything.
‘Yes that is entirely possible, the money can come from other places,’ Mr Wood said, adding that staff feedback had suggested exploring the option.
‘Is there anything that really stands out in the councillor recommendations over and above what staff are already doing?’ Cr Johnson asked Mr Wood.
The GM replied that yes, getting the data Cr Chate wanted on current koala habitat sooner than the staff had intended to get it, which was in time for the diversity report in 12-15 months time, was over and above what staff were already doing.
‘Habitat expenditure is probably beyond the intent of the strategy,’ Mr Wood added.
Cr Chate’s motion had set a timeframe for the target: ‘within the next electoral cycle’.
But the new council is only due to stay in power until an election in 2024 and when Cr Johnson asked, the GM said it was unlikely the council would ‘get it all done in three years’.
Returning to Cr Cadwallader’s amendment, Independent Cr Phil Meehan asked the GM: ‘does it basically mean we continue what we’re doing without doing anything more?’.
‘Effectively it continues the status quo,’ Mr Wood replied, ‘but it raises the profile of the consideration of koala habitat issues in the biodiversity strategy process’.
‘We will soon take you through some briefings and some consultations around that,’ Mr Wood said, ‘koalas are one species in the shire’.
Council agrees to report rather than target
A majority of councilors voted in favour of the mayor’s ‘status quo’ amemdment, with Crs Eoin Johnston, Stephen McCarthy, Nigel Buchanen, Rod Bruem and Eva Ramsey for and Crs Kiri Dicker, Jeff Johnson, Nigel Chate and Phil Meehan against.
The decision meant the amendment became a new motion, which newcomer and the only other Greens councillor, Kiri Dicker, then proposed to amend.
Cr Dicker suggested the council request staff to provide a report on estimated costs to the council of achieving the 10-15% target of increased koala habitat in the shire Cr Chate had originally proposed.
Cr Chate suggested she include specific instructions to include investigations of organisations and government grants that could help alleviate council costs and Cr Dicker agreed.
The GM had said there were many government grants available to assist regeneration projects.
Biodiversity a big word as mayor celebrates ‘middle ground’
The council voted in favour of the motion as amended, with Cr McCarthy the only member to object.
‘The biggest word I see there is biodiversity,’ Cr McCarthy said, without elaborating.
Cr McCarthy recalled an expert telling him each koala needed 55 or 65 trees.
Cr Dicker’s amendment then became the new motion.
Effectively, this meant Cr Chate’s motion for koalas to be a priority and for a target of 10-15% increased koala habitat in the Ballina Shire by 2024 was abandoned in favour of getting a report on how much the target might cost the council.
Councillors voted in favour of the new motion.
‘I think we’ve really found the middle ground here,’ Cr Cadwallader concluded.