NSW government accused of reopening ‘koala wars’ with new forestry bill

Liberals criticised after proposing councils be stripped of approval powers for logging operations

The Perrottet government has been accused of reopening the “koala wars” by proposing legislation that would strip New South Wales councils of their powers to regulate native forestry operations on private land.

The agriculture minister, Dugald Saunders, introduced a bill on Wednesday that critics said would water down the regulation of forestry in the state.

Sitting independent MPs and candidate hopefuls alike jumped on the proposal, accusing the Liberal party of bowing to pressure from the Nationals, flagging they would campaign on the issue ahead of the March state poll.

Under environmental planning laws, councils have the power to require landowners to obtain a development approval if they wish to undertake logging on their properties.

Saunders’ proposal would remove that power from councils, which the independent upper house MP Justin Field said would open up more industrial native forest logging on private land, including in koala habitat.

“It’s crazy for Premier Perrottet and the so-called moderate Liberals to capitulate again to the Nationals on koala protections so close to an election,” Field said.

“Putting aside that it is terrible policy and further undermines koala protections, it’s crazy politics.”

Field said the decision would gift “teal” candidates “a perfect example of the Nationals’ disproportionate power over environmental issues within the Coalition”.

Dominic Perrottet said the legislation “strikes the right balance” and had been supported “unanimously” in the cabinet room.

“This was the agreement reached last year. It was obviously difficult debate at that point in time, but ultimately we landed together,” the premier said.

“It shows a government working together in coalition that balances the needs to provide farmers with support for renewable faming efforts, at the same time protecting koalas’ natural habitat.”

But the independent MP Alex Greenwich warned that there would be campaigns on the issue in the lead up to the election.

“I have been speaking to independent candidates … and the impact of deforestation and the need to transition to a more plantation-based model will be a major issue,” he said.

The independent candidate for Vaucluse, Karen Freyer, said it was “another example of the Nationals dictating Liberal party policy”.

“I’d also be very concerned if I was a moderate Liberal, questioning if the Liberals are taking protection of koalas seriously,” she told Guardian Australia.

“Stopping logging in native forests is one of my top campaign issues.”

A spokesperson for the independent campaign for Pittwater – where a candidate is yet to be finalised – said it appeared that the Liberals were being “held to ransom”.

“This looks like another example of the Liberal party being held to ransom by the National party interests and why Independent Pittwater believes that being represented by an independent member of the community means we have more genuine representation,” the campaign spokesperson, Rebecca Clarke, said.

Pittwater is being vacated by the outgoing minister Rob Stokes. The families and communities minister, Natasha Maclaren-Jones, has put her name forward for preselection.

The changes were recommended by a Shooters, Fishers and Farmers-chaired inquiry into the timber industry, but that recommendation was not supported by Labor and Field.

The opposition leader, Chris Minns, on Wednesday said he was “concerned that this could affect the native habitat of koalas” and would “scrutinise” the legislation.

Local Government NSW, which represents councils, called the bill a “repeat of the infamous ‘koala wars’ of 2020”.

Its president, Darriea Turley, said the bill had been rushed to parliament without any consultation with local government.

“This bill undermines the crucial role councils play in the regulation of private forestry operations,” she said.

“It will have devastating impacts on important native habitats, particularly for koalas and many of the state’s other threatened species.”

The legislation was introduced a day after the Greens introduced a bill proposing a ban on native forestry operations in koala habitat.

The party’s environment spokesperson, Sue Higginson, said the current dual consent provisions were vital to allow councils to have any control over the destruction of forests, koala habitat or neighbourhood issues associated with forestry.

“This is a disastrous, desperate and divisive move by the government,” she said.


Lisa Cox and Tamsin Rose

The GuardianTramp

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