‘Koala wars’: NSW government scraps contentious native forestry bill to head off revolt

Decision comes after internal agitation from Coalition MPs and opposition from independents

A revolt from independents and some Coalition MPs has forced the New South Wales government to scrap a Nationals bill that would have made it easier for farmers to cut down koala habitat across the state.

Just days after introducing it into parliament, the agriculture minister, Dugald Saunders, announced late Monday that the government will no longer proceed with the bill.

“While this bill upholds all existing protections for the environment, we will continue to have further conversations with local councils to progress legislation that unites communities and industry,” Saunders said.

“There is significant public interest in this bill that warrants further consultation.”

The legislation was dumped after significant internal agitation from within the Coalition, including from Nationals MP Geoff Provest and Liberals Shayne Mallard and Felicity Wilson, who were threatening to cross the floor.

“We need to be hyper cautious of any policy that could put koalas at future risk of extinction,” Wilson told Guardian Australia an hour before the bill was pulled.

In a Facebook post on Monday, Provest wrote: “We have worked so hard in the Tweed, doubling protected areas and building our first ever koala hospital. If the government insists on putting this legislation to parliament, it will not get my vote.”

The furore over the legislation has been compared to the “koala wars” of 2020, when then deputy premier John Barilaro threatened to blow up the Coalition over another bill relating to the native animal.

Independents and teal-style hopefuls last week said they would use the bill as campaign fodder in inner-city seats in the lead-up to the March state election.

Upper house independent Fred Nile also confirmed he would not back the proposal, which he said would be a “legislative precedent winding back the role of local government”.

“I note that local councils are already able to divulge their local decision making powers to the Local Land Service,” he said on Monday.

“If a specific local council seeks to do this then they can do so but to impose that system on all local councils is undemocratic and disrespectful.”

The premier, Dominic Perrottet, had on Monday said he embraced “the fact that ministers and members of the party, both sides will have strong views on it” and was working with Saunders and the environment minister, James Griffin, to find a resolution.

Currently, councils can require landowners to obtain a development approval if they wish to undertake logging. The state’s Local Land Services agency also assesses and approves harvest plans.

The bill would have removed the role of councils, and extended the length of time for which private logging activity is approved from 15 to 30 years.

The government had argued it would reduce red tape and improve timber supply.

Local Government NSW, which represents councils, believed the bill would have devastating impacts on important native habitats, particularly for koalas and other threatened species.

Jacqui Mumford, chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, said the state’s koala populations only recently had their conservation status upgraded to endangered and yet the government was trying to “make it easier to bulldoze their homes”.

Independent upper house MP Justin Field said the government had been forced to pull the bill because of community backlash, with the “debacle” setting the scene for the March election where the government’s environmental record should be challenged.

“While the government has abandoned this retrograde bill, they continue to allow logging of core koala habitat on public land. This is totally out of line with community expectations,” he said.

“The Coalition needs to do some soul searching and listen to the community on environment and integrity issues.”

The Greens said almost 2,000 emails calling for the legislation to be scrapped had been sent to government MPs – including the treasurer, Matt Kean, Griffen, Provest and Wilson – in less than 24 hours. The campaign was launched by upper house MPs Sue Higginson and Cate Faehrmann.

“This is a signal to the Coalition that they are on shaky ground with the NSW public,” Higginson said.


Tamsin Rose and Lisa Cox

The GuardianTramp

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