Koala preservation opens new front for NSW teals as they seek to win Coalition seats

Independent candidates say government has ‘completely undermined’ the endangered species

Teal challengers facing off against moderate Coalition MPs in the New South Wales election have blasted the government for refusing to back a proposed 300,000 hectare koala national park, accusing it of failing to protect the endangered species.

As Climate 200-backed independents including Joeline Hackman, who is running in the seat of Manly, visited south coast native forests during a trip organised by the Nature Conservation Council on Thursday, they sought to pressure the Coalition over its land-clearing record.

Saying the Liberals had been “dictated to” by its Nationals partner, Hackman, who is challenging the state’s environment minister, James Griffin, in the March election, said the government had “completely undermined” koala habitat.

“In the last 12 months koalas have been added to the threatened species list,” she said on Thursday.

“Land clearing has doubled since the [Coalition’s] native vegetation laws in 2017 and increased 13-fold in the last decade.”

“What they say and what they do are two different things.”

The salvo came after the premier, Dominic Perrottet, dismissed Labor’s plan to create a new “great koala national park” by setting aside thousands of hectares of state forest stretching between Kempsey and Coffs Harbour.

The plan – announced on Thursday – would probably cover an area estimated to be home to about 20% of the state’s koala population.

But despite koalas being listed as an endangered species last year, Perrottet dismissed Labor’s plan, criticising the opposition for re-announcing a policy it previously took to the 2019 election and saying the government had made significant investments in the expansion of national parks in the state.

“I believe we’ve done more than ever than any government before us when it comes to the expansion and enhancement of national parks,” he said.

The Coalition has sought to negate the electoral threat of the teals, pointing to its ambitious push for higher emissions reduction targets under the treasurer and energy minister, Matt Kean.

Teal candidates face significant challenges in the state poll, both politically – because of the Coalition’s record on emissions – and electorally, due to donation caps and the optional preference voting system used in NSW.

The government’s state of the environment report last year revealed land clearing increased threefold over the past decade, while attempts to introduce tougher protections over koala habitat led to a dramatic feud in the Coalition under the former deputy premier John Barilaro and former premier Gladys Berejiklian.

In 2020 Catherine Cusack, a former Liberal party upper house MP, was sacked as a parliamentary secretary after she crossed the floor to vote against a controversial land clearing bill she said would harm koala habitat. Cusack, who has since left parliament, has continued to criticise the government’s record on the environment and called Labor’s policy an “environmental and economic no-brainer”.

Teal candidates are targeting the Coalition’s record on land clearing as they seek to attract the same socially progressive voters who abandoned the federal Liberal party.

Helen Conway, the North Shore independent challenging Liberal MP Felicity Wilson, called for a “proper legislative framework to deal with land clearing”.

“That’s a problem with the current government … the Nationals are a problem for the Liberals in that respect,” she said.

“We need look fundamentally at the framework that’s allowing land clearing to occur and allowing development to occur, where there isn’t proper consideration given to the impingement upon habitat of species that are at risk of extinction.”

Jacqui Scruby, an independent candidate in the seat of Pittwater, where minister Rob Stokes is retiring, said both parties should “commit to stopping the destruction of their habitat throughout NSW”.

“There is this difference between what the Liberals are saying and what actually is happening,” she said.

“They are ultimately held back by the [Nationals] on the environment and climate change and particularly koalas.”

Karen Freyer said the koala population should be “above politics”.

“A koala park is a start. But as we saw with the horrific Black Summer mega fires, if we truly want to protect animals and biodiversity we must put in place policies to stop fossil fuel emissions and sooner rather than later,” she said.


Michael McGowan and Tamsin Rose

The GuardianTramp

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