Speech to introduce documentary 'Cultivating Murder'

In Parliament | 20.04.17

Penny Sharpe MLC, Shadow Minister for the Environment

Speech to introduce documentary 'Cultivating Murder', directed by Gregory Miller

Thursday 20 April 2017 at Chauvel Cinema, Paddington

[check against delivery]

Thank you for having me here tonight. It is a great honour to be able to introduce this important Australian film – Cultivating Murder.

Firstly I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we meet on here today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

I pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I would like to acknowledge the film makers Gregory Miller, John Moore, Lisa Horler and Georgia Wallace-Crabbe who have brought this important story to the screen.

I would like to acknowledge the Turner family for being prepared to let cameras into their lives to tell the story of Glen Turner’s work, his passion and his understanding of his role as a guardian and protector of our environment.

Glen was a protector and guardian not for himself but for the public interest. A job he was asked to do as a result of laws made by our elected representatives on behalf of the people of New South Wales.

I also would like to acknowledge and thank those who continue to fight for scientific, evidence based laws, policy and practice that demand consideration of the finite planet we all share. 

In introducing this film tonight I hope to give you an overview of the history land clearing laws in NSW and what is at stake for the environment and our communities. I also want to pay tribute to the role that public servants play in enforcing the laws made by our parliaments.

Land clearing since colonisation has been profound.

It is estimated that only 9% of NSW native vegetation is considered in good condition.

The most recent State of the Environment report found there are more than 1,000 native species listed as threatened.

Our laws on land clearing have often been contradictory.

It was the case that for decades those that received land grants were obligated to clear the land.

It is also the case that Governments have been trying to address unfettered land clearing for over 140 years.

The first attempt to regulate land clearing was in 1881 when ringbarking of trees on Crown land was made illegal without a permit.

It was 1938 when the government of the time introduced the first native vegetation controls on private land.

Over time state governments have introduced 27 different laws and regulations to place limitations on the clearing of native vegetation.

It was the environmentally aware Carr Labor Government that embarked upon a process to put in place the most significant reform of native vegetation regulation.

In 1995 no statewide records existed to monitor the extent of clearing in New South Wales. Best estimates suggested that 150,000 hectares per year were being cleared.

The Carr government took immediate action by introducing the State Environmental Planning Policy No. 46. SEPP 46 was introduced as an interim measure whilst the Government formulated the Native Vegetation Conservation Act which commenced in 1998.

These new laws were heavily resisted by land owners and conflict was rife.

By 2002 NSW was in the grip of the millenium drought.

It was the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists who published the paper "Blueprint for a Living Continent". Bob Carr then sought advice from the Wentworth Group to resolve the issues and conflicts of land management in the State. This led to the discussion paper "A New Model for Landscape Conservation in New South Wales".

Bob Carr then formed the Native Vegetation Reform Implementation Group chaired by Ian Sinclair, former leader of The Nationals, and it included representation from the NSW Farmers Association as well as scientists and environment groups.

Over two years, the Labor Government brought together all parties. These stakeholders crafted legislation that struck a balance between land productivity and the protection of the environment.

The Native Vegetation Act when passed was endorsed by farmers, government, scientists and environmentalists.

It prohibited broad scale land clearing unless it could be demonstrated that the clearing would improve or maintain environmental outcomes, usually by landholders offsetting other vegetation on their land.

Prior to this landmark legislation, more than 100,000 hectares of land, which is equivalent to half of Sydney's urban area, was being cleared every year.

After the introduction of the act clearing dropped to less than 12,000 hectares per year.

The laws delivered a 20 per cent reduction in clearing of remnant bushland, saved 116,000 native animals from being killed each year through clearing, and is estimated to have saved more than 400 koalas from a human-caused death every year.

The halt to broad scale land clearing in New South Wales and Queensland was the only reason that Australia was able to meet its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.

In short, the Native Vegetation Act worked.

That does not mean that it was perfect and that does not mean that there was universal support or acceptance of the act.

As you will see in the film tonight, there was always pockets of resistance to the Native Vegetation Act.

Some land holders never accepted that the rules should apply to them.

It was the dedicated public servants from the Office of Environment who were charged with the ensuring the laws made by our elected representatives on behalf of the people of NSW were monitored and enforced.

It was Glen Turner and his colleague Robert Strange who discovered how resistant to these laws some land owners could be and how this resistance could take a violent and catastrophic turn. 

We should be under no illusion that this resistance has ceased. It continues to this day. Not necessarily through violence, but cheered on and supported by some conservative politicians.

Most recently there have been cases of National Party MP’s actively lobbying environmental agencies to cease investigations into illegal land clearing.

The most disturbing part of this story is that those investigations have ceased.

It was under the shadow of the prosecution of Ian Turnbull for the murder of Glen Turner in November last year when the culmination of the campaign against the native vegetation act bore fruit.

Through a long and protracted debate in the NSW Parliament, the National Party with the assistance of the Liberal Party, the Christian Democrats and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party finally passed laws that gutted the native vegetation act.

The Orwellian named Biodiversity Conservation and the Local Land Services laws ignored the advice of scientists. The bills ignored the advice of environmentalists. The bills also ignored the advice of many farmers who believe that the laws were taking sustainable farming backwards.

The bills that were passed will result in significant increases in land clearing and the destruction of precious native vegetation, they will reduce habitat and weaken protection for native animals.

The laws will degrade soil quality and increase erosion. The impact in coming years if not reversed will be on future food production; reduced water quality and damage to creek and river ecosystems.

The impact on greenhouse gas emissions will mean that Australia is unlikely to be able to meet the targets it signed up to through the Paris Climate Agreement. 

Modelling indicates that emissions from tree clearing from 2016 to 2030 are likely to be up to 826 million tonnes of CO2, based on Queensland's existing laws and newly passed laws in New South Wales.

To put this into perspective, those emissions are the equivalent of operating at least three to four Hazelwood coal-fired power plants for this same period.

Future generations will wonder what we were thinking when these laws were passed.

It is now just under two years until the next state election. As the Shadow Minister for Environment I am rightly asked – so what is Labor going to do about it.

Labor has made our position clear. Probably best articulated by Labor Leader Luke Foley.

Luke Foley said this of the Biodiversity Conservation laws:

“These bills have devastating implications. The legislation is a complete negation of the Government's responsibility to protect the assets that all New South Wales residents, now and in the future, require to live well and prosper.”

He went on to commit that:

“The next Labor government of New South Wales will overhaul these bad laws. These laws will damage the precious New South Wales environment and do no favours to the majority of farmers, who are great stewards of our land. This is a sad day for New South Wales, but I put everyone on notice that when Labor next returns to government these bad laws will be rewritten.”

The task of a new Labor Government will be to return environmental protection to our native vegetation.

Something we will seek to do with scientists, farmers and environmentalists.

The film we are about to see tonight tells the story of the tensions inherent in environmental protection in Australia.

The making and unmaking of land clearing laws is a story that is not well understood by the general public, especially those in urban areas - but - it is a story that needs a wider audience.

This film helps explain how much is as stake for our environment and the sustainability of our communities.

It is also a tribute to the men and women in our public service, men like Glen Turner and Robert Strange who defend the public interest every day.

It is an honour to introduce Cultivating Murder, thanks for having me.