Shadow Minister calls out Government's lack of action on koala crisis

In Parliament | 20.09.18

Labor’s environment spokesperson Penny Sharpe has taken to the floor of the NSW Parliament to call out the abysmal koala conservation efforts of the Berejiklian Government in response to the continuing decline of koalas across New South Wales.

Ms Sharpe was moved to again raise the plight of koalas in Parliament after attending the recent #SaveOurKoalas Summit hosted by Wollondilly Shire Council at Appin and after recent reports have stated that koalas in NSW could be extinct by 2050.

In the speech, Ms Sharpe labelled the Government’s plan for koalas “a koala strategy with no koalas.”

Ms Sharpe described the current condition of New South Wales as a “deforestation bonanza” and gripped by a “full-blown conservation crisis” under the policies of the Liberals and Nationals.

The speech detailed a shocking catalogue of community and conservation concerns about the Government’s failure to protect koalas, including:

  • the failure of the new NSW Koala Strategy to create any new reserves for the state’s only disease-free koala population south-west of Sydney, despite 30 local koalas being killed on roads in the past year;
  • the poorly-planned creation of new koala reserves in State Forest on the North Coast where koalas have not been sighted since the 1990s, and with scare high quality koala habitat;
  • the admission of the Forestry Minister that new koala reserves were merely “unproductive state forest”;
  • revelations that deforestation has skyrocketed since the Government’s tree clearing reforms;
  • ongoing cuts to National Parks and the loss of park rangers and field officers on the ground; and
  • the prospect that by 2050 the only koalas people could see in New South Wales will be in a zoo.

Full speech to the Legislative Council of the NSW Parliament

Wednesday 19 September 2018 

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE (19:46): Last week I attended the Save Our Koalas Summit at Appin with the member for Campbelltown, Greg Warren, and Labor's candidate for Wollondilly, Jo-Ann Davidson. The summit, which was hosted by Wollondilly Shire Council, heard from leading koala experts and advocates about the threats to the large and healthy population of koalas in south-west Sydney. It was a terrific summit attended by many people with genuine care, expertise and passion for this iconic native animal. Yet the unshakable feeling that lingered after the summit was concern, then worry, then anger. I am now very worried and increasingly angry.

I am worried that under the Berejiklian Government, and particularly her Minister for the Environment, we are failing koalas. I am worried that, despite the much-delayed announcement of a New South Wales koala strategy, we remain on the path to losing the koala as a native animal in the wild in this State. I am worried that even though the Government knows why koalas are dying and populations are plummeting, this Government's priorities are so backwards that there will come a time when it will be too late.

If we take Wollondilly and south-west Sydney, for example, it is estimated there are around 400 koalas who call it home, and what is more, none of them are afflicted with the disease chlamydia. It is the only disease‑free koala population in New South Wales. Given the location on the fringe of Australia's largest city, habitat preservation and protected corridors for movement are key for the safety of this colony. Thirty koalas from this population have died in the past year alone after being struck by vehicles on nearby roads.

Yet the Government has presented its shiny new koala strategy, boasting about creating new koala reserves to help protect the species. How many hectares of habitat are proposed to be reserved for this healthy koala population in south-west Sydney? That would be a big, fat zero. Not a blade of grass or eucalypt tree in this key habitat area will be reserved under the koala strategy. Yes, I am very worried about the koalas in south-west Sydney and, more importantly, about the koala strategy generally.

Previously, New South Wales had a comprehensive koala recovery plan with detailed actions and a plan of implementation for saving this species. The Government's replacement was a strategy delivered one year late and five years after the previous plan had lapsed. The strategy is not a plan; it is a 21-page glossy booklet to replace a 124-page comprehensive recovery plan. Less than half the funding allocated within the plan is for habitat protection. A major component of the new strategy is the creation of the koala reserves that so far are transfers of land from State forests to the National Parks estate.

Conservation groups have analysed the proposed reserves and found a troubling trend emerging: large portions of the proposed reserves are in fact not high-quality koala habitat, and many have not reported a confirmed koala sighting in many, many years. It is a koala strategy with no koalas. The Minister for Lands and Forestry let the cat out of the bag during budget estimates. I asked about one State forest, Mount Boss, which is being handed over from his department to the National Parks and Wildlife Service—a forest that has not seen a koala since 1995. The Minister responded that the area was merely "unproductive State forest."

Here the Minister proved the point about the complete lack of interest in koala recovery and population growth. Saying the Government is reserving areas for koalas that have no koalas living in them seems fairly silly to me.

It is well documented that the Government's changes to tree clearing and native vegetation laws, the so-called biodiversity reforms, were predicted to let chainsaws and bulldozers rip right around the State. There was also advice from the Office of Environment and Heritage that up to 99 per cent of core koala habitat on private land could also be opened up to clearing.

But do not worry—the Minister for Environment has signed away and these laws are now in place. We now know that those predictions came true. According to a recent report covering a third of the State, satellite imagery has found that tree clearing tripled around Moree and Collarenebri after the new laws were introduced. More importantly than that, the Government has released its own data, which shows land clearing was on the up and increased by more than 700 per cent in the lead-up to the reforms—before the laws were even introduced.

There is one thing that koalas need more than anything to survive—trees. New South Wales is now a deforestation bonanza thanks to the policies of the Liberals and Nationals. Add to that the deep cuts of more than $100 million from the National Parks and Wildlife Service over the past two years, the loss of experienced staff and park rangers, and the near-cessation of new land for national parks since the Coalition came to office, and we can only describe this as a full-blown conservation crisis. And the koala is right at the centre of it. So much more remains to be done to turn around the decline of our koalas.

While I am worried and increasingly angry about this issue, I also know that there is a lot of hope. There are a lot of excellent communities and people working hard to save their koalas. The people of Wollondilly and their Save Our Koalas Summit are just one of those groups. I congratulate them on their Save Our Koalas Summit and for their petition, which will be debated in Parliament next week and which has gathered more than 13,000 signatures asking for us to save their koalas. Failure to take serious action will mean that by 2050 the only koala you will be able to see in New South Wales will be in a zoo, and that is not where we should be.