Speech on the Crown Land Management Bill 2016

In Parliament | 08.11.16

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE ( 21:34 ): Here we are tonight after a review, a long consultation process, a parliamentary inquiry and many, many submissions that have wrestled with how to put in place the ideal system for the management of Crown lands in New South Wales. The Crown estate comprises 42 per cent of New South Wales and is made up of national parks, State forests and Crown land—approximately 34 million hectares of our State. Crown land is owned and managed by the State Government for the people of New South Wales and has an estimated value of $11 billion. That may be the value in dollar terms but the contribution to the social, environmental and cultural wellbeing of New South Wales is not able to be quantified.

Crown land in our State includes parks, beaches, waterways and sportsgrounds. On this land sit local clubs, community halls, showgrounds, racecourses, holiday parks, golf courses, farms, access routes, grazing paddocks and stock routes. Crown land is the place where community is found and community is made. Crown lands are public lands and it is appropriate there has been this level of review, consultation and inquiry into how best to manage them. What is not appropriate is that after all of this work the bill is dumped into the Parliament without the opportunity for Legislative Council to do its job and scrutinise the bill. It has also not given all of those trust holders, all of those people who are actively involved in the management of Crown lands, the opportunity to scrutinise it for themselves and to understand what it finally means.

I commend my colleague the Hon. Mick Veitch, who has worked assiduously through this bill while consulting with key stakeholders. The Hon. Mick Veitch has worked hard to get amendments drafted that will fulfil the recommendations of the parliamentary inquiry into Crown lands, but he is right when he called for a deferral of the bill to give all stakeholders a chance to examine the bill in detail before giving their consent. After five years there should be no haste. After five years of work one would hope that we can find consensus in this place about the ideal system that we want to establish to manage Crown lands in our State for we are the guardians of this land on behalf of the people of New South Wales.

This Government has shown itself to be looking for every opportunity to sell off public assets. It is a fundamental part of its ideology and it has been borne out by the sell-offs that have occurred and continue to occur across this State. There is so much of the fabric of New South Wales at stake, those of us on this side of the House cannot simply support a bill such as this without clear provisions in the bill that protect the public good, be that economic, cultural, social or environmental. This is what Labor will seek to achieve in this bill. We cannot and we will not support this bill in its current form. My colleague the Hon. Mick Veitch has gone through the detail of Labor's position in relation to this bill at length and I will not go through it again.

I want to bring into focus in this debate the importance of Crown lands to our environment and to our goals for sustainable management of land coupled with our need to preserve biodiversity. The most significant environmental impacts of this bill are better couched in terms of what the bill does not do and what the bill leaves out, rather than what the bill can actually contribute towards conserving the environmental values of public land. The management of Crown land is fundamental to the conservation and preservation of native ecosystems, habitat and threatened species. Crown land is a significant source of biodiversity protection in this State, not that that means very much to Government members because they are about to gut some of the most effective biodiversity protection laws in the nation. That is an issue for later this week, not tonight.

In parts of the State where land clearing has been extensive it is often Crown land and travelling stock routes that preserve precious communities and native vegetation and fauna, including threatened species, or provide otherwise unavailable linkages between protected areas. For urban areas, Crown land often contains important parcels of remnant vegetation. These are often the only substantial vegetation linkages within the urban environment because they have been Crown land for so long, and in some ways they have been left untouched relative to their surroundings. Of course, those opposite have proven themselves completely reckless when it comes to such linkages with the recent example of valuable and very rare critically endangered ironbark forests cleared for a temporary car park as part of WestConnex. This is an example where a specific plant community, of which precious little is left in the Sydney Basin, was destroyed without taking into consideration the diminishing of species within the urban context, let alone the obvious cost to biodiversity.

Crown land is the home for many environmentally significant areas. It encompasses just under 100,000 hectares of wetlands, including two Ramsar listed wetlands that provide habit for at least 23 migratory bird species protected under international agreements.

These include the Macquarie Marshes, the Gwydir wetlands and Lowbidgee floodplain. Of the 193 ecosystems that occur within Crown leases, 143 are endangered, vulnerable or poorly reserved. Crown lands also provide a habitat for at least 71 threatened plant species and 111 threatened fauna species. Many parts of the iconic Sydney Harbour foreshore reserves are also Crown reserves. These are not insignificant assets, however you choose to classify them.

In respect of past management practices, I remain concerned at the overwhelming focus on the economic management of the land as opposed to considering its environmental values. This was confirmed recently in the Auditor-General's report on Crown land. That report revealed that while the department administering Crown land has well defined indicators and targets for measuring economic and financial benefits, it does not have equivalent targets for social or environmental outcomes. I note that in the report the Auditor-General stated that the strategy for Crown land can be better balanced and that, currently, economic and financial outcomes are more prominent than social and environmental outcomes in the department's business plan.

This should not have been the case previously and it should not be the case in the future. However, the bill we have before us today will in fact worsen this state of affairs by stripping many of the current environmental protection provisions from the laws. The overtures of this Government about getting the balance right between social, economic and environmental factors was shown by that report to be nothing more than spin. We are now seeing its real intentions come to light with this bill. If I turn to the bill in detail, it becomes obvious that what we should really be worried about are the principles that have been left out of the new legislation.

The objects of the Crown Land Management Bill 2016 replace the objects of the current Crown Lands Act 1989. In the current laws, the objects specifically include provision for the management of Crown land, having regard to principles of Crown land management contained in this Act. The principles of Crown land management are within the current laws and they are important because they dictate the decision-making in relation to the management of Crown land. Currently, the principles of Crown land management are:

(a)that environmental protection principles be observed in relation to the management administration of Crown land,

(b)that the natural resources of Crown land (including water, soil, flora, fauna and scenic quality) can be conserved wherever possible,

(c)the public use and enjoyment of appropriate Crown land be encouraged,

(d)that, where appropriate, multiple use of Crown land be encouraged,

(e)that, where appropriate, Crown land should be used and managed in such a way that both the land and its resources are sustained in perpetuity, and

(f)that Crown land be occupied, used, sold, leased, licensed, or otherwise dealt with in the best interests of the State consistent with the above principles.

The two leading principles of Crown land management concern environmental protection and the conservation of natural resources. Those principles have been deleted in their entirety in this new bill. Immediately alarm bells should be ringing in this Chamber. How can such clear, unambiguous language about environmental protection and conservation be left out of the new bill? Has anything replaced it? The objects of the new bill present us with a form of words that include reference to the environment, which reads as follows:

... to require environmental, social, cultural heritage and economic considerations to be taken into account in decision-making about Crown land.

That is the extent of it. The situation is that we are to move away from applying tests that include environmental protection principles and the conservation of natural resources to the vague idea of environmental, social, cultural heritage and economic considerations. We know how well that has been going so far when we see the destruction of heritage all over this State, the loss of ecologically endangered communities and the failure at every turn to protect our biodiversity. It is not an acceptable level of detail for legislation that describes the management of 34 million hectares of public land. These changes represent stark and shocking omissions from the proposed laws.

It is made worse still because the recent Auditor-General's report chose to highlight the lack of environmental targets or performance measures in the current system of Crown land management in New South Wales. Yet we are presented with this bill and we find there is even less guidance on environmental considerations than in the current system. Overall, the references to the environmental conservation in this bill are cursory, at best. At worst, they no longer exist. It is another case study of the utter failure to listen by this Government and the active hostility within the Government to the environment, and need for protection and active consideration within our laws. Similarly with this bill, the objects of the current Western Lands Act 1901 makes specific provision for ensuring that:

... land in the Western Division is used in accordance with the principles of ecologically sustainable development ...

These principles are not only jargon. They comprise reportable principles such as intergenerational equity, the precautionary principle and the conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity. Again, this has all been deleted from the new laws.

This is important particularly for Western Division lands due to the fragility of the environment in that part of the State. Indeed, the Government's website identifies the important role of the current Western Lands Act in protecting this area of the State, saying:

The primary purpose of the Western Lands Act is to ensure the appropriate management of this fragile environment. By world standards, it is one of the oldest pieces of resource management legislation and demonstrates the environmental foresight of our early legislators.

"Environmental foresight" is sadly not a phrase anyone would associate with this Government. This bill seeks to encourage the conversion of Western Lands leases to freehold yet removes references to the principles of ecologically sustainable development in the consideration of these conversions. After looking at the Office of Environment and Heritage [OEH] land and soil capability assessment scheme mapping it is obvious that some of these leases will have soil capability limitations of severe to very severe. Many will not be compatible with cultivation. In addition, the OEH concedes that soil mapping data for the Western Division is of very poor quality in any case, so decisions to convert leases could be made under this legislation without really knowing how sensitive the local environment of each lease is.

To make matters worse for the environment in the Western Division, the bill notes that native vegetation legislation will govern the use of such land in consideration of any proposed cultivation when in fact the Government proposes to significantly erode the protections under that legislation through its biodiversity conservation bill. So much previous Crown land management has been underpinned by the protections within the native vegetation legislation. As we know, that is set to go in the coming weeks. It is a truly bleak outlook. In fact, what we are witnessing is a tour de force of environmental vandalism by the Liberal Party and The Nationals. The question that must be asked in relation to what I have raised today is why? Why remove these safeguards for the protection and conservation of the environment and natural resources on Crown land unless the Government intends to avoid or contradict them? In his second reading speech, the Minister opined:

We have heard the community's voice calling for greater protection of environmental, cultural heritage and social values derived from the use of Crown land.

If that is true, the Minister must answer this question: Why are these matters not detailed in the bill? Why are we instead presented with a diluted, weakened version of the environmental protections in the current laws if the Government does not want to dilute and weaken the environment on public land? The Minister is likely to respond that the bill enables the Minister to create Crown land management rules, which may include environmental standards. That is another way of saying, "Trust me, I'll take care of this later." The Minister knows and we all know that this is not the purpose for which Parliament was created. It was never intended to be simply manipulated by the government of the day with significant details of State laws to be decided subsequently in regulation or codes. Unfortunately, that has been a feature of much of this Government's legislation.

It is simply unacceptable to give such wideranging discretionary powers to the Minister without Parliamentary oversight and it is no replacement for the protections contained within the current laws. Unfortunately, there is more. Under the current laws and in recommendations from environment groups and the recent upper House inquiry into Crown land in New South Wales the Government was urged to undertake land assessments or land stocktakes and in doing so to consider the ecological value of the land. Indeed, in the Crown Lands Act assessment of the capabilities of land specifically includes environmental protection, nature conservation and water conservation among its purposes. But where is that in this bill? Nowhere. It has been deleted.

It is almost as if the Government went through the current laws looking for any specificity relating to conservation and ecological values and ensured that those provisions were erased from future considerations. The Minister will no doubt say that a stocktake is being undertaken and that these matters will be considered as part of the local land criteria he has promised. But we know this: The promised local land criteria are not in the bill. The bill provides for the Minister to simply publish in the Government Gazette his thoughts on what the criteria should be. Again, this is a complete gutting of the responsibilities of this Parliament in favour of handing the Minister the sole set of keys to environmental protection in vast tracts of land across the State. It is not good enough, and it is guaranteed to lead to worse outcomes for environmental conservation on public land.

Members opposite should be appalled at the way this bill concentrates such power in the hands of one Minister. Put simply, under this bill there are far fewer, less detailed and less binding requirements for decision‑makers to protect or even consider the environmental values of Crown land. This makes it abundantly clear that the value placed on the environment has been moved drastically down the list of priorities for public land under the Baird Government. In no way does this bill listen to the community's concerns about the environment and in no way does this bill enhance the conservation of the environmental values of public land for generations into the future. This bill represented an opportunity for significant and visionary reforms in this area. It could have been a real legacy achievement. Sadly, this Minister and this Government have failed in that task.

I know that we will be considering deferral of the bill for further consideration. I urge members of the House to agree to that. While I am at the lectern and the Minister is at the table I raise one final issue: my concern about the bill being a Trojan horse for transferring land from places like Parramatta Park, Moore Park and Centennial Park to be vested in other entities to circumvent the current Acts that protect them from commercialisation or other uses. We have seen those sorts of things happen time and time again. I am sure that my colleague the Hon. Lynda Voltz will give some detailed examples. We cannot agree in any way, shape or form to those parks—

The Hon. Robert Brown: Throw Wentworth Park in there too, Penny.

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE: Wentworth Park is another example. The Opposition does not trust the Government on this matter. We know that the Minister for Sport has been running around promising indoor stadiums somewhere in the central business district. The only land around is parkland or Crown land. We want a guarantee from this Government that the bill is not a Trojan horse to enable the Government to flick land off to another entity so that it can be developed.