Speech on the National Park Estate (Reservations) Bill 2018

In Parliament | 17.10.18

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE (16:25): I speak on behalf of the Labor Opposition on the National Park Estate (Reservations) Bill 2018. The bill will transfer 4,505 hectares of State forest lands to the national park estate from 1 January 2019 in five separate transfers. The transfers include 2,080 hectares of Carrai State Forest north-west of Kempsey being added to the Willi Willi National Park, which adjoins the Castles Nature Reserve and the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park; 120 hectares of Yarrawa State Forest near Robertson will be added to Budderoo National Park, which includes intact vegetation on the Upper KangarooValley plateau; 1,144 hectares of Mernot State Forest will be added to Curracabundi State Conservation Area, which will provide greater protection of rainforest in the Upper Hunter; and 647 hectares of Yango State Forest in the central region, which will become Yango State Conservation Area and will protect significant Aboriginal sites and habitat for the yellow-bellied glider and brush-tailed rock wallabies. Around 500 hectares of Muldiva State Forest, west of Dorrigo, will be vested in the Minister for the Environment under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974. That will help to protect the habitat of koalas, the Hastings River mouse, glossy black cockatoo and spotted-tail quolls.

The Opposition will not oppose this bill because it believes that all additions to the national park estate are welcome, particularly given how paltry and rare they have been under this Government. I paid close attention to the Minister for the Environment's second reading speech in the other place, and I willrespond to some of her comments. She referred to this being another win for the environment delivered by the Government. Yes, it is a win, but it is a small win,and they are very few and far between. The Minister also talked about confirming the Government's commitment to biodiversity conservation. I cannot agree with her about that. If members were to look at the way in which biodiversity is being conserved in this State they would realise we are going backwards, not forwards. More plants and animals are now on the threatened species list, the Biodiversity Conservation Act has been amended and no support or care is being afforded to koalas on private property. I do not believe that what the Minister has said is correct.

The Minister also referred to reserving land in the national park estate being a cornerstone of our efforts to conserve public land for future generations. Yes, reserving land in the national park estate is the cornerstone of our efforts. However, there are three areas in which this Government is seriously failing in providing protection. First, we have debated the Water NSW Amendment (Warragamba Dam) Bill 2018, and I will not debate it again now. However, what is the point of having a World Heritage national park if we are prepared to drown it? What is the point of having the Kosciuszko National Park, an incredibly important national park that has plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world, if we allow the member for Monaro to run wild by introducing his wild horses bill that yet again completely undermines any commitment to the National Parks and Wildlife Act? I cannot let these statements go unchallenged because they are simply untrue. I understand that the member for Murray intends to introduce a bill to abolish the Murray Valley National Park.

The Hon. Wes Fang: Hear, hear!

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE: The member says, "Hear, hear!" I look forward to that. We should talk about this Government's commitment to national parks, because frankly it does not exist. It was under the Liberal Askin Government and Minister for Lands Tom Lewis, the former Premier, that the National Parks and Wildlife Act established the National Parks and Wildlife Service [NPWS] in October 1967. The Act's aim was to reflect and to conserve the diverse landscapes and biodiversity across New South Wales. The passage of this Act was the result of a decades-long campaign by the conservation movement, which could see the urgent need for the protection of the unique and diverse ecological systems and biodiversity in this State. At its inception, the land managed under the Act covered just 1 per cent of the land in New South Wales—only 861,000 hectares.

The service was put in charge of the National Parks Wildlife Act, the Fauna Protection Act and the Wildflowers and Native Plants Protection Act. In 1967 it included the Royal National Park, Bouddi State Park, Dorrigo National Park, Brisbane Waters, New England National Park and of course Kosciusko State Park established by Bill McKell. In the west, Kinchega National Park was the first park declared in the Western Division. The Act also protected Mootwingee historic site and Hill End historic site.

Over the decades, the parks and reserves system has grown to include and protect much of our coastal areas, particularly those that were in danger from sand mining. We have protected many of our fragile coastal lakes, the northern rainforests have been World Heritage listed, and many of the southern forests saved. The Blue Mountains has also been World Heritage listed. I note that most of these additions and protections have been supported in a bipartisan fashion—not held hostage to dodgy ideology. There has been a genuine commitment to looking after the lands on which we live.

I want to compare that to what has gone on with respect to the Water NSW Amendment (Warragamba Dam) Bill. When the Blue Mountains National Park was declared World Heritage the other side of the House also supported the provisions to stop it from being flooded. How times have changed. There has also been increased reservation and conversation of western lands, and over time we have specifically recognised and protected wilderness areas. Increasingly, the importance of Aboriginal sites, Aboriginal cultural and heritage and Aboriginal input into the management of our parks and reserves has been recognised, although I note that the Government is yet to sort out a cultural heritage bill. I believe that it is wrong that cultural heritage is managed within our National Parks and Wildlife Service and not as a stand-alone feature of our legislative system in the way that we look after Aboriginal places.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service is also the custodian of much of the non-Indigenous history of Australia and New South Wales. The heritage sites contained within our parks estate are each important places in their own right. The staff of the National Parks and Wildlife Service are also one its greatest strengths. When individuals have come to work for the National Parks and Wildlife Service the focus has always been on service—service to the community and service to the flora and fauna under their care—and passion for protecting these very special places. It takes a lot of effort and expertise to manage a world-class national park service. Rangers, field officers, scientists, archaeologists, historians, customer service officers, managers, guides, volunteers and others have all been part of that great story. I have been privileged to meet many wonderful past and present staff in the National Parks and Wildlife Service and want to place on record my deepest gratitude on behalf of the Labor Opposition for their work.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service now manages over 870 protected areas, covering over seven million hectares and representing more than 9 per cent of the land area of the State. Over 52 million visits were made to our national parks in the past year, and the number keeps on growing. Every day, in every corner of this State there is work being done to protect threatened species, there is education of our community about the importance of these places and there are simply those who are spending time in nature, restoring health and wellbeing and connecting with the fragile land that humans rely upon to exist. These is being done despite the deep and unsustainable cuts wrought on the service by this Government.

Labor takes very seriously the role Labor governments have taken in building the national parks estate. It is why we refuse to be silent when we see the neglect and sheer lack of commitment from the current Government towards the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the environment generally. Deep funding cuts, the loss of experienced staff, the move towards temporary staffing and casualisation of the workforce, the failure to plan for and continue to build a comprehensive adequate representative reserve system and the push for ever greater commercialisation are all symptoms of a looming crisis in our national parks. This is in addition to the tearing up of native vegetation laws and the determined progress of rolling over national forest agreements without a proper scientific assessment.

Labor aspires to New South Wales having the best National Parks and Wildlife Service in the world. If Labor is elected in 2019 the new Government will put in place a clear establishment plan to continue to reserve, protect and grow the national parks estate and we will find the funding within government to do so. We will be guided by a proper national parks establishment plan. Let us understand where we are at in New South Wales in terms of the creation of parks under this Government. After failing to create the 2008 national parks establishment plan the Government had us wait until last year, when the Minister did a draft directions statement—a fairly dodgy directions statement. But even the commitment to that has not been followed up; 12 months later it is still not finalised.

Labor will be guided by the following principles when establishing new parks. Labor will target under-represented ecosystems and habitats, particularly those most under threat from climate change, future development pressures or loss of natural river flows. We will focus on critical landscape corridors which facilitate the daily and seasonal movement of animals across the landscape and the intergenerational translocation of plants and animals in response to gradual environmental changes, such as climate change. We will focus on lands within important water catchments that protect important downstream aquatic ecosystems, such as high conservation value coastal lakes, wetlands, streams, estuaries and coastal near-shore marine environments. Labor will look at culturally important places with aesthetic, historic, scientific or social value, with particular focus on places of cultural importance to Aboriginal people. We will focus on places of geological significance andareas important for effectively and efficiently managing existing reserves and which buffer reserves from surrounding land uses and climate change.

That is how the expansion of the national parks estate should take place. The Government should not just be looking around for areas of state forest that the Forestry Corporation no longer wants and bunging it across. That is essentially what this bill will allow. Labor will ensure that the National Parks and Wildlife Service will be given the status it deserves, and will not be buried in the Planning cluster. The National Parks and Wildlife Service will report directly to the environment Minister. In addition to their primary role in conserving and enhancing biodiversity, Labor wants our national parks to be the jewels in the crown for tourism—must-see destinations that bring people to enjoy the wonder of nature, the stories and care of country of our First Nations and the places that help tell the story of New South Wales.

The bill before us today is a small step. To understand how small a step it is just look at the figures. I will compare the Coalition's record on the national parks and reserves estate to what happened under the previous Labor Government. Since coming to office almost eight years ago the Coalition has increased the national parks and reserves estate by just 1 per cent or around 75,000 hectares in total. In the 16 years from 1995 to 2011, Labor increased the national parks and reserves estate by 75 per cent, adding 3.05 million hectares—equal to 3.8 per cent of all New South Wales land—to the estate. The Coalition’s record represents adding on average just 9,978 hectares per year, compared to 190,450 hectares added per year when Labor was in office.

The Hon. Matthew Mason-Cox: On a large base.

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE: If the member wants to interrupt, I am happy to talk about that. Let us also talk about the Government's land-clearing laws.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT (The Hon. Shayne Mallard): Order! It is disorderly to interject and it is disorderly to respond to interjections. The speaker will be heard in silence. I will call people to order if there are more interjections.

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE: I am happy to reflect on the land-clearing laws and what was occurring before under the native vegetation laws. The number of hectares being cleared was over 100,000 hectares. During the time when the native vegetation laws were in place the amount of land cleared was under 10,000. Even before the new laws are passed, given the lack of compliance and oversight by this Government, land clearing has already increased by around 700 per cent.

Mr Scot MacDonald: Point of order: I have listened to a lot of the speech. A lot of the speech has been on the fringes of the bill but this is now getting away from the title of the bill and the content of the bill, which is about 4,500 hectares. It is nothing to do with land clearing.

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE: To the point of order: I know that those on the other side of the Chamber do not like it, but this is a second reading debate speech. The bill is about national parks and about whether they are international parks or state forests and the way we look after threatened species. I believe that it is completely in order.

Mr Scot MacDonald: To the point of order: The Opposition spokesperson for the environment seems confused about private land versus public land. The land-clearing laws are overwhelmingly about private land.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT (The Hon. Shayne Mallard): The bill is for an Act to transfer certain state forest land to the national park estate and for other purposes. I ask the member to return to the purpose of the bill. Second reading debate speeches are given wide latitude but I am sure the member is cognisant of the bill's purpose.

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE: Thank you, Mr Deputy President. I am happy to talk about the Coalition. It will take them more than 300 years to match Labor’s record of expanding and enhancing New South Wales national parks estate. I also want to talk about the National Parks and Wildlife Service staff cuts. I was appalled that the Minister for the Environment in the other place had the gall to talk about how much she values the staff of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, given what has happened on her watch and over the last eight years. Permanent ranger positions in the National Parks and Wildlife Service have been cut from 245 permanent rangers in July 2011 to 181, and more have gone. Area manager positions have been cut by more than a third. The number of permanent field officers has also been reduced and is continuing to be reduced.

We have lost so much experience, so much goodwill, and so many fantastic people who were managing volunteers, looking after pests and weeds, and on the frontline in relation to firefighting. We have lost so many of them under this Government. The idea that the Government values them when almost a third of staff have had to take a pay cut as a result of the restructure is simply galling. Staff numbers have been cut and we know that more than $100 million has been cut from the service in the past eight years. This is a service that has more land to manage and needs to manage it properly. It cannot do its job given this absolute lack of support.

This week it was interesting—although, from my point of view, not surprising—to read that the previous environment Minister had a plan and was working quite hard to determine how we could add additional hectares to the national park estate. It was something he was interested in and an issue that he progressed. But—oh, no—look what happened: Essentially, those in the National Party put the brakes on it when they had their catastrophic result in the Orange by-election. They seem to be under the impression that people do not like national parks. The 52 million people who visit national parks every year would probably have something to say about that. It goes to show what a weak environment Minister we have and that the Premier is not committed to the environment in any way, shape or form when she can be stared down by a couple of members of the National Party and is not prepared to move on national parks.

There are other proposals that we need to place on record in relation to national parks and the lack of interest and concern from this Government. I have talked already about the Blue Mountains National Park and the Warragamba Dam wall. No-one is suggesting that these are not serious issues that must be addressed in relation to the flood risk around Sydney, but the willingness of this Government to completely trample over a World Heritage listed national park is truly gobsmacking.

Mr Scot MacDonald: Point of order: The bill is very specifically about the transfer of 4,500 hectares of land. It has nothing to do with Warragamba; that bill has been before the House. I ask that you draw the Hon. Penny Sharpe back to the contents of the bill.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT (The Hon. Shayne Mallard): I uphold the point of order. I ask the Hon. Penny Sharpe to return to the substance of the bill.

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE: Yes. If we turn to what the Minister said in her second reading speech we will find that she was given quite a lot of latitude in talking about national parks. It is a pity that members in this Chamber are not prepared to allow me to do the same. I want to talk about the wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park and the loss of them.

The Hon. Matthew Mason-Cox: Love those wild horses.

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE: If the member is happy for them to trample all over native threatened species I am happy to put that on record.

Mr Scot MacDonald: Point of order: I believe the Hon. Penny Sharpe is canvassing your ruling. Your ruling was very clear in regard to the content of the bill. If the member has run out of ideas, she should bring her contribution to a conclusion.

The Hon. Greg Donnelly: Point of order—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT (The Hon. Shayne Mallard): There is no point of order. I ask the Hon. Penny Sharpe to return to the substance of the bill.

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE: Let us also talk about the Royal National Park and the fact that the Government has canvassed driving the F6 motorway through the middle of it. It is one of our oldest parks and probably deserves to be looked at very closely for World Heritage listing. I note another disaster there. I place on record a particular issue about staff cuts and bushfire preparation. We have lost our most experienced bushfire staff, whether they be rangers or field officers. I do not believe it is responsible for me to speak in this debate without flagging Labor's serious concern about the loss of experience in this area. We are very lucky that we have had some rain in recent times, but we know how dry it is and we are heading into a serious bushfire season. We will rue the day we lost those very competent, experienced people. The Government has sought to do this by forcing savings on the agency, compelling it to get rid of its most senior staff with the most experience. When something goes wrong in the future and we review the incident, we will look back in hindsight and say we really should not have done that.

I make three final points in relation to the bill. First, I thank voluntary conservationists, especially those from the National Parks Association, the Total Environment Centre and the Colong Foundation. As shadow Minister for the Environment and Heritage, I have been incredibly lucky to spend a lot of time with people from these organisations all over the State. I have been incredibly privileged to be taken to some of our beautiful national parks and State forests and shown what is going really well and what needs to be improved. I thank them for their passion. So much work goes into considering where we build the national park estate. I recognise and pay tribute to them. For example, a lot of their work has fed into Labor's recent announcement about a koala park for south-west Sydney. We could not have done that without the volunteers. I give a shout-out to Pat and Barry Durham, in particular, from Campbelltown, who I think have spotted every one of the 400 koalas who live in that area. Without their many hours of voluntary work carefully mapping the location of koalas, we could not be so confident that creating a national park in this area will make such a difference to that population.

The second point I make is about bipartisanship. I started my contribution by speaking about the far-sighted work done by former Premier and Liberal member of Parliament Tom Lewis. When the former Premier died, I attended his State funeral. I was somewhat taken aback by the fact that, of all his achievements—and he had many; he was a pretty interesting man—the legacy that is considered his greatest by his family and by others who spoke at the funeral was the creation of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Over time, we have been served well by people from all sides of politics who have been committed to and understood the National Parks and Wildlife Service. They have understood that it is not an ideological fight; it is about giving our land the best care and preserving it for future generations.

When I attended the State funeral of Neville Wran there was discussion—and his wife, Jill, reflected on this—about the fact that, of all the things he did as Premier, he always said one of the most important was saving the northern rainforests. We need to take a long-term view of these issues. I know some members in this place are definitely not fans of Bob Carr, but I also know that anyone who has thought about his contribution to the environment will accept that the additions made to the national park estate on his watch, his passion and his willingness to work through difficult issues—and there are difficult issues involved in establishing national parks—are an amazing legacy that we all benefit from, not only because they are beautiful places to visit or precious public assets but also because they are about how we live on this planet. It is about protecting our biodiversity and finding safe havens for animals and plants that have been here for far longer than we have and that were well cared for by First Nation people but now are fundamentally at risk.

I suppose I issue a plea to members opposite on this point. In the past I have been able to talk openly to members on the other side of the Chamber about protecting the environment. But there are fewer and fewer of them. I find there is now a hostile view towards national parks and environmentalism generally that did not exist previously. In the past, I had serious conversations with Tim Moore, Rob Stokes and Mark Speakman about how we deal with and progress often quite tricky issues. I make a plea for bipartisanship. Ideology takes us nowhere on this; we must have some fundamental agreement about how to proceed. We cannot continue to cut Environment budgets, believing them to be unimportant because they are not people centred—they are about "animals and plants". They are about far more than that. Again, I express the hope that we can rebuild some bipartisanship in this space. We have also lost bipartisanship in relation to climate change. Future generations will not thank us for this period.

Finally, The Greens have foreshadowed that they will move a series of amendments to add a bunch of areas to the national park estate. I will go into this in more detail during the Committee stage, but I indicate that Labor will not support the amendments. We are six months out from an election and I stand here as someone who hopes to one day have the privilege of being the environment Minister. I take the view that we would not support amendments like this if we were in government and we should not support amendments like this in opposition. Creating national parks is a serious business and it takes a lot of work. Simply moving amendments to create parks without having done the planning work is not an approach that Labor supports, however sympathetic we are to The Greens' suggestions. I will talk about that more in Committee. But I will not pretend that we will support those amendments because we will not. I am happy to support the bill. However, there is much more work to do.

NSW Legislative Council, 17 October 2018