NPA played a key role in the Stand Up For Nature Alliance to campaign to retain strong environmental protections for native vegetation following the announcement of a ‘review’ in 2014. However, under former Premier Mike Baird, the NSW government subsequently passed new laws that removed controls on clearing native vegetation, allowing clearing to occur under a suite of self-assessable codes. This followed the huge increase in clearing that occurred in Queensland as a result of Campbell Newman’s weakening of land clearing laws—laws that have now been strengthened again under Premier Palaszczuk.
After initially participating in consultations with the government on the proposed changes, the Stand Up For Nature Alliance withdrew from the process in February 2016 after it became apparent that the process was predetermined to remove protections for native vegetation. Ten months later, Professor Hugh Possingham—the most high profile scientist on the government’s review panel—also quit, but by then the process was too far advanced to reverse.
The new legislation was passed in November 2016—just days after the extent of the sense of lawlessness pervading some sections of large agribusiness was laid bare on ABC Lateline.
We’re now seeing the result of the new laws: land clearing rates are rising fast. So fast in fact, that it has triggered a review by the Natural Resource Commissions that has been received by government but not yet made public. In June 2019 the NSW Audit Office released a scathing report of NSW’s management of native vegetation concluding that “the clearing of native vegetation on rural land is not effectively regulated and managed because the processes in place to support the regulatory framework are weak. There is no evidence-based assurance that clearing of native vegetation is being carried out in accordance with approvals. Responses to incidents of unlawful clearing are slow, with few tangible outcomes. Enforcement action is rarely taken against landholders who unlawfully clear native vegetation.”
In August 2019, new regulations were introduced that allowed clearing of two Critically Endangered Ecological Communities (CEECs—hitherto the only status of ecological community off limits to clearing) if they were deemed not to be a ‘functioning’ community according to the opinion of the Local Land Services (LLS). This sets a dangerous precedent for a subjective assessment to remove protections for any CEECs. This led to the establishment of a NSW Upper House Inquiry, due to report in October 2019.
It’s clear that the new rules are entirely inadequate to protect native vegetation and the little protection it did confer can be readily removed if they impede agricultural activities. Given the dual climate and wildlife crises we are facing, the ongoing drought and the influence of native vegetation on rainfall patterns, lowering protections was a serious policy error.