Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Save the Koala) Bill 2021 Bills

I too rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Save the Koala) Bill 2021, introduced by Senator Hanson-Young. I wish to acknowledge upfront her passion and deep interest in these issues. Having travelled as part of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee to Kangaroo Island in the aftermath of the bushfires, I have seen her deep interest in this and her passion for addressing these issues.

When it comes to the legislation, though, I come back to the maiden speech I made in this place—that good intentions and passion alone don’t necessarily make for good legislation. I do have some concerns with the amendments that have been proposed in this bill, which I will speak to now. As Senator Hanson-Young has said, the bill aims to introduce a moratorium on the clearing of koala habitat, and, if you go back to the EPBC Act and look at what critical habitat for vulnerable species, the koala in particular, is defined as, it’s defined as any habitation that contains a food tree or a food source for koalas, so it’s a fairly broad definition of what koala habitat is. The bill would prevent the minister from approving an action under the EPBC Act where that action consists of or involves the clearing of koala habitat. It also goes on to remove an exemption for regional forest agreements, which I’ll come to a little later on. Specifically, section 18B refers to the concept of a significant impact on koalas as set out in the new section 527G and it applies this concept to section 18A of the EPBC Act. The effect then of section 18B in conjunction with 18A and 527G is that taking an action that has, will have or is likely to have a significant impact on koalas is prohibited. At the end of section 139 the bill goes on to insert a new subsection that has the effect of preventing the minister from approving an action consisting of or involving the clearing of koala habitat. As you’ll recall, the definition of ‘habitat’ for vulnerable species, the koala in particular, is essentially any forest or other growth that has either emergent trees or trees that constitute a food source for koalas.

The concern in part for me comes back to my own state of South Australia. An exemplar is Kangaroo Island, to which, in the 1920s, a number of koalas, given that they are not native to Kangaroo Island, were introduced from Victoria. I think fewer than 20 were released on the island. They have bred extensively on Kangaroo Island. Before the fires of last year there were an estimated 50,000 koalas on Kangaroo Island, roughly half in native vegetation and roughly half in blue gum plantations. This immediately raises an issue with the prohibition in that, if the koalas have chosen to live in blue gum plantations because they provide a food source, then here we have a situation where what is essentially an introduced species to this island has chosen to live in and use as a food source a plantation timber, for which the natural expectation of somebody who’s planted trees as a plantation is that they will be able to harvest those trees. But this prohibition would actually prevent a normal commercial activity of planting timbers for the purpose of harvesting because koalas have chosen to live in that area. So, fundamentally, there is a problem with the nature of the bill because it will interrupt not the logging of native forests or clearing of native areas but actually commercial operations that have seen a massive increase, through the presence of those trees, of a koala population.

Kangaroo Island was an interesting case even before the fires that went through last year and that were devastating to many landholders, property owners and wildlife because the koala population does not respond to environmental stress like kangaroos do. Scientists have studied them and made it clear that kangaroos, in the face of environmental stress, can actually regulate their population growth to adapt to those changing circumstances. What they’ve found with koalas is that koalas are not capable of that self-regulation, which means that over time they have created unsustainable pressures on the food sources on the island. This means they are literally eating themselves to starvation. There has been a long program, a long debate and discussion, in South Australia about how you deal with this burgeoning population. Culling is not an option. There has been some attempt at translocation back to the area where these koalas originally came from. Given that they are disease free—and certainly the only ones in South Australia and potentially nationwide that are disease free—it’s a very good breeding stock to try to translocate. There have also been attempts at sterilisation. But importantly, as Senator Hanson-Young has indicated, the habitat that koalas use is also the habitat for other species. One of the great environmental concerns on Kangaroo Island is the overpopulation of koalas, which eat trees not just to the point where there is no more food for them to eat. If the trees are devoid of all leaves, they die, which means that the habitat for other native animals is actually being reduced. That has been a significant environmental concern in South Australia. Kangaroo Island is an exemplar of a case where there are reasons why this prohibition on the clearing of habitat has a commercial imperative. But there are also reasons why various controls may be required.

You can also go to other parts of South Australia. In the Adelaide Hills, for example, in the Mount Lofty Ranges, there is a population that is measured to be around 150,000 which is thriving. There are large contiguous forested areas and natural bushland, even down into the suburbs. In fact, the creek out the back of my own house has koalas that populate that and keep us awake at night with various territorial growling. But it indicates that there is a healthy population there, and this prohibition could prevent quite reasonable development of properties across a large swathe of area or pockets within that area that would have no material impact on koalas. So there are some fundamental concerns about the black-and-white nature of the prohibition which is placed in this bill.

The extant provisions recognise that there are areas which are complex. The guidelines published by the Department of the Environment, in relation to the EPBC Act, say:

The koala has one of the largest distributions of any terrestrial threatened species listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). It occupies a variety of vegetation types … is capable of moving long distances and is variably affected by a range of threats. Determining significant impacts on the koala is therefore complex and varies between cases.

This shows that we do need to take account of the habitat of koalas and their population but a blanket ban is not the best way to manage that. There needs to be a scientific approach that understands the impact on the koala as well as other species, balancing that with developments—whether that be in industry or for housing or transport— and the authorities and minister need to be able to look at these case-by-case rather than being hamstrung by a blanket ban.

As the chamber would be aware, the EPBC Act is due for a reform and there are reforms underway. The environment and communications committee reviewed late last year some of the first tranche of reforms to make it more effective, in terms of how we care for the environment and balance the needs of other parts of our society. It’s worth pointing out that, in terms of the extant provisions, habitat protections and matters of land clearing are predominantly the responsibility of state governments. But, when it comes to threatened species, the EPBC Act does provide protection for threatened species and the koala is listed as one of those, particularly the combined populations of Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT, which are regarded as matters of national environmental significance.

So under that federal act, any action that’s likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environment significance, such as the koala, must receive approval from the government before it can proceed. In order to obtain approval, proposed developments are subject to an rigorous and transparent environmental assessment process under the EPBC Act. We heard a lot of evidence last year about the processes in that act and the fact that there are opportunities for improvement, and I would welcome those as we go forward. But at the heart of that act and those processes is the assumption and the principle that you treat the koala population, particularly on that east coast area, as a population of concern but you deal with each case according to its merits. I will come to the issue of the forestry agreements now, just in that context.

Between 2015 and 2017 the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries undertook a large-scale study on koala occupancy in north-east forests of New South Wales, including their response to timber harvesting. What they found was that koala occupancy was not influenced by timber harvesting intensity, time since harvesting, land tenure or landscape of harvesting or old growth forest extent. There were other factors sometimes associated with the forestry industry, but often not, that had a greater impact. So to have a blanket ban on exemptions for RFAs ignores what the science has collected, in terms of data.

So I am not denying that, particularly on the east coast, there is cause for concern, there is action that is required, but the substance of this bill and the operative measures which actually prevent—they have a hard prohibition—that don’t allow the science for any particular business case to be considered when somebody comes for approval or, worse, in the case of something like Kangaroo Island, where there has been a commercial planting of trees that, by definition, have now become a habitat for koalas because they are a food source for koalas, would be that somebody who’s made an investment to plant a plantation couldn’t even harvest those trees because of the operation of this bill. So for those reasons, while I respect the good intentions and the depth of passion of Senator Hanson-Young, I cannot support this bill in the Senate.