Liberals back down on koalas after Barilaro bluster

After a bruising political battle that saw Gladys Berejiklian impose her authority over state Nationals, NSW Liberals have quietly backed down, supporting a bill to weaken planned reforms designed to protect koalas on privately-owned farmland.

Simmering tensions between the coalition partners exploded in September when Nationals MPs complained new laws to protect koalas after the bushfires introduced by Liberal MP and Planning Minister Rob Stokes would cut the value of farm land.

The Coalition has introduced to parliament proposed changes to wind back koala protections on private rural land.Credit:Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Mr Stokes had argued the new Koala State Environment Planning Policy (SEPP) and its expanded definition of habitat was needed to prevent koalas becoming extinct. He said it responded to warnings from the NSW Audit Office, Natural Resources Commission and an Upper House Inquiry – which said NSW's koala would be wiped out by 2030 without urgent action to increase protections.

But by September NSW Nationals Leader John Barilaro had threatened to withdraw his party from the Coalition unless the laws were changed. He said the koala SEPP was a "noose around the neck of farmers that will cause a slow and painful death".

At that time, Mr Stokes dismissed Mr Barilaro’s claims as "mistruths" and argued farmers could still "engage in any routine agricultural practice".

Premier Gladys Berejiklian stood firm and threatened to sack Nationals Cabinet Ministers unless they supported the policy. Mr Barilaro backed down and Liberals hailed it as a victory over the bombastic Mr Barilaro.

But this week the Nationals introduced the Local Land Services Amendment Bill to Parliament, supported by the Liberals, which will exempt private rural landholders from having to recognise the new, expanded definition of koala habitat.

Environmental Defenders Office head of law reform Rachel Walmsley said the changes would prevent expansion of koala habitat protection on private farmland into the future.

"This bill is trying to freeze in time the small areas that are currently mapped, whereas it's clear from the science we need to protect more habitat," Ms Walmsley said.

Nationals MP and Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall spruiked the proposed changes on Thursday this week.

"There is already a strong framework in place to regulate agricultural land in NSW and what this legislation does is ensure farmers continue to be regulated under that framework – rather than the planning system," Mr Marshall said.

Mr Stokes said on Friday he was "pleased to say we have hit the mark" and the Nationals' bill showed there are "often important robust and passionate discussions as part of the decision-making process".

The current Koala SEPP is limited in its impact on farmers and mostly only affects significant property developments that require local council approval. Land clearing and routine agricultural activities are still permitted on farmland.

Significantly, protections only kick in if a local government has developed a Koala Plan of Management. But removing koala habitat isn't barred, rather the developer is required to get an expert ecological assessment.

The Nationals' amendment bill kicks in where local governments develop a koala plan of management.

There are only five local governments with plans of management mapping koala habitat in place – on the NSW North Coast – and they would be unaffected by the proposed changes.

But if any local government develops one in the future, the bill guarantees private rural landholders are exempt and the protections could only apply to public or peri-urban land.

Independent MLC Justin Field said he was "disappointed that the Liberal Party has given in to yet more anti-environment brinkmanship from the Nationals".

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