NSW National Parks Under Attack
Words by Austen Hunt
To the south west of NSW lays the pristine Riverina area which hosts the immaculate Murray Valley National Park. A place of serene beauty, the park hosts a plethora of unique river red gums ecosystems, migratory birds and sites of spiritual significance to Australia’s original custodians. Despite this natural and cultural heritage, the Murray Valley National Park is under threat as the Deputy Premier of NSW has vowed to introduce a bill to de-gazette the park, opening as little as 42,000 hectares to logging interests.
This is not the first time the Murray area has had to fight to defend its natural heritage. The former Liberal member for Murray, Austin Evans, introduced a near replicant of the bill in October of 2018. The bill was a point of contestation within the region and the broader state of NSW. The public’s resistance to the policy has been cited as a key contributor to the former Liberal Member of Murrays loss to the member of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party Member, Helen Dalton, in March of 2019.
The Deputy Premier has so far failed to garner the support of the state government and is submitting the proposition as a private members bill. To pass, the bill will have to gain a coalition of support from other key members and ministers such as the Environment Minister and the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian.
The bill will be re-introduced to parliament after the winter recess.
Where to from here, the knitty gritty process of parliament
To complicate matters further, the Murray Valley hosts a series of protected wetlands. The valley’s wetlands are granted protection by the federal government by virtue of them being listed RAMSAR wetlands. The RAMSAR agreement, an Iranian lead convention which Australia has been signatory to since 1971, aims to entrench protections in locations which are integral to conserving biodiversity and the migratory routes of keystone species. This status means that the decision to repeal protections can not be made by the state alone and must involve the Commonwealth government by means of ‘cooperative federalism’. This effectively challenges the state of NSW’s authority and enforces the need for further studies to be conducted by means of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) before a decision can be made.
The need for an EIA is useful in challenging rampant development, however, is not a saving grace of itself. An EIA allows for public and specialist concerns pertaining to biodiversity, land and resource use, and possible damage to environmental assets a window to be expressed. This due process normally involves, or is directly conducted by, a third party and is made available to the public to ensure accountability.
The point of the EIA is to ensure that actions are not taken without there being some visible consideration and studies conducted to ensure that irrevocable damage is not incurred. We have seen this due process ignored or trivialised in the past however, with the controversial Adani Carmichael Coal mine receiving ministerial support for its Groundwater Management Plan and Southern Black-throated Finch Management plan despite receiving scathing criticisms from not only involved NGOs but also the CSIRO.
The Murray Valley National Park has yet to have any due process followed and remain at this point just a ‘promised’ proposition from the Deputy Premier. In the event that the bill receives coalition support,
The proposed de-gazetting of the Murray Valley National Park has sparked outrage from other members of parliament, non governmental organisations, state services, and the public. These groups have urged state and federal authorities to consider precedence and context, citing concerns that short term economic gains are being prioritised over the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity and values of intergenerational equity.
The bill has incited reactions across the aisle from Labour and the Greens. The Labour spokeswoman for the environment Kate Washington has reminded the cabinet that
“National park protections are designed to be in perpetuity so our children, their children and their grandchildren can have an opportunity to enjoy environments like this.”.
This sentiment has been echoed by the Greens spokesperson for the environment, Cate Faehrmann, who has taken this one step further and challenged the NSW Minister for Energy and Environment, Matt Kean, to uphold the integrity of his office and reject the proposal. Ms Cate Faermann has outlined that the government is “In an unprecedented extinction crisis, [and] to suggest that we should bulldoze a national park to revive a dying industry is criminal,” following that, she “expects the environment minister to take a strong stance and protect our national parks which act as crucial refuges for our threatened plants and animals.”.
In response the NSW Minister for Energy and the Environment has said that the government was committed to protection national parks. Minister Kean reminded the assembly that “any decision to introduce a government bill would be subject to cabinet support” and that “private members bills introduced into parliament are a matter for the relevant member”. This, in conjunction with the lack of a response from the NSW Premier herself, has outlined that the Deputy Premier has so far failed to build a coalition for development amongst the sitting government.
Beyond party lines the bill has attracted challenge from key NGOs and state services. The NSW National Parks Association’s Senior Ecologist Oisin Sweeny has gone on record opposing the proposed de-gazzetting stating “The whole point of gazetting national parks is so the public can have confidence that these areas are protected in perpetuity for their conservation and social values.”. This stance has been supported by numerous NGOs such as the prominent Nature Conservation Council whos CEO, Kate Smolski, has called out the logging industry’s persistence in seeking to extract from the region, outlining that “These magnificent forests are protected because they are struggling after decades of logging and grazing, impacts that are being multiplied by climate change, water diversions and drought.”.
The NSW Premier Glady Berejiklian is being urged to challenge her Deputy by members of her own party, the opposition, the state’s services, and the broader public she presides over.
The question remains, how will the Premier respond? Will she support her Deputy or will she strike a divide in her own party and defend the sanctity of her states environment?