Farmers have vowed to be “unyielding” in their lobbying on controversial native vegetation laws, with the Baird cabinet expected to discuss a bill that green groups fear will gut the protection for endangered species on private land.
Sensitivity on the issue has been heightened following last month’s killing of Office of Environment Heritage official Glen Turner near Moree, allegedly by local landowner Ian Turnbull over a land-clearing dispute.
Environment Minister Rob Stokes, a Liberal, has made several trips to the region and is understood to be keen for the independent Biodiversity Review Panel to complete its examination of the Native Vegetation Act, the Threatened Species Conservation Act, and the flora and fauna protection sections of the National Parks and Wildlife Act.
But the Nationals’ Kevin Humphries, who is Minister for Natural Resources, Lands and Water, said he would back the Shooters and Fishers’ upper house bill even though it contained “a whole lot of perverse outcomes” for landowners.
The NSW Nationals and NSW Farmers have vehemently opposed Labor’s land clearing laws, which ban the removal of some vegetation.
“If the bill passed, and it came to the lower house, where we could amend that … it would give everyone protection,” Mr Humphries said. “It would allow landholders to get on and do some of the work they want to do. The government hasn’t landed on that but it’s the preference from my end, and certainly the rural constituency’s.”
The Nationals are eager to claim shared responsibility for land-clearing policy. The Land reported in April that Mr Humphries would “jointly oversee native vegetation laws, previously the domain solely of the Environment Minister”.
But Mr Stokes told budget estimates last week “the administration of acts provides that the Minister for Environment is the responsible minister for the Native Vegetation Act”.
Jeff Angel of the Total Environment Centre says the Nationals’ support for some or all of the Shooters’ bill is “disgraceful opportunism of a tragedy”.
“It’s completely unacceptable to send the message that you can murder a government employee who was just doing his job to protect the environment – and then have the law changed,” Mr Angel said. “The Shooters’ bill would unleash massive broadscale land clearing, but that seems to be the Nationals’ agenda.”
Mr Humphries said the killing of Mr Turner was “an outrageous act” but added “that action in no way should be linked to what we are doing”.
“Until you put the environment on a commercial footing, it’s very difficult to make the legislation real for people in rural areas,” Mr Humphries said, adding that if the community wants farmers to set aside productive land, “they should be paying for it”.
Neil Byron, head of the Biodiversity Review, said his panel would provide an interim report by October 16 and a final report by December 16. Submissions close on September 5. Dr Byron, who came out of retirement after 12 years on the Productivity Commission as an environmental economist, said the panel’s work was already heavy, without changes to the legislation.
“It’s very hard to do it justice,” Dr Byron said. “We’d probably be able to do a better job if we had more time.”
NSW Farmers president Fiona Simson sent a private letter to members earlier this month vowing to be “unyielding in our lobbying on this issue”. “At every opportunity we make it known to our political leaders that these laws are causing not only hardship for farmers … but also causing perverse environmental outcomes.”
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