November 22 - 28, 2020: Issue 475


Senior Liberal party member Catherine Cusack Crosses Floor to Save Koalas

Greens MP Cate Faehrmann MLC

The National Party’s contentious Local Land Services Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2020 has failed to pass the NSW Upper House on Thursday, November 19th, and will now be sent to an inquiry, after Liberal MP Catherine Cusack crossed the floor to refer it to Inquiry.

The news is welcomed by Pittwater residents who have been active in seeking to have the controversial Bill fail after witnessing the extinction of Pittwater's kolas.

The bill will be referred to the Upper House’s Portfolio Committee 7, chaired by Greens MP Cate Faehrmann MLC and which conducted the Inquiry into Koala Populations and their Habitat and which found that Koalas are set to become extinct before 2050 in NSW

The bill was central to the peace deal after the Liberal Party and the National Party stoush over the Koala SEPP.  If passed it would have frozen the inclusion of new koala habitat under the Koala SEPP,  allowed land clearing within “environmental zones” on rural lands, removed local council’s ability to require development applications for Private Native Forestry and doubled the maximum duration of private native forestry agreements.

“What has become increasingly clear is that this bill isn’t about the Koala SEPP. The National Party seemed to have concocted the crisis around the Koala SEPP in order to progress their agenda to remove the government’s regulatory oversight of environmental protections on rural land - period.'' Greens MP Cate Faehrmann MLC said on Thursday

“This is a gross overreach by the National Party and it’s incomprehensible that this bill passed the Lower House of Parliament without a peep from the Liberals. All they had to do was look at the Objects of the bill to realise just how far its tentacles reached.

“The Liberals have been taken for a ride by their National Party colleagues. They have every right to be angry at what’s in this bill because it does far more than simply tweak the new Koala SEPP, it reads like the forestry and big agriculture industry’s wish list come true,” said Ms Faehrmann. 

“It’s abundantly clear that this bill was to be the National Party’s Trojan horse which would have seen decades of work on the government’s primary mechanism to protect koalas discarded and nullify environmental protections on rural land.

“Not a single member of the Liberals spoke to this bill when it passed through the Lower House. If not for the courage of Catherine Cusack today, the koala would have been sacrificed for the sake of preserving an increasingly fractured Coalition.

“Sending this bill off to an inquiry is the best outcome and what better committee to examine this bill than the one that just wrapped up its landmark inquiry into koala populations. I look forward to examining in detail the insanity of what the National Party have just tried to pull off,” said Ms Faehrmann.

Ms Cusack was subsequently sacked as parliamentary secretary.

"Following her decision today to move a non-government amendment to a government bill, I have made the decision to immediately remove Ms Catherine Cusack as a Parliamentary Secretary.’’ NSW Premier Ms Berejiklian said in a statement.

In a further joint statement issued by the Premier and Mr. Barilaro, ‘’Today the Legislative Council resolved to send the Local Land Services (Miscellaneous) Bill 2020 to Parliamentary Committee 7 – Planning and Environment.

Our farmers deserve certainty and they do not deserve to be held to ransom by a Greens-controlled inquiry.

The Premier and the Deputy Premier have agreed the NSW Government will revert to operations under the former SEPP 44 by the end of the month and in the new year we will develop a policy to protect koalas and the interests of farmers.’’ 

Just months ago, Ms Cusack was a vocal supporter of the Premier Berejiklian when Mr Barilaro stated publicly he would not support Government legislation if the koala bill proceeded. Then Ms Cusack accused Mr Barilaro of treating Ms Berejiklian with "extreme contempt" and said his "whole strategy is 100 per cent bullying".

The Nationals leader backed down when Ms Berejiklian offered an ultimatum — remain in the Government, or give up your ministerial portfolios to sit on the crossbench. 

With the bill now effectively defunct, the incumbents will revert to the former policy on land management under the State Environmental Planning Policy despite the fact this has already expired.

Planning Minister Rob Stokes, who had carriage of the now failed bill, has said recently the old rules were "rudimentary" and needed modernising. 

The Hon. Catherine Cusack's social media pages have been inundated with messages of thanks since the Bill was quashed - a sample;

I am not a LNP voter but Catherine Cusack you have my thanks and utmost respect for your brave stand on the Koala bill. Well done.

Thank you for standing up for our native wildlife. You have shown that you are strong and have the guts to stand up and be counted.

Thanks for doing the right thing in regards to our Koalas. Having integrity and being true to yourself are worth it. Thank you.

Thank you for crossing the floor, our environment and koalas are worth it!

Thank you for standing up for our koalas. It wouldn't have been easy but thanks to you our beloved national icon has more of a chance of survival.

THANK YOU for standing up for NSW koalas and the sentiments of the majority of the NSW public. THAT is integrity.

Thank you for standing for our iconic species. I am not a liberal voter, but your actions today give me faith that some are in politics to serve the public and not just themselves. You are a legend.

Thanks for standing up to the Nats bullying, upsetting to hear that Gladys has dropped you as parliamentary secretary ....

Thank you Catherine for your courageous stand in voting against the NAT's Koala bill. It means so much to me and the majority of NSW citizens. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Thank you Catherine Cusack! I applaud you for the passionate speech you made. I heard it on the radio and I FELT every word you said. You can sleep soundly tonight …. Honestly, thank you!!!!!

Her speech was indeed a lucid, eloquent plea on behalf of koalas, tracing the deliberate harvesting of koalas for pelts by the million and citing a month-long event known as "Black August" in 1927 which saw more than 800,000 koalas killed.

''In Victoria it is estimated that hunting continued until barely 1,000 koalas were left, and the Australia Koala Foundation estimates that fewer than 500 were left alive in New South Wales.'' Ms Cusack stated in her address to the Upper House

''We have made so many mistakes. The koala fur traders that profited from their pelts are all dead and gone, but the impacts of what they did are with us today. One day all of us here in this Chamber will be dead and gone, but the impacts of what we decide today will last forever. I do not want this Government or this Parliament to be remembered for a massive policy error, added to the very long list of errors that we have already been making for more than a century—particularly when everyone from scientists to councils to passionate communities are telling us so clearly that this is not what they want.'' Ms Cusack said

Ms Cusack went on to speak to how on her own North Coast region it was clear that koala numbers have declined significantly, citing last Summer's horrific months long inferno where an estimated 71% of the NSW North Coast koalas were lost  . 

"The plight of koalas is really well understood by my community, and indeed by the whole world, which donated tens of millions of dollars in a stunning act of generosity to funds established specifically help koalas. My community is incredibly distressed by this legislation. In all of the communications sent to me on this issue, I have not had a single person ask me to vote for this bill—not one.'' Ms Cusack stated

''I cannot find a constituency for this legislation. All I can find is enormous distress and mistrust. The Minister's second reading speech referring to a promise by the Minister for Planning and Public Spaces not to proclaim any more environmental lands was a huge shock to me personally. It was really hard for me to process as a lifelong Liberal.''

''There have been other events over the years, like the construction of the Pacific Motorway, which have significantly impacted our koalas. In particular the Wardell koala colony, the last healthy community in my own Ballina Shire, was hit by the rerouting of the Pacific Motorway in order to bypass Wardell and avoid impacting cane farms. This colony inhabits the Blackall Range, which on top of everything else was also burnt during the Black Summer fires. I have really tried throughout my time in Parliament to protect koalas. I wrote the environment policy for the 2011 election and prioritised a review of the State's koala recovery plan, which was hopelessly out of date. I secured funding through those processes, and that was part of our commitment. I tried for the Blackhall Range koala community. I lost faith in Federal protections in the process, so I am fully aware that there is no Federal backstop if this bill passes today.

That issue and its outcome have been really significant in how I have arrived at my position today, because all of the fine words explaining how much Roads and Maritime Services and others care about koalas were for nothing. I no longer have any confidence in fine words. I just have to process what is on the table in front of me. I was not party to the processes that brought this bill to the House. I cannot be held accountable and nor can I have any faith in that process, which has zero to do with protecting koalas. It is to try to patch-up a political disagreement. I would dearly love to see that solved, but it is just too costly if it comes at the expense of koalas. ''

The Hon. Catherine Cusack went on to briefly refer to koala plans of management. 

''They are a bit complicated, but suffice to say they are the work of councils and passionate communities. They are prepared at the request of the Government, but very few have been approved. Indeed, many have sat in the Pplanning Minister's in-tray since 2015, when approvals were put on hold so that the new State environmental planning policy [SEPP] could be finalised. It has taken five years and finally the SEPP has been finalised, but the bill derails that Copeland process by specifying that some can apply—and those are listed in the bill—to rural lands but not to others.

I find it ludicrous that the bill defines by name those shires whose plans are preserved. If you are lucky to be on that list, you are in, but if you are not on that list, it is just bad luck. That includes councils in Byron, Tweed and Nambucca. I have been told that Campbelltown's Comprehensive Koala Plan of Management has been approved but is not listed in the legislation. What are we saying to people? It is incredible to me that the Government could do that to those communities. Those people have worked so hard and have invested so much in a framework that has consensus understanding about what we are trying to achieve. The bill has come as a great shock to everybody and it is too much for them to absorb. For that reason alone the bill inspires no trust or faith in the community at all.''

''I apologise to the Premier, to my party and to our Coalition partners. I believe they are all good people. The damage that is inflicted by the bill is not what they wanted or intended, but the flawed processes means that that is what has been delivered. I believe in my heart that what I am doing today will assist the Government. ''

Finally Ms Cusack made mention of Glen Turner, the Environmental officer who lost his life in a shocking event in 2014. 

''All members have a responsibility to honour him and to respect the sacrifice that he made. One person's humble career on the floor of Parliament is insignificant compared with what occurred in that incident. I acknowledge Glen and I thank him and his family.'' she stated

''I will move an amendment to the bill in the earnest belief that a more transparent process will assist the bill, the Government and the community to come together in the great cause of saving our koalas. There is nothing to fear from an all-party inquiry, and there is much to be gained from inspiring confidence in the community. I thank the House for the opportunity to put my thoughts on record. I move:

That the question be amended by omitting "be now read a second time" and inserting instead "be referred to Portfolio Committee No. 7 - Planning and Environment for inquiry and report".

Catherine Cusack MLC was elected to the NSW Legislative Council (Upper House) in 2003. Ms Cusack grew up on a farm in rural NSW and currently lives in Lennox Head. She obtained her economics degree from the University of Sydney and was elected the first ever female State President of the NSW Young Liberals in 1985.

Prior to Parliament Ms Cusack held various policy positions in Government and the private sector, and in 1996 established “Wordsworks” – a professional writing business with corporate and government clients. In Opposition she served on the front bench for 8 years in the Juvenile Justice, Fair Trading and Environment portfolios. In 2011 she was appointed Chair of the Joint Parliamentary Committee oversighting the Ombudsman, and Police Integrity Commission. She has served as Parliamentary Secretary for Tertiary Education and Skills, Parliamentary Secretary to former Premier Mike Baird, Parliamentary Secretary for Education and the Hunter, and is currently Parliamentary Secretary for Digital Inclusion.

Ms Cusack is a former Chair of  Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians (Australia Region), former Chair of Australian Rural Health Research Collaboration Advisory Committee, and a Director of the Virginia Chadwick Memorial Foundation (supporting the Great Barrier Reef).

This week her portfolio of credentials has been added to by her stance with the title 'hero' being bestowed by New South Wales citizens of all political factions and preferences.