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Templeman blasts Libs’ Richards after she helps ram through code that could see koalas under threat

Feb 13, 2022

 

Hawkesbury councillor Sarah Richards has said government should listen to the experts but appears to have voted against exactly that when she supported ramming through the Rural Boundary Clearing Code (RBCC) at Hawkesbury Council without seeking expert advice, says Macquarie MP Susan Templeman.

 

Cllr Richards is standing – for the second time – as the Liberal candidate for Macquarie in the Federal election, which must be held before May 21, though no date has yet been announced by the Prime Minister.

 

This last week, Cllr Richards helped ensure the contentious RBCC stands in the Hawkesbury, a move that could potentially see up to 15,800 hectares cleared, including koala habitat and other vulnerable ecological communities.

 

But on Friday Cllr Richards was with Environment Minister Sussan Ley in the Blue Mountains to make an announcement about koalas being put on the endangered species list. Cllr Richards was reported in the Blue Mountains Gazette as saying, “It’s a responsibility of any government to listen to the experts and the announcement today shows they’ve acted on it.”

 

Ms Templeman asked, “what do you call someone who votes to allow the clearing of up to 39,000 acres of land in the Hawkesbury without first taking advice on what the impact on koala habitat and corridors might be, and then stands at a lookout to proudly declare that koalas are now endangered?

 
 

“That would be the Liberal candidate for Macquarie, Sarah Richards, who says one thing in the Mountains and votes differently in the Hawkesbury,” said the MP.

Ms Templeman was referring to this last week’s Hawkesbury Council meeting where Cllr Richards along with her Liberal colleagues ensured the RBCC was passed, which could see up to 15,800 hectares – that’s 39,000 acres – cleared for fire mitigation – without calling for expert advice first.

 

Just days before Minister Ley’s Friday announcement, the Federal government earmarked $50m for a national koala protection package which Cllr Richards enthusiastically endorsed on social media.

 

Land which could be cleared in the Hawkesbury as a result of opting into the RBCC, could also potentially be koala habitat, but Hawkesbury Council does not currently have the resources to map koala habitat areas, nor to police or enforce the RBCC.

 

At the Tuesday Council meeting, the Liberals led by Mayor Patrick Conolly and Cllr Richards, rammed through – the Mayor had to use his casting vote which gives him two votes – confirmation the Council were opting into the Code, which potentially opens the door to massive land-clearing, without first seeking expert advice.

 

Under the RBCC, says a report from Council staff, as much as 5.7% of the Hawkesbury could be cleared by landowners, or 15,800 hectares. Mayor Conolly has previously said it’s “silly” to think that level of land clearing will happen, but of course it could.

 

Independents, the Greens, Labor, Shooters and Fishers, and lone Liberal Party member Nathan Zamprogno (who ran as an independent in the December 4 council elections) had asked for the opting in to the RBCC to be first discussed with experts – including local RFS – and the community, and for geospatial tools to be investigated (so current tree cover could be logged) before choosing whether to adopt the Code or not.

 
 

In the previous Council late last year, the independents, Greens, and Labor easily got through a Motion to carry out that research and seek expert advice and it was set to get underway this month.

 

But when the new Council began, at its first meeting proper of the year on January 25, Cllr Richards led the charge to rescind that Motion and simply adopt the RBCC without seeking local and expert advice. The Liberals got it through with the support of independent Les Sheather and Eddie Dogramaci of the Small Business Party, and with Mayor Conolly using his casting vote.

 

At that January meeting, Cllr Richards said, “it will be the majority of the room who agrees on this [opting into the Code]. I’m very supportive of property owner rights.”

 

After the vote to opt into the RBCC, she said,

 

“From conversations I have had with people, there will be some welcome relief in the Hawkesbury tonight.”

 

At Tuesday’s meeting, Cllr Richards was uncharacteristically quiet on the subject, though perhaps not too surprisingly given the Federal focus on koalas in the week. She flagged at the beginning of the Council meeting she might have to excuse herself.

 

“I may have an interest,” she said, on the item to come up, but added, “but that is only subject to the result of the recision motion”.

 

And when it came to the vote, she helped to defeat a push from the non-Liberals who attempted to once again rescind the Motion so the RBCC could come back for expert advice before adoption.

 

The Liberals came up with another Motion – which was successful, but again only with the Mayor’s casting vote – to opt into the Code but to also ask for a report on “the methodology and funding available to map our koala populations, as well as how this information could be used to protect them”.

 
 

Vicki Lett, a wildlife carer and member of WIRES for almost 20 years, told the Council meeting, “loss of habitat places koalas under stress and impacts their immune system. Forcing koalas to ground during clearing, means they are forced to navigate roads where they are hit by cars”.

 

Ms Lett pointed out WIRES had 12 koalas come to its attention in 2015 in the Hawkesbury, 16 in 2016, and in 2020, some 38 came into care or needed attention. “We believe we can link it to the years of drought and impacts of fire,” she said.

 

Tuesday’s meeting was often ill-tempered, with a pugnacious Mayor Conolly in the chair, frequently interrupting councillors Zamprogno, Greens’ Danielle Wheeler and independent Mary Lyons-Buckett as they raised points of order which he dismissed, and a Motion of Dissent which was voted down.

 

The Mayor again used his casting vote – so his vote, plus one – to save himself from what otherwise would have been a Motion of Dissent.

 

Cllr Lyons-Buckett said in the meeting, “I am very, very concerned. We have heard you say in the past that people will know the best thing to do but supporting this is farcical, it is very, very distressing and one would have to wonder of the motivations behind it.”

 

Cllr Wheeler was interrupted twice by the Mayor and she said, “ I object to your conduct at this point”, But the Mayor said he could interrupt her. It will be interesting to see how that plays out. At the November 9 meeting, Mayor Conolly made an official apology for his clearly abrasive conduct during the October 12 meeting when the RBCC was first being discussed and said, in part, he should, “have waited till [sic] after Councillor Wheeler was [sic] finished speaking to clarify any point in the discussion. I apologise to Councillor Wheeler for interrupting her”.

 

Cllr Zamprogno was also interrupted by the Mayor on several occasions on Tuesday and when he said he understood a very senior RFS official had called the Mayor to ask him to reconsider opting-in, the Mayor denied that and said,

 

“So we have more secret people who Nathan says agree with him”.

 

“The question you need to answer is why do we have to adopt it [the RBCC] now?” asked Cllr Zamprogno.

 

“Why do we have to adopt it without consultation, without resourcing, without compliance or enforcement resources to bring to bear?” he said.

 

Cllr Wheeler said, “You have committed council to resourcing a code which we didn’t need to pick up at this point. Now as an afterthought you might do a bit of mapping. Where are you going to find the resources to ensure those species are safe? Where will you get resources?

 

“I notice everybody is happy to be photographed with a koala but you’re not prepared to protect them.”

 

“This is a shameful piece of politicking. Where will this money come from to do this? I’m absolutely astounded that you have now basically ignored information sent to you. You have put aside your capacity to talk to people about how this code may work… for everyone. This is a really sad indictment of what this council is going to look like with you people at the helm.

 

“If you think mapping a few koalas is going to soothe people you are mistaken. This is a cynical political move.”

 

The RBCC never applied to the Hawkesbury Council area but the Liberals made it one of their council election pledges to opt-in. In one campaign post on social media, Liberal candidates Conolly and Richards posed with Bilpin landowner Martin Tebbutt who has been fighting for adoption of the Code for some considerable time and who spoke at the Tuesday meeting where he admitted his plans for land clearing were not for fire mitigation purposes.

 

“Councillor Richards has led the charge of the Hawkesbury Liberals to opt into the new NSW boundary clearing code, without seeking expert advice, which could lead to essential habitat areas being destroyed,” claimed MP Templeman on Friday.

 

“And what’s one of the key reason for koalas now being endangered? Land clearing.

 

“Koalas have gone from no listing, to being “endangered” on the east coast within a decade. And that’s all on the Liberals’ watch. With no recovery plan and no conservation strategy, this Government has put koalas at risk,” said the MP.

 

After this week’s meeting Cllr Conolly put out a statement saying,

 

“As Liberals, we campaigned on this issue and had made a commitment to opt in – and the community supported us for that”.

 

In the Council election, the Liberals gained 38% of the vote – so not a majority by any means – but they won more votes than any other individual party or individual candidate. They got no more councillors than last time though – there are 4 of them – but so far they can always count on independent Les Sheather who ran a very similar election campaign to his Liberal friends, and Eddie Dogramaci who is often voting with them too.

 

Cllr Dogramaci said in the Tuesday meeting, “please accept my apologies, for I have very little idea about what’s happening.”

 

He went on to say, “I am not a Liberal or Labor supporter. I’m for all Hawkesbury residents. If our Labor friends move a motion sensible to me I will vote for them. If the Greens the Communists or the Fascists [there are no Communist or Facist Party members on Council] if they move a motion if I feel it’s going to help look after the hungry, the single mums, I will vote for them.

 

“Who came up with the 16,000 hectares? Did they have helicopters, with lasers finding out how many thousands of hectares? Once this motion is passed are all those people going to bring their bulldozers and do it overnight and that sort of thing, and this 16,000 hectares, maybe it’s 5000 hectares.”

In his statement after the meeting, the Mayor said,

 

“Balancing the competing concerns of farmers and other rural property holders, with conservationists is always difficult, and consideration of the Rural Boundary Clearing Code brought this to the forefront for Council.”

 

“Farmers understandably want to protect their properties from the destruction and danger of bushfires, which are forecast to become more extreme and more regular. Conservationists also have valid concerns about any clearing, and it’s Councils job to find the right balance,” he said.

 

“I believe the Rural Boundary Clearing Code, as developed by the RFS, does a good job of finding this balance – the code allows for some clearing around boundaries of rural properties, but puts in place many protections for endangered species.”

 

The problem for any “endangered species” which now includes the koala, is that the Council does not have any mapping tools to reveal where exactly koalas are.

 

The Liberal Motion simply asks for a report about the feasibility of possibly bringing that mapping in, and while there is no timetable for any mapping to be adopted, the RBCC has been adopted, and land clearing can begin soon, with no controls over it, and no ability on the part of Council to police it.

 
 
 
 
 

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