The NSW Nationals’ threat to blow up the Coalition over koalas is as bizarre as it is misguided

The New South Wales National party’s decision to make koalas casualties of a political feud to threaten the successful coalition with the state Liberal party is as bizarre as it is misguided.

Gladys Berejiklian is dealing with the dual crises of the Covid-19 outbreak and its economic impact as well as any leader in the developed world. The premier’s ability to limit further outbreaks while maintaining freedom of movement and an open economy is literally the envy of the world and her own state counterparts.

Yet at this time, with Australia experiencing its greatest health and economic crisis since the second world war, the state’s Nationals leader, John Barilaro, and some colleagues have inexplicably threatened to split from the NSW Coalition over planning laws to protect koala habitats.

For the Nationals to threaten the Coalition over a plan to protect koalas, a national symbol and an animal that is increasingly endangered after some of the largest bushfires the state has ever seen, is both strange and inconsistent with the own party’s values, which claim to protect our “local way of life for future generations”. It appears completely out of step with the concerns of NSW voters – and particularly the values of their own constituents.

In the last two elections the Nationals have lost seats in northern NSW in Ballina (to the Greens) and Lismore (to Labor), and they almost lost the seat of Tweed. These are all seats where the issue of conservation – particularly of koalas – is front and centre.

It is significant that Leslie Williams, the member for Port Macquarie, has decided not to join her colleagues in making this “brave” decision to go to the crossbench (a threat which did not include giving up ministries or the deputy premiership).

Williams’ seat is home to a large koala population and the koala hospital, and is the type of Nationals seat under continued threat from other parties who are putting an emphasis on environment.

Instead, the Nationals appear to be chasing the votes being taken off them by their other threat: the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party.

Besides the fact that the Shooters’ seats are held out west where there is not a significant koala population, the NSW Nationals should listen to their federal counterparts who learnt long ago that you cannot win by trying to compete with protest parties on the right.

NSW’s koala population was severely impacted by last summer’s bushfires, which were some of the deadliest and most destructive in the state’s history.

A multi-party NSW parliamentary inquiry (which began before the bushfires) found that the state’s koala population could become extinct by 2050. This is not an idle threat: we have seen koala populations become extinct in large swathes of Australia already.

This is not the time to water down protections for koalas.

The arguments being made for farmers’ and landowners’ rights by some Nationals are familiar and aim to divide the regions from “city elites”.

In actual fact the state environmental planning policies koala instruments won’t impinge on farmers’ use of their own land for agriculture. What it does do is increase protections surrounding the development of that land – primarily in case it is sold off for larger scale housing and industrial developments.

There is no city exceptionalism at play here: people in the city are not unconstrained in their property rights (just ask anyone who has attempted to cut down a tree in their backyard).

It’s a plainly false argument, and threatens to split an otherwise successful Coalition government with more important priorities.

  • Cristina Talacko is president of Coalition for Conservation, which debates, devises and advocates ideas about environment and energy policy for the centre-right and conservatives

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