Like Queensland under the LNP Newman government, the Liberal National Baird government has announced drastic changes to land clearing laws.

In its defence NSW Environment Minister Mark Speakman said NSW was “not Queensland”, pointing to the prospect of relatively better controls and stewardship payments to farmers. But can he be confident about this?

It’s alarming that the NSW government can’t tell us how much more bush and grassland will be cleared. They have no idea. Unlike the soon to be abolished Native Vegetation Act (2003), which had a clear objective of ending broad-scale clearing, the new legislation is full of platitudes.

The NVA dramatically brought down the rate of clearing and imposed tough environmental and offset tests, for example giving real teeth to the “like for like” rule when offsetting and a substantial “red light” prohibition on clearing when the proposal would cause serious damage to threatened plants, animals and ecological communities.

A basic presumption in the NVA was that too much had been cleared with multiple extinctions and a rapidly growing threatened list (almost 1000 species), soil loss and waterway pollution – and that we needed to “maintain or improve” bushland cover.

The new legislation dispenses with this. It can readily trade the environment off for social and economic reasons – inevitably leading to more clearing (as admitted by agency officials during consultations with green groups). It does this in three ways:

  1. Adopts the major projects offset policy (usually applied to mines and such) where like for like is junked and almost any other non-like species will do; and allowing “supplementary measures” like handing over a big cheque or rehabilitating a mine site. Result? A loss of biodiversity.
  2. The new (weaker) “biodiversity assessment methodology” will throw up the required credits (ie, offset values) a clearing proponent must purchase to balance out the impact of the clearing. Despite watering down the NVA environmental test, the Minister for Primary Industry will take over from the Environment Minister as the consent authority and can void some or all of these credits if he is convinced there are more important economic benefits. This is a giant loophole and you can guess where the minister’s discretion will be commonly applied – more clearing.
  3. A wide range of clearing codes for which no consent is required, leaving it to the landowner to self regulate. No agency – not the environment department or local land service – has the capacity to keep track of all the alleged illegal activity. Land owners will push the envelope, like any developer would. Even if they don’t, these codes will drive massive clearing across the state.

The Baird government has not tested the impact of these giant loopholes – they refuse to answer questions about how much more land clearing will occur. Not surprising as the answer will be embarrassing and expose the careless deal done with the National Party.

The government has also announced a major stewardship scheme for those farmers who wish to conserve valuable bushland on their property. Instead of abolishing the NVA and replacing it with a deeply flawed law with these payments, they should have kept the NVA and announced the stewardship payments – something environment groups had been calling for since 2003.

In an acrobatic set of thought processes, it is claimed that the payments will somehow offset the loss of biodiversity. However it is just not possible to match a major clearing consent in one part of the state with a new stewardship area, especially since the most valued areas for clearing are fertile soils with unique ecosystems, and those often favoured for conservation under a voluntary system are the less fertile and less useful areas for agriculture.

It’s no wonder the community in the city and country is growing increasingly alarmed at the Baird government’s war on trees. NSW one day – Queensland the next.

Jeff Angel is executive director of Total Environment Centre.