On 9 November, the NSW Native Vegetation Act (2003) was repealed in favour of a Land Management Framework, entitled the Biodiversity Conservation Bill and Local Land Services Amendment Bill. It was presented with a guise of giving farmers back their rights and implementing new bills to enhance biodiversity. The argument from primary industries, lands and water minister Niall Blair was that, despite the Native Vegetation Act, biodiversity has still declined.

While being labelled as having greater levels of protection for biodiversity, this bill has several loopholes to enable development. Land management activities on farmlands will now be achievable without approval, fast-tracking land clearing and property development, and increasing the risk of species extinction.

The government’s Office of Environment and Heritage is developing a native vegetation regulatory map, giving it power to classify land as protected or exempt. Until the map is formally made transitional arrangements will take place, which means that land clearing could be fast-tracked during this time. Once the map is completed, exempt land will be ripe for development. Further, even areas of protected land can be bought via a new credit system, which looks as though it will work in a similar way to the discredited carbon credits system.

On exempt land, some “routine” land management activities will still be authorised, under the title of “clearing of allowable activity”. This will permit impacts on regulated native vegetation by allowing collection of firewood, construction, plus operation and maintenance of rural infrastructure such as fences, dams, sheds and tracks.

A “codes of practice” authorisation will enable the minister to make impacts on native vegetation on regulated rural land. In effect, the minister will have the power to approve clearing of exempt land, as long as a “reasonable and affordable” area – as deemed reasonable by the minister – is set aside for protection.

A “formal clearing approval” authorisation will mean that farmers no longer need to take consideration of environmental outcomes alone. Under the bill they will need to factor in social and economic impacts of the proposed clearing. Thus, if the social or economic impacts are considered greater, clearing on exempt land will be permitted.

The aforementioned credit system, entitled “biodiversity credit retirement obligation”, will be imposed as a condition of approval, to offset the biodiversity impacts of clearing. The panel will have discretion to vary the panel obligation.

The bill was rushed through parliament as an “urgent issue”, prior to the Orange by-election on Saturday 12 November, where the ruling national party faced losing a seat to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. The Greens’ Jan Barham, temporary chair of committees, and Penny Sharpe, Labor shadow minister for the environment and heritage, accused the Coalition of vote grabbing. Mr Blair stated that, “The government is confident that the reforms taken will, as a whole, reduce the tensions between government and environment and deliver socioeconomic and ecological benefits in a truly balanced way.”

In an alleged effort to gain more votes, the government has issued power to developers to chop down trees and build on protected land without approval. This bill is as far removed from being balanced as it can possibly get. For the sake of ephemeral power it will spell disaster for the environment in Australia. If the bill is really about farmers, a stipulation should be imposed, stating that farms must remain farms for 100 years following development applications. This will ensure that farmland isn’t immediately sold off to developers.

In a desperate, last-ditch attempt to save the seat of Orange, NSW Premier Mike Baird also backed down on his recent greyhound racing ban. Social media was rife with commentary about “too little too late” with respect to both the bill and the ban. Supporters were urged to hold strong in their party allegiance and warned that no positive changes would be made in Orange if the Nationals stayed in power. The plan catastrophically backfired when the results were announced on Sunday. The Nationals are now set to lose their seat in Orange to the opposing Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party.

Sarah-Jane Sherwood is founder and director of sustainability communication agency Communicate Blue.

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