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Larissa Asks a Question About Koalas and Federal Environmental Responsibility

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (14:45): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Senator Conroy. Last night's Four Corners program highlighted the plight of our national icon, the koala. It showed how tragically koala populations in New South Wales and Queensland are crashing—

Honourable senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT: Order on my right and on my left! Senator Conroy is entitled to hear the question and Senator Waters is entitled to be heard.

Senator WATERS: Last night's program showed how koala populations in New South Wales and Queensland are crashing, threatened by climate change, disease, dogs and rampant land clearing from both urban development and mining. In April this year, Minister Burke gained the ability to protect koalas from big developments in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT when koalas were added to the federal threatened species list following a Senate inquiry into koalas instigated by the Greens. Minister Burke said on Four Corners 'the only reason we've had to intervene at all is that the states on their own have allowed numbers to continue to go into freefall'. So why, through April's COAG agreement, has the government agreed to hand off federal responsibility for threatened species, including koalas, right back to the states, who are the ones sending koalas to extinction?

Senator CONROY (Victoria—Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:46): I thank the senator for her question. The Gillard government is committed to the protection and recovery of the koala, one of Australia's iconic species. Koalas hold a special place in our community. That is why we have taken action to help protect the koala.

Honourable senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT: Order on both sides! Senator Waters is entitled to hear the answer. When there is silence we will proceed.

Senator CONROY: That is why we have taken action to help protect the koala for future generations by listing it as a vulnerable species under national environmental law. The Queensland, New South Wales and ACT koala populations continue to be under serious threat from habitat loss, vehicle strikes, dog attacks and disease.

Honourable senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT: Order! I repeat again Senator Waters is entitled to hear the answer.

Senator CONROY: These populations have been listed as a vulnerable species. This listing gives the koala an extra layer of protection. The koala is, as I have said, a national icon and national protection provides for consistent treatment of the koala under national environmental law and standards, rather than the previous state by state based approach. Any new developments likely to have a significant impact on koalas in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT must be assessed and approved under national environmental law. As a result of listing, a national recovery plan is being developed for koalas within Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT. The recovery plan will be multijurisdictional and will present a stronger scientific basis for the protection of the species. The Australian government has been leading a national environmental law reform process through COAG. The COAG agreement is about streamlining the processes to give ministers answers on environmental decisions in a better time frame. It is about the state governments having to raise their standards to the Commonwealth standards. This Labor government has absolutely no intention of allowing any state to use the COAG process as a way of lowering environmental standards. (Time expired)

Senator WATERS: I thank the minister for his answer. I ask a supplementary question. The koala has been estimated to contribute over $1 billion annually in tourism dollars. Minister Burke said last night that state processes were sending koalas on a path of extinction in the wild, which he said was absolutely not good enough and that that was why we had—

Honourable senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT: Order! Continue, Senator Waters.

Senator WATERS: Minister Burke said that that was why we had environmental regulation. So what does the minister say to tourism operators about the federal government now ditching its new responsibilities to look after koalas and leaving their survival to the whim of the states, those same states which have driven the huge decline in koala numbers?

Senator CONROY: We reject the premise of that assertion. This government is serious about maintaining environmental standards, including for the koala and its habitat. The Gillard government has committed $300,000 of new funding under the National Environmental Research Program to find out more about koala habitat. This funding will be used to develop new survey methods that will improve our knowledge of the quality of koala habitat using remote sensing and will help fill important data gaps to enhance our understanding and ability to protect the species. Over $10 million was approved under the first round of the biodiversity fund for six projects in New South Wales and one in Victoria aimed at rehabilitation, restoration and linking of koala habitat. If there is any further information on the question I will seek that from Minister Burke.

This can also be found on the Hansard website

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