Legislative Council

Environment, Resources and Development Committee: Biodiversity Inquiry

June 21st, 2017

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: I rise to support the motion that the report of the Environment, Resources and Development Committee on Biodiversity, be noted. I will say at the outset that this was a most interesting inquiry but it did take a long time. We took evidence from a number of people and we deliberated over a considerable period. I would like to acknowledge the contribution of the Hon. Michelle Lensink, who first suggested the inquiry to the committee, and I think it was a very timely piece of work.

It is probably fair to say that the result of the inquiry is not that we have come up with specific recommendations for detailed amendments to any or all of the multitude of legislation, and all of the different acts of parliament. That would have been a monumental task, but what the committee has done instead is try to develop a bit of a roadmap so that that work is done, because the one thing that everyone agreed on is that the range of laws dealing with nature conservation and biodiversity are not integrated, many are quite old, many of them do not work very well, and they are all in need of reform. The ultimate aim is to have a biodiversity act for South Australia but it is not something that we have recommended as a short-term task; it is something that will take three or more years to develop.

Probably one of the most important recommendations of the committee was that there be a biodiversity expert panel established to develop detailed recommendations for amendments to the various pieces of legislation. We wanted to make sure that that body included experts and people who are able to represent all of the major sectoral and stakeholder interests. We saw a role on that body for experts from academic institutions and from government and that that body, if established, if it has credibility, if it has good people on it, would drive the process forward. I think that is a worthwhile recommendation.

I do not want to go through all of the recommendations because this was a consensus report of the committee but I will highlight a couple of things. Whilst I did not feel that it was worth spoiling the consensus we had achieved by putting in a minority report, there were just a couple of issues that I think I would like this panel to deal with when it does go into the detail of law reform. One thing that I would like to see is legislation that provides citizens with a general right of standing to be able to enforce environmental laws, in particular before the Environment, Resources and Development Court in cases where significant harm to biodiversity is likely to result.

The reason why I think open standing provisions are important is because laws are only good and effective if the ability to enforce them is in the hands of the community, so I would like to see that open standing provision. It would not necessarily be used a lot, but at present it is quite easy for governments and agencies to break the law without there being any consequences because it is very difficult for anyone to be able to get a foot in the door to address the issue. I also think that in the long run we need an independent statutory biodiversity commission. That would be a body with both advisory and directional powers. It would be a high-level body that was answerable to Executive Council and to the parliament.

The main thing I wanted to do in my short contribution today was put on the record the response to this report from four of the key non-government environment groups in South Australia. As members would know, the nature of our work here is that we sit on committees, we write reports and then we note those reports in parliament. It is actually quite rare for there to be sufficient opportunity for stakeholders to have their response to those reports considered and incorporated into Hansard.

I have received a two-page letter from four conservation groups, being the Nature Conservation Society, the Environmental Defenders Office, the Conservation Council and the Wilderness Society, with their response to this committee's report and I would like to put that letter on the record. The groups start by saying:

We are writing in response to the report from the ERDC Biodiversity Inquiry which was tabled in Parliament in March 2017. As you are aware, the purpose of the Inquiry was to investigate the regulatory and policy framework to determine whether it appropriately supports terrestrial and marine ecological processes, biodiversity values and abates species extinction. 

One of the key findings of the  report was that South Australia' s legislation requires a major overhaul if it is to provide greater protection for biodiversity. These reforms are necessary to assist in addressing ongoing declines  in  the condition and extent of native vegetation and biodiversity which have been reported in successive State of the Environment Reports over the past two decades.  Fundamental changes need to be made to the way we conserve, protect and enhance what remains of our precious native vegetation and  the  biodiversity  it  contains if we maintain our economic, environmental, cultural and social well being. A strong legislative framework will underpin these efforts. 

Specifically  there are currently more than  twenty  pieces of relevant legislation which results in a fragmented approach to biodiversity conservation. There is a need to modernise and integrate our legislation to facilitate a landscape approach to biodiversity conservation which is capable of responding to current threats such as rural land use and urban planning an d  emerging threats such as climate change. As noted in the report existing legislation fails to properly consider biodiversity protection and does not even cover all of South Australia's biota.  Importantly, a number of taxonomic groups, such as native fish, invertebrates and fungi along with threatened ecological communities are currently excluded from the legislative framework. 

From our perspective, although some existing South Australian environmental legislation (such as the Wilderness  [Protection]  Act and the Marine Parks Act) are some of the strongest in Australia, there are other pieces of legislation (such as the Native Vegetation Act and National Parks  &  Wildlife Act) that require major amendment to ensure they achieve better outcomes for biodiversity than they do at present.  Of particular concern to the conservation sector is the ongoing clearance of native vegetation through various permitted activities and exemptions under the Native Vegetation Act and Regulations that continues to contribute significantly to biodiversity decline, land degradation and loss of ecosystem service across the State. In large parts of the agricultural areas more than 75   percent of the original native vegetation has been cleared since European settlement with less than 12 percent remaining in some regions such as the Fleurieu Peninsula. Much of what remains is highly fragmented and in poor condition. This will only be exacerbated with the impacts of climate change. 

A further key concern is the failure of the planning system to adequately take into account biodiversity considerations. For example, recent information obtained from the City of Unley regarding approved clearance of significant and regulated trees has advised that in the five months, from 15 August 2016 to 15 January 2017, 20  approvals have been issued. This approximates to one tree per week and, given that there are only 500 or so trees on the register for this Council area and most of these occur on private land, all these important features of the landscape within Adelaide's surrounds could well disappear within 10 years. The City of Unley staff and Mayor claim that there is little they can do to prevent the loss of significant and regulated trees as their role is limited to following through on policies and legislation set by Government. This provides just one example of poor planning decisions that are failing to protect remnant native vegetation with more than 6,500 significant and regulated trees approved for removal across the State between 2011 and 2016 based on Native Vegetation Council Annual Reports. 

The lack of systematic, state wide biodiversity monitoring on both public and privately managed land is also a significant issue. Without such information it is impossible to gain accurate measures of the status of the status of biodiversity indicators or reliable tracking of trends in response to ongoing management and landuse. Although the NRM Report Card framework currently being developed by DEWNR is a step in the right direction, much more is required if we are to truly value and protect the State's natural assets that underpin the economy, health and wellbeing of all South Australians. 

An allied issue is resourcing for compliance with environmental legislation such as the National Parks  &  Wildlife Act, Native Vegetation Act and Natural Resource Management Act. This is an area of ongoing underfunding, a situation that is unlikely to improve with ongoing budget and staff reductions across DEWNR. Despite legislative controls to prevent adverse impacts on biodiversity, many threatened species and ecological communities continue to decline due to human activity. Current penalties need to be substantially increased and a wider range of compliance tools implemented across both the public and private sectors to prevent adverse impacts on threatened species, populations, ecological communities and their critical habitat. Any amendments to improve these Acts in terms of biodiversity conservation outcomes will be pointless without adequate resources to administer them. 

Finally a most important matter is that existing legislation needs amendment to ensure it is not at odds with other government policies such as the State Strategic Plan, State NRM Plan ,  Conserving Nature 2012-2020, Healthy Parks Healthy People, Climate Change Adaptation Framework and Regional NRM Plans, which all extoll the benefits of nature and native vegetation as a 'public good' providing benefits to society and the State's economy. 

We are seeking the support of all members of Parliament to implement the Report's recommendations as a matter of the highest priority. We urge further serious consideration of these issues for the benefit of all South Australians and their environment. 

The letter is signed by Nicki de Preu, Conservation Ecologist with the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia; Melissa Ballantyne, who is the Coordinator and Principal Solicitor of the Environmental Defenders Office (SA) Inc.; Craig Wilkins, who is the Chief Executive of the Conservation Council of South Australia; and Peter Owen, who is the Director of the Wilderness Society, South Australia. I thank the house for its indulgence in me reading that letter but, as I say, it is quite rare for stakeholders to have the opportunity of having their response to a parliamentary committee incorporated into the record of parliament.

The final thing I will say is that one of the recommendations—a quick fix measure, if you like—I would propose taking up as a matter of urgency is the idea that we have a state planning policy for biodiversity incorporated into the new Planning, Development and Infrastructure Act. That is a really easy fix. It is not going to be difficult. The State Planning Commission has been established. They are looking for work to do. We have already given them the job of creating a climate change state policy. There is an adaptive reuse of buildings policy they are going to be working on. A number of amendments were made in the Legislative Council and I think this is another one.

Let us get them working on a biodiversity policy so that all of the rezoning exercises and all the rewriting of planning laws that is going to be undertaken over the next few years takes into account biodiversity protection. Without that framework we are likely to end up with business as usual, where the development system is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. I commend the committee's report to the chamber.

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