Eats, shoots and leaves politics in disarray: the week koala wars broke out in Australia

Some are terming it koala-kazi or the koala ultimatum.

A row over protections for the endangered and much-loved koala this week has seen the conservative Coalition government in New South Wales go to the brink of collapse in one of the more bizarre acts of political self-harm in the state’s history.

The fight has driven a wedge between the predominantly rural National party and the city-based centre-right Liberals, as Nationals MPs accused their colleagues of trying to assuage city guilt at the expense of farmers and threatened to leave the Coalition.

The Nationals often take a browner view on environmental matters, but koalas tend to unite Australians.

“Wanting to retain the right to kill koalas is an extraordinary hill for the Nationals to want to die on, but here we are,” said Chris Gambian, the head of the Nature Conservation Council, which has campaigned for better protections for a decade.

The crisis began on Tuesday when four National MPs announced they would sit on the crossbench in protest about the new protections which came became law in March.

Their gripe? They said the new laws would prevent farmers dealing with their land as they saw fit.

The tensions escalated when their leader, the deputy premier, John Barilaro, surprised everyone on Thursday, including the state premier, by announcing the entire party was willing to quit the Coalition.

Even more bizarrely, he proposed that though his MPs would abstain from voting with the Liberals, they intended to continue as ministers (drawing their ministerial salaries).

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The premier, Gladys Berejiklian, wasn’t having a bar of it.

NSW Nationals Party leader and Deputy Premier John Barilaro and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian
NSW Nationals Party leader and Deputy Premier John Barilaro and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

Even though it would throw the Liberals into minority government, Berejiklian stared down Barilaro, telling him she would swear in a new ministry the next morning if he refused to capitulate.

The political marriage, in place since 2011, was potentially off. But by the next morning the junior Coalition partner had had a rethink and Barilaro, known for his pursuit of the headline, was forced to eat humble pie.

A terse three-line joint statement was issued in which both parties agreed that policy disagreements would be dealt with through the cabinet. A discussion on koala protections will be held in October.

Barilaro, most pundits agree, is now as endangered as the koala itself. But more importantly, what will happen to the beloved marsupials?

As bushfires ravaged millions of hectares of bushland on the east coast last summer, Australians were often brought to tears by scenes of badly burned koalas escaping the flames or being rescued by firefighters.

The sight of the small animals with burns on their paws or lumbering from the flames was heartbreaking.

But koalas were already in serious strife in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state.

A year-long parliamentary inquiry in 2019 found koalas will become extinct before 2050 in the state unless there is urgent government intervention to prevent habitat loss.

The inquiry also found that a government estimate that there are 36,000 koalas left in New South Wales is outdated and unreliable.

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Urban expansion, agriculture and forestry have fragmented their habitats and reduced their source of gum leaves – they only eat a few species – leading to rapid population decline and increased deaths due to encounters with cars and feral animals.

Vets and volunteers treat koalas rescued from the bushfires at Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park
Vets and volunteers treat koalas rescued from the bushfires at Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park Photograph: David Mariuz/EPA

The fires exacerbated their plight, with the estimated 24% of koala habitat on public land affected. In some areas, as much as 81% of habitat had been burnt.

The new koala state environmental planning policy – which kicked off this week’s political row – was first mooted in 2016 and after public consultation, and being signed off by the cabinet including Barilaro, became law in March 2020.

It increases the number of species of trees to be considered as defining koala habitat from 10 to 65, requires consideration of corridors that link areas, and includes a requirement for land-owners who have these habitats to employ an ecologist to conduct a study as part of any proposals to develop the land.

It also requires 88 councils across the state, where koalas are thought to be present, to prepare koala strategies.

But it was the detailed maps that state authorities prepared to assist farmers that appear to have caused the angst.

Many found out for the first time their land was koala-affected and feared for their property values.

“None of us wanted koalas to die,” said the colourful former leader of the federal National party, Barnaby Joyce, who found global notoriety when he threatened to have Johnny Depp’s dogs euthanised.

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“But this [is a] bureaucratic nightmare, and it is a bullish, pugnacious overreach by Sydney and we have had enough.”

Barilaro emerged mid-Friday from the political shambles to claim victory, saying he got people’s attention and they were talking about koala protections again. But there are growing doubts about his leadership.

Berejiklian, who has kept New South Wales’s cases during the pandemic in the low 10s and 20s each day, emerged strengthened.

Even Nationals agree their leader’s position is untenable and it’s difficult to see how the relationship can be repaired with Barilaro at the helm. They also doubt the Liberals will be of a mind to give much ground on the policy itself. And for that, the koalas will be thankful.


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