Environmentalists say unchecked numbers of wild brumbies are wreaking havoc in the Kosciuszko national park. They are also cutting a swathe through the Coalition.

The New South Wales Nationals leader, John Barilaro, clashed with the Liberal environment minister, Matt Kean, at the conclusion of a bizarre debate in the NSW parliament on 22 August. The topic was a petition on the brumbies, in which Kean openly contradicted Barilaro, who was the driving force behind the greater protection of brumbies in NSW. And it came when the powerful moderate faction of the Liberals and the Nationals were already at odds on a range of environmental issues from management of brumbies to water rights, land clearing, logging in national parks, protection of native grasslands and more.

The trigger for the brumbies contretemps was the tabling by Labor of a 10,000- signature petition from the Reclaim Kosci group calling for the repeal of the Wild Horses Heritage Act, which was championed by Barilaro on behalf of the local tourism industry in his seat of Monaro. Labor is angling to get the numbers to repeal it.

Captured on video, Barilaro can be seen gesticulating at the public gallery, where a group of the petitioners were seated.

“You want to give me the finger, sir?” he says. “Do not disrespect the people of Monaro – the communities, the generations who have a connection to that park. You cannot do that. You cannot disrespect democracy at a local level and somehow think that people who live in inner‑city Sydney have every right to democracy and to dictate to the people of the region what is good or what is bad for them.”

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‘You want to give me the finger?’ NSW parliament’s bizarre debate about brumbies – video

He went on to argue forcefully in favour of his new approach, which gives a community management committee the loudest say in brumby management, over the voices of scientists and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

By the time the next Labor speaker had finished, Kean had arrived in the chamber to give an unscheduled contribution.

“One of the biggest threats to our national parks is feral pests: feral cats, feral dogs, feral rabbits and, let us call them for what they are, not brumbies, feral horses,” he said.

“When it comes to the Kosciuszko national park, my first act as environment minister was to go to that park to see the impact of feral horses on the park. I saw for myself firsthand one of the most beautiful natural environments anywhere in the world, and the devastating impact that the number of horses is having on that environment.”

Kean went on to say there would be a community management committee and a scientific committee – noting that that was not a requirement of the act. The science would be informed by an audit of how many horses were actually in the park, he added.

As the bells rang for the vote, the two ministers could be seen sitting facing away from each other.

An Office of Environment and Heritage 2016 draft plan recommended cutting the park’s then 6,000 to 8,000 horses to 600 over 20 years because of the damage the hard-hoofed animals do to alpine environments and waterways.

But more than a year after the new regime came in, there is no management committee, no scientific committee and no survey of numbers of horses in the Kosciuszko national park – at least none made public.

A spokesman for Barilaro said the committee was expected to be announced soon, once it went to cabinet. There now appear to be plans for two committees, even though the legislation refers only to one.

But the delays in appointing a committee have had consequences.

Brumby numbers usually increase at between 13% to 20% a year, though the drought may have slowed their breeding.

Culls have been halted for two seasons with National Parks and Wildlife Services personnel fearing the new act could open them up to legal action if any measures were taken ahead of the committee agreeing.

Even the Australian Brumby Alliance says the failure to remove any brumbies is “a worry”. The ABA president, Jill Pickering, told newspaper the Land in January that the pause could play into the hands of people who wanted brumbies totally removed from the park.

“I have written several letters asking that the committee process can start so we can start managing the population, but have received no reply,” Pickering said at the time.

Meanwhile Labor is angling to get the brumby bill repealed. Labor’s shadow environment minister, Penny Sharpe, has introduced a bill, but plans to bring it to a vote stalled last week after Labor found itself short on the numbers in the upper house.

The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party says it will back repeal with Helen Dalton from the seat of Murray speaking in favour during the petition debate, noting the damage wild horses do to waterways that feed into the Murray.

One Nation is opposing it and the Animal Justice party is said to be still on the fence.

Former National Parks officer Kim De Govrik, now an organiser in the Public Sector Union, said: “If you don’t control vertebrate pests, ie wild foxes, rabbits goats, pigs and horses, then you compromise the habitat of your native fauna, and that puts them on a path to extinction. It’s a simple as that.”

Labor is now working to convince the Animal Justice party that culling or removing wild horse populations from Kosciuszko is a lesser evil than allowing them to devastate the park.



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