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Senate Speech on Protecting Perth's Urban Bushland

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 19 Jun 2013

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (23:26): I am here tonight to voice very grave concerns about my hometown. As a senator from Western Australia I find myself frequently on the other side of the country representing a place that is about as far as you can get from this parliament while still remaining on the continent. I want to talk briefly about a place that to me exemplifies the principle of a place that is too precious to lose. The Beeliar Wetlands, as we know it these days, is a double chain of lakes running parallel with the coast on the Swan coastal plain. I spent a lot of my teenage years and into my twenties living very close to one of the largest lakes in the wetland chain. Today we know that lake as Bibra Lake but for tens of thousands of years it was known as Walliabup. It is a place where, as a young person, I saw the seasons turn and spent a lot of time tramping through the remarkable stands of intact banksia woodland watching the way the seasons affected the flow of the lakes. That impressed me greatly and I think it was the first part of the native ecosystems of my hometown that I genuinely fell in love with.

In former times, the area between Bibra Lake and what we now refer to as North Lake was a very important campsite for the Nyoongar people. Of course, this was part of the traditional lands of the Whadjuk Nyoongar people, for whom sovereignty over that country to this day has never been ceded. That campsite formed a link and continuity with the trail that came up from the south where the Bibbulmun people for time immemorial had moved parallel with to the coast into the area that later became the central area of the establishment of Perth. It is also one of the first places that I realised was under threat. It is a regional park. It is afforded a degree of protection in that we do not need to worry about new housing estates impacting on it. In a sense the city has flowed around the wetland chain, leaving in effect islands of biodiversity and it is the city that swarms around it. The sudden growth corridor is an area of huge residential and industrial growth rapidly increasing transport volumes and it is a very important part of a growing city. Of course, the impact of this spectacular wetland chain have been quite severe.

It forced me to raise my eyes, I suppose, from my local patch of ground when I realised quite early on that this area was threatened with a freeway-that successive state governments had proposed to ram four lanes of tarmac through it at a cost of what is currently estimated to be just shy of $700 million, for a section of less than five kilometres of freeway. I have found myself impressed over the years with the campaigners who have taken up the cause of trying to protect that area, as generations have done before them, from the encroachment of urban development and growth-in particular, this freeway.

The Southwest Botanical Province is one of 25 biodiversity hot spots in the world. To be a hot spot, an area needs to be defined globally and internationally as a significant reservoir of biodiversity. To qualify, it must meet two strict criteria: it needs to have at least 1,500 endemic species, and it needs to have lost at least 70 per cent of its primary vegetation. The Perth metropolitan area is one of those places. Perth is the only city in the world based in a natural landscape dominated by banksia woodlands. The Swan coastal plain, where Perth now sits, was originally a chain-or a series of chains-of wetlands, banksia woodlands and coastal heath. Three-quarters of it is gone; it has disappeared under the fabric of the city we call home The areas of habitat that remain are home to more than 600 species currently listed as being threatened with extinction. Whether or not that occurs is not some blind process of natural selection. Whether those extinctions and that cascade of disappearances of species and creatures that have lived there forever, effectively, as far as human time scales are concerned, actually occur is up to us.

In 2009 Tim Flannery warned that 'we know better' and that 'extinctions are about to resume, and there is no doubt that without urgent action they will build into the biggest extinction wave of all'. A study in 2012 identified that the numbers of one iconic species, Carnaby's black cockatoo, in the Perth metropolitan region have decreased by 40 per cent just since 2010. That is a collapse; that is the sort of thing Professor Flannery is trying to warn us about. It does not happen by accident, of course. Imagine intact ecosystems, and then suddenly this city begins to swarm, north and south, along the Swan coastal plain over a period of mere decades in the life of an ecosystem that has formed up and been there in that form effectively since that last ice age. Think about the threats that are now taking place-intersecting, cross-cutting, concurrent threats, hammering the groundwater reservoirs of the Gnangara and Jandakot mounds: weeds and invasive and feral animals, including some of the pets we are most affectionate towards that have had a devastating impact on local wildlife. There have been changes in rainfall by climate change and as a sort of a feedback cycle of land clearing. And that of course is the big one: land clearing-simply putting bulldozers to habitat. That is the big one. Although climate change may have a much longer period and ultimately a more devastating impact, what really is hammering the vegetation and the biodiversity of the Swan coastal plain at the moment is simply pushing earthmoving equipment through it and knocking it over.

We launched an initiative in March, in the late days of the state election, called Perth Greenways, which I would like to speak a little bit more about. One of the things it did was identify the top 10 places under threat, and I will speak of some of those in a moment. On paper, each of the places we identified as being most at threat has at least one formal type of so-called protection. They are named Bush Forever sites-ironic. They are listed as conservation category wetlands; they are home to threatened species; they are listed, they are documented. And they are disappearing. In fact, these names and the categories that we put them in are a form of mocking what we actually do to them once we have notified ourselves and documented the damage we are about to do.

In WA is seems that developers-or some of them, because splits have opened up in the development community and it has been very interesting to see-but those of them who are dubbed the sprawl merchants can put their finger virtually anywhere on a map and name the most outrageous and insane proposal that they like and nothing appears to be standing in their way, because many of the places that are most seriously threatened on the Swan coastal plain are threatened by processes by which the state government itself is actually the proponent. And in all these places the last line of defence, therefore, depending on which way you look at it, is either the community itself and the people who show up and inspire others to stand in the way or it is the federal government, it is federal environmental law made in this chamber. We do not appear to be able to trust either of the old parties to protect those places.

One key action that the Labor government here has failed to do is to formally recognise the biodiversity values of south-western WA and particularly the Perth region. The Banksia woodlands of the southern Swan coastal plain have been nominated for listing under the EPBC Act as threatened ecological communities but they are not yet listed. There is no question at all that the values are there; it is just that the listing process is taking an inordinate amount of time while we are seeing these precious places go under the bulldozer blade. Like hundreds of other species and ecological communities waiting for assessment around the country, they are just languishing on this list and we risk losing them to another list, the list of names of species that are extinct. So tonight I call on the federal government to urgently progress the assessment of Banksia woodlands under the act and to formally recognise Perth and the south-west region of WA as a biodiversity hotspot and thereby provide some more support to manage it.
The state government is giving us some of the worst-case examples of how badly you can manage or mismanage biodiversity. As Mary Gray from the Urban Bushland Council says, we have the best biodiversity in Australia and the worst legislation. My home state still has no legal protection for threatened ecological communities. WA's Wildlife Conservation Act is more than a century old and it was originally called the Gaming Act. It was written to describe how you could legally kill wildlife, so in some ways it is an apt description of Perth's current planning system. Premier Barnett committed to a new biodiversity conservation act as a pre-election commitment. We will just have to see how that goes, won't we. The same Premier is overseeing and in some cases directly responsible for a number of the plans to liquidate some of our most important stands of remaining natural heritage. These include the Beeliar Wetlands, where I began, currently threatened by the Roe highway extension to nowhere-$700 million, five kilometres of tarmac to obliterate a number of important Aboriginal cultural sites and separate in the most brutal fashion possible with tarmac two lakes which constitute a Bush Forever site-that ironic name again. I want to acknowledge the work of people like Felicity McGeorge, Nandi Chinna, Kate Kelly and the 20,000 other people who put their names against this project. This has been a very long-term project for my state MLC colleague Lynn McLaren.

At Point Peron and Mangles Bay further down the coast an outdated and utterly unwanted canal development-I thought we had gone over those-is being pushed by Landcorp, the state government's land development arm, and Cedar Woods that will erase a coastal regional park and another Bush Forever site from the map. It threatens countless endangered species, including ancient thrombolites in the adjoining freshwater lake. There have been 20 appeals to the EPA raising more than 30 different grounds for objection, and for reasons that we suspect are political pressure the Conservation Commission has withdrawn its appeal. To the Hands Off Point Peron group Dawn Jecks and James Mumme, very long-term campaigners in defence of their backyard on behalf of all of us people a long way away, including right here on the other side of the country.

There are lesser-known places like the Anstey Keane Damplands, threatened by another pointless road. Fifty submissions have been received against it and this will literally sever in half the largest remaining intact wetland vegetation on the eastern Swan coastal plain with one of the richest areas of species in the region.

The Friends of Forrestdale, including Rod Giblett and Briony Fremlin, with a lot of assistance from my former state MLC colleague, Alison Xamon, are standing up for places that perhaps nobody in this room could even point to on a map, and not many residents of Perth necessarily even know where they are. They are no less important for that. The Underwood Avenue Bushland, which has been subject to campaign after campaign is another Bush Forever site and is valued as a regional conservation area and is home to one of the largest remaining flocks of Carnaby's cockatoos. The local community and beyond are opposed to the pointless destruction of the Underwood Avenue Bushland. The Western Region Environment Network and Wayne Monks deserve particular credit, as does a large part of the student population of UWA, who have had to turn out over and over again to protest and protect this place.

The Stratton Bushland is one other lesser known area rich in wildlife. It is an essential ecological link into John Forrest National Park up in the escarpment. It is another roosting area for Carnaby's and Forest Red Tail cockatoos. There are so many places that we know are under threat. One that was under threat and one that I would like to briefly note is Nowergup Lake, which is the deepest lake on the Swan coastal plain and the centrepiece of an extraordinary bit of urban bushland. It was proposed for a limestone quarry and a cement batching plant but was actually saved by the local community. The batching plant and the quarry will not be going ahead and now the group that has put so much effort into protecting their backyard is pushing for some kind of permanent protection.

As I say, the federal Labor government in some instances are the last line of protection for these places and we need the federal government to stand up for them. We know the coalition cannot be trusted to stand up for the kind of environmental values that the Greens have championed since we were formed. I want to give one example of what I mean. Mr Tony Abbott, who quite clearly believes he will be the next Prime Minister of Australia, and is already behaving as though the election has occurred, said the following in January of this year while pledging financial support for a freeway extension in the north of Brisbane.

He said:
... because cars are able to work efficiently ... Better roads means better communities; better roads are good for our economy; they're good for our society.
They're good for our physical and mental health.

Senator Sinodinos, can you help me out here? What on earth is he on? He goes on:

They're even good for the environment because cars that are moving spew out far less pollution than cars that are standing still.

Spectacular, breathtaking, wide-eyed ignorance.

Honourable senators interjecting-

Senator LUDLAM: You are welcome to interject, any of the coalition senators sitting here tonight, if you can tell me what on earth he is talking about. Without the Greens in the Senate, come September, an Abbott led coalition will have unfettered power in this place. That is the kind of mindset that they appear to be bringing to bear to urban development issues including in my home state.

Perth, by the way, is already one of the most car-dependent cities on the planet. It has the largest houses, is among the smallest number of occupants and is one of the lowest density, sprawling cities on earth. This has come at a very high cost to our natural environment, but of course, that is not irreparable. A number of studies that we have undertaken in the past couple of years, including the Perth greenway study to relink, remesh and heal some of the damage that we have done to the fabric and underlying ecosystems of the Swan coastal plain. This depends on answering the question: what about urban growth? How are we to live? How should our cities grow and develop?

I am proud to work with the Property Council of Australia and the Australian Urban Design Research Centre on a study called Transforming Perth. As I said, the developers in WA are not necessarily a bad lot, and in some cases they are turning away from the sprawl-merchant methodology that just says you roll the urban carpet out, no matter what the cost to biodiversity, in that part of the world. They are looking for new ways of doing things and in some cases the developers and the development community are much further ahead than policy makers in either of the old parties, but particularly they are further ahead than some of the mentality demonstrated by Premier Barnett and his administration.

The Transforming Perth study that we undertook with the Property Council and AUDRC studied the potential for urban regeneration along just seven of Perth's 18 future transit corridors and it found the potential for 124,000 new dwellings at medium density. It is not Hong Kong with four or five storeys. It is public transport oriented, protecting urban bushland within Perth and protecting heritage in places of value to the local community. That would be Perth's entire density target in just seven of the 18 public transport corridors that the state government have identified.

That is a form of smart growth; it is a form of urban resilience that would service well, even when the city ceases to grow because nothing can grow forever. We would be talking about sustainable, beautifully designed townhouses lining vibrant high streets buzzing with light rail, with activity, with people. And for every hectare, just by way of example, that you take up to what in planning notation is R160 or 160 dwellings per hectare you save 16 hectares of urban bushland or farming and agricultural country on the edge of town. Perth no longer needs to expand in this way.

I would like to briefly acknowledge a really valuable WALGA project, the Perth Biodiversity Project. The project manager there, Renata Zelinova, introduced us to: what would it look like if we got it right, if we relinked and remeshed, using an urban forest strategy, yards, verges, street plantings, and actually brought the population and community of Perth back into a conversation about how we can be at home on the Swan coastal plain?

Finally, our thanks go to the Urban Bushland Council, in particular Mary Gray, who is not afraid to stand with the 70-odd community groups right across the area who stand up for urban bushland, campaign after campaign, letter after letter, submission after submission, standing in front of equipment needed-when push comes to shove. We cannot afford to adopt those sorts of strategies for interventions for much longer. We need to be more systematic. We believe that some of the work we have done with our partners whether they be property developers, conservationists or Aboriginal people across the city shows one of the ways forward that we can in fact live and make a good home for ourselves on the Swan coastal plain.

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