Monday, October 19, 2020

NSW Liberals back down on koalas

After a bruising political battle that saw Gladys Berejiklian impose her authority over state Nationals, NSW Liberals have quietly backed down, supporting a bill to weaken planned reforms designed to protect koalas on privately-owned farmland.

Simmering tensions between the coalition partners exploded in September when Nationals MPs complained new laws to protect koalas after the bushfires introduced by Liberal MP and Planning Minister Rob Stokes would cut the value of farm land.

Mr Stokes had argued the new Koala State Environment Planning Policy (SEPP) and its expanded definition of habitat was needed to prevent koalas becoming extinct. He said it responded to warnings from the NSW Audit Office, Natural Resources Commission and an Upper House Inquiry - which said NSW's koala would be wiped out by 2030 without urgent action to increase protections.

But by September NSW Nationals Leader John Barilaro had threatened to withdraw his party from the Coalition unless the laws were changed. He said the koala SEPP was a "noose around the neck of farmers that will cause a slow and painful death".

At that time, Mr Stokes dismissed Mr Barilaro's claims as "mistruths" and argued farmers could still "engage in any routine agricultural practice".

Premier Gladys Berejiklian stood firm and threatened to sack Nationals Cabinet Ministers unless they supported the policy. Mr Barilaro backed down and Liberals hailed it as a victory over the bombastic Mr Barilaro.

But this week the Nationals introduced the Local Land Services Amendment Bill to Parliament, supported by the Liberals, which will exempt private rural landholders from having to recognise the new, expanded definition of koala habitat.

Environmental Defenders Office head of law reform Rachel Walmsley said the changes would prevent expansion of koala habitat protection on private farmland into the future.

"This bill is trying to freeze in time the small areas that are currently mapped, whereas it's clear from the science we need to protect more habitat," Ms Walmsley said.

Nationals MP and Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall spruiked the proposed changes on Thursday this week.

"There is already a strong framework in place to regulate agricultural land in NSW and what this legislation does is ensure farmers continue to be regulated under that framework – rather than the planning system," Mr Marshall said.

Mr Stokes said on Friday he was "pleased to say we have hit the mark" and the Nationals' bill showed there are "often important robust and passionate discussions as part of the decision-making process".

The current Koala SEPP is limited in its impact on farmers and mostly only affects significant property developments that require local council approval. Land clearing and routine agricultural activities are still permitted on farmland.

Significantly, protections only kick in if a local government has developed a Koala Plan of Management. But removing koala habitat isn't barred, rather the developer is required to get an expert ecological assessment.

The Nationals' amendment bill kicks in where local governments develop a koala plan of management.

There are only five local governments with plans of management mapping koala habitat in place - on the NSW North Coast - and they would be unaffected by the proposed changes.

But if any local government develops one in the future, the bill guarantees private rural landholders are exempt and the protections could only apply to public or peri-urban land.

Independent MLC Justin Field said he was "disappointed that the Liberal Party has given in to yet more anti-environment brinkmanship from the Nationals".

Free COVID-19 mental health clinics seeing 'amazing results'

No surprise that the greatest need is in Victoria

Clare Groves, who runs a COVID-19 mental health clinic in Brunswick East - one of the 15 rapidly set up with $26.9 million in Commonwealth funding last month - said she was already seeing "amazing results" in patients who would otherwise end up being admitted to psychiatric wards.

"Previously, the only gap-free care available was as a hospital inpatient, and that's not what's best for people to recover," she said.

The Head to Help COVID-19 mental health clinics opened their doors on September 14, a month after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced they would be set up under one-year contracts in response to a spike in calls to crisis telephone lines and hospital presentations for self harm.

The speed of the roll-out contrasts with the eight adult mental health centres announced in the 2019-20 federal budget, which are not due to open their doors until next year. Under the $114.5 million plan, one of the centres will be located in each state or territory, including Corio in Victoria and Penrith in NSW.

A spokesman for federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the data indicates "prolonged restrictions are having a disproportionate effect on people in Victoria" compared to elsewhere and the 15 clinics "were rolled out to ensure that additional community-based support is available to assist Victorians during this challenging time".

The spokesman credited the work of Professor Pat McGorry and other experts for developing the service model for the adult mental health centres, which allowed for the rapid establishment of the Victorian clinics.

Ms Groves said she was given the contract to deliver the Brunswick East service after pioneering the "holistic" model over the past seven years with patients who received treatment under no-gap schemes funded by health insurers and WorkSafe.

"Our data shows we decrease hospital admissions by over 90 per cent," she said.

Patients are given a comprehensive treatment plan to be delivered by a team of experts - psychiatrists and psychologists along with social workers, nurses and occupational therapists trained in mental health - to help address the complex circumstances that may be implicated in their mental illness.

The clinic accepts patients who are triaged through the Head to Help telephone referral service, staffed by intake clinicians who establish whether a person needs to be referred to an acute service in a hospital or could simply be referred for counselling.

Head to Help picks up those who do not fall into either category, often described as the "missing middle" of mental healthcare.

Head to Help intake clinician Belinda Lazarides said she had taken calls from many Victorians who lacked an ability to "navigate the mental health system" and would otherwise "fall through the gaps".

In one case, a man who called for a referral to a financial counselling service was given more significant help after she established that he had overdosed the night before and had family and relationship difficulties.

Anti-vaxxers don’t deserve to be on ballot: Frecklington

LNP leader Deb Frecklington has lashed anti-vaxxer candidates, saying they do not deserve to be on the ballot paper.

The criticism follows the LNP’s move to preference a renowned anti-vaxxer party below Labor after originally saying it would put the ALP at the bottom of the ballot in all electorates.

Ms Frecklington said she was unashamed about putting anyone who risks the safety and health of children last. “They don’t deserve to be on the ballot paper,” she said.

Ms Frecklington had committed to preferencing Labor last due to the Palaszczuk Government’s uncertainty around approvals for an expansion of the New Acland coalmine on the Darling Downs, but left wriggle room, saying a final decision would be made after candidates had been finalised.

An LNP spokesman told The Courier-Mail the party had made an exception to put the IMOP party below Labor because it fundamentally disagreed with its position on vaccines

New NSW schools policy will make it harder for difficult children to be suspended

Parents, teachers and principals have joined forces to fight a proposal that would reduce the length of school suspensions, arguing it would weaken schools’ ability to deal with violent students and blur standards of acceptable behaviour.

Frank Potter, an executive director at the NSW Department of Education, was questioned about the department's draft suspension policy at the Disability Royal Commission's public hearing into inclusive education, which began on Monday.

He said an increased number of students with various degrees of disability were attending the state's schools and more funding was being allocated to them. "It's appropriate that decisions, [and] policies that might have been in place before, are reviewed to the context of the day," he said.

The commission heard the case of five-year-old Sam, who had been suspended seven times in his first 13 months of school. "I can't comment on how appropriate that would be within that context," Mr Potter said. He said Sam would not have been suspended under the new draft policy.

"There is discretion [in the draft policy] and there are opportunities for schools to put in place other strategies rather than resorting to suspension," he said.

Under the present policy, schools must suspend students who are physically violent, regardless of the student's intent.

Junior counsel assisting the commission Elizabeth Bennett asked whether accidental conduct that resulted in serious physical harm would mean a student must be suspended.

"If there was serious harm or impact, yes, I think that's what it would be. That would be my view rightly or wrongly," Mr Potter said.

"Do you see any potential for the policy to operate in a way that disproportionately impacts on students with a disability when understood that way?" Ms Bennett asked. Mr Potter replied "yes".

"Do you think it's right that a policy of the NSW department disproportionately affects children with a disability?" Ms Bennett then asked.

"No policy should have an unintended consequence and therefore it needs to be reviewed," Mr Potter said.

The proposed new strategy would cut the maximum school suspension from 20 to 10 days, and students from kindergarten to year 2 could only be sent home for serious physical violence, and for no longer than five days.

Disability advocates support plans that make it harder for schools to order young children home for bad behaviour or repeated disobedience, but principals have called the rules impractical.

At present, principals must make reasonable adjustments for a student before they are suspended.

Under questioning, Mr Potter said there was no documentation outlining what reasonable adjustments entailed. "My expectation [is] that professional people in schools would clearly understand what was required in order to be in place to support students with disabilities," he said.

"The principal has ultimate responsibility to make a decision."

Ms Bennett asked whether one school principal could take a particularly broad approach of what constitutes a reasonable adjustment, while another might take a narrow approach. "Wouldn't a student with a disability face a radically different experience at those two schools?" she asked.

"That would be possible," Mr Potter said. "I think we do our best with challenges that are before us and the ways in which schools respond to those challenges may well be different, depending on experience and understanding."

Consultation on the draft policy closed on Sunday. The NSW Teachers Federation, the P&C Federation, and primary and secondary principals groups have said schools needed more specialist staff and early intervention to stop unaddressed student needs turning into poor behaviour.

Mr Potter said recommendations from the Ombudsman and royal commission would "also help inform taking that strategy forward, in terms of its development".




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