RICHARD BARCHAM. National Party bets on feral horses in NSW elections

Mar 7, 2019

Kosciuszko National Park has become collateral damage in the New South Wales National Party battle for re-election. The natural values of the park, in Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s marginal seat of Monaro, face imminent destruction by feral horses.

Orange, New South Wales, 18th November 2016. In an upset victory, Phillip Donato of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party defeats the Nationals candidate for the seat of Orange by 55 votes. The seat had been held by the National Party since 1947, and was last on a margin of 21.7 per cent. The Nationals Leader, Troy Grant, and Deputy Leader, Adrian Picolli, resign.

They were replaced by the Member for Monaro, John Barilaro, and Niall Blair from the Legislative Council. Donato had campaigned on local issues that played into dissatisfaction with representation by the Nationals, who were seen as captives of the Liberal coalition. Barilaro and Blair were tasked with differentiating the Nationals’ brand and reconnecting with rural voters.

Born in Queanbeyan and schooled in Queanbeyan and Canberra, Barilaro worked in the family business before being elected to Queanbeyan Council. Unlike his Nationals predecessors in the seat of Monaro, he is not from a rural part of the electorate. Barilaro needed an issue to connect him to the Nationals’ conservative rural base. He found a willing mentor in ‘maverick’ former National member for Monaro, Peter Cochran.

Cochran, of Cochran Horse Treks and most recent chairperson of Tourism Snowy Mountains, had been lobbying fiercely against the implementation of the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Management Plan 2016. The plan, based on an extensive assessment process, made the significant compromise of allowing a population of 600 feral horses to remain in the Park.

Cochran, who has a history of anti-park campaigning going back to the 1990s, sought to disrupt the implementation of the plan, which required a cull of thousands of feral horses. He found an ally in Barilaro. From then, Kosciuszko National Park became collateral damage in the National’s re-election battle.

The Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act 2018 was the weapon of choice for Cochran and Barilaro. The preceding bill was first drafted under instruction from Cochran by pro-bono solicitor Richard Smallwood. Mr Smallwood is a member of the Australian Horse Alliance.

Barilaro, in his second reading speech, states that the Act ‘recognises the cultural significance and heritage value of brumbies in the Kosciuszko National Park’ and will identify how the ‘heritage value [of feral horses] will be protected’ in ‘areas within the Kosciuszko National Park where populations will be maintained’.

The Act legally protects a feral pest in a national park. According to Australian Academy of Science secretary for science policy Professor David Day, ‘feral horses are impacting Kosciuszko’s endangered alpine animals, its wetlands and streams and the headwater catchments of the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Snowy Rivers’. The state government’s NSW Scientific Committee listed ‘degradation and loss by feral horses’ as a key threatening process under the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act in November 2018.

Graeme Worboys in his July 2018 article in Pearls and Irritations, Kosciuszko: The destruction of a national heritage icon? details the destructive environmental effects of the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act, and the dangerous precedent it sets by giving harbour to a pest species in a national park.

Peter Cochran dismissed the outrage from the scientific community as an environmental ‘conspiracy’. The Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act is quite simply an ideological assault on the concept of the national park as a place for the conservation of nature, characterised by the conservation of habitat, ecosystems and biological diversity.

Since the 2015 election of the Liberal National Party coalition, Office of Environment and Heritage annual reports show a total of $46.6 million expended on unbudgeted staff redundancy payments. The number of National Parks and Wildlife Service Regional Managers has been reduced from 14 to 8. Operational expenditure has declined by 25 per cent. National Parks across New South Wales now have increased bushfire hazard, increased pest invasion, lower safety standards, less work directed to species conservation, less maintenance of facilities and little investment in new facilities. There has been a massive loss of expertise and experience.

The anti-park troops in Monaro are rallied through Cochran’s Snowy Mountains Bush Users Group and the Snowy Brumby Heritage Group. Natural resource exploitation based on science denial and colonial myth making is bread-and-butter for Cochran and his followers. He is not alone. National Party Member for Murray, Austin Evans, wants to revert the Murray Valley National Park to a state forest to allow resumption of logging.

The Nationals seem to have identified that with feral horses, they may be on a winner. Across the country, pro-brumby groups are everywhere: Barmah Heritage Brumbies; Historical Singleton Brumbies; Victorian Brumby Association; the Australian Brumby Alliance; Friends of Wild Horses Australia and more. Brumbies are the stalking horses of a National Party push to trash Australia’s National Park estate.

Australia’s unique flora and fauna are under threat from the National Party and its followers, who are determined to undermine and destroy the decades of work behind the declaration and restoration of our National Parks and their vital natural values.

For more information:

Richard Barcham holds a Grad. Dip. Natural Resource Management, UNE; Bachelor of Political Science, UoM; and a PhD in Sociology, ANU. He is currently living with cancer.

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