Mehreen Farqui. Photo: Supplied

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BY MERRILL WITT

Last year, at a meeting to discuss NSW’s dwindling koala population, the Greens Senator for NSW Dr Mehreen Faruqi explained that in the early 2000s she moved to the Port Macquarie area with her husband and two young children to become Manager of Natural Resources and Catchments for the Port Macquarie-Hastings Council. The area surrounding their home was idyllic and sometimes they even spotted koalas in their leafy backyard.

On returning to the region in recent years, she’s been struck by the continuing loss of koala habitat. Also jarring is the proliferation of the one-metre high, flamboyantly coloured fibreglass koalas, which dot the town’s coastal parks and are now a local tourist attraction.

Using koalas, whether plastic or real, to promote tourism is, in Dr Faruqi’s opinion, hypocritical given how the current state government “is knowingly destroying their environment”.

A ticking time bomb

Standing up for the rights of nature has been a core focus of Dr Faruqi’s work as a parliamentarian. Prior to taking up her Senate seat in August of last year, Dr Faruqi was a Greens Member in the Legislative Council from 2013 to 2018. Her term in office coincided with a heated battle to prevent the watering down of NSW’s hard-won environmental protection laws.

Dr Faruqi was at the forefront of a statewide community campaign to stop the Liberal National Government’s proposed rewrite of existing laws to protect biodiversity, native animals and vegetation. She spoke at dozens of rallies and community forums, and even launched an online open letter Biodiversity is Life, which was signed by academics, land carers, ecologists, nature conservation groups and thousands of everyday people from all over the state.

The Biodiversity and Conservation Act 2016 was finally passed in the Upper House without the incorporation of any of the 63 amendments Dr Faruqi proposed to soften its environmental blows. On the eve of the debate about the Bill, she told the parliament that “Premier Berejiklian was sitting on a ticking time bomb”.

Her grim prediction is proving true. According to a report recently released by the NSW Environment Protection Agency, approved land clearing has skyrocketed 244 per cent in the last two years. As Dr Faruqi explained in our recent interview: “In NSW, our iconic koalas are facing extinction by 2050. With the terrible, destructive land-clearing laws brought in by the Liberal National government, 99 per cent of koala habitat can now be legally cleared. This is the harsh reality we are grappling with”.

Despite the sobering news, Dr Faruqi is still an optimist at heart. She is confident that steps can be taken at the federal level to save the koalas, especially if the government changes hands at Saturday’s election.

Buoyed by Labor’s promise to create a federal Environment Protection Agency (EPA) in its first term, Dr Faruqi notes that the idea was part of the Greens’ policy platform in 2016, “so it is good to see Labor finally come on board”.

She believes the “national EPA should oversee a new generation of stronger environmental laws and include national parks, habitat protection, land clearing and greenhouse gas emissions from development proposals”.

Enshrining the rights of nature into law is another novel Greens’ idea that Dr Faruqi first flagged in her Senate inaugural speech. Seen as an effective way to guarantee legal standing and strong environmental protection for natural assets, it is already being implemented in several other countries.

In 2017, for example, New Zealand’s Whanganui River, which is sacred to the Maori Iwi people of the North Island, was granted legal personhood by the country’s parliament. The landmark legislation established a fully funded trust to restore the river’s health and legally recognised the rights of the Indigenous community to have a say over its future.

Dr Faruqi believes a similar model should be used to “protect natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Artesian Basin and the Murray-Darling river system from greedy exploitation”.

The “climate change election”

The trusts would “explicitly defend the rights of the natural entity” and guarantee the “recognition of Indigenous peoples and their worldview”.

In her farewell speech to her colleagues in the Legislative Council, Dr Faruqi observed that “making positive change comes from collective power” and the “real momentum and spark lie outside these walls”.

Public momentum for meaningful environmental reforms, at least at the national level, does seem to be building. Commentators have dubbed the upcoming election the “climate change election” due to voters citing as one of their chief concerns the lack of action to combat it.

Fortunately, voters can feel confident that a vote for this Greens Senator will guarantee a strong voice for nature in the next parliament.