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Greg Hunt accused of breaching caretaker provisions over bats


Environment Minister Greg Hunt has been accused of using laws to protect threatened species of the political kind by intervening during the election period to approve the dispersal of a huge colony of flying foxes near Batemans Bay on the NSW coast.

Residents had been complaining for months as the colony of grey-headed flying foxes swelled to as many as 120,000 at its peak in April.

Mr Hunt signed a formal exemption from the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act for the Eurobodalla Shire Council allowing it to start dispersing the now shrinking bat camp on May 17 after meeting angry residents at a local meeting a day earlier.

The exemption – made during the caretaker period – allows for dispersal by "non-lethal means and associated vegetation management", with a condition limiting the action after August 1 when female bats may be heavily pregnant or vulnerable with young offspring.

Greg Hunt at the May 16 Eurobodalla council meeting where he promised EPBC exemption for bat dispersal. Photo: Emily Barton, Batemans Bay Post

The species of bat is listed as vulnerable nationally and the site of the flying foxes camp, at the Batemans Bay Water Gardens, is also nationally significant.

Residents objected to the stench and widespread droppings from the bats. The end of the spotted gum blossoming season, which had provided the main food source, has since seen as many as 60 per cent of the flying foxes disperse on their own, a Eurobodalla council spokeswoman said.
'Making people look good'

Gabi Harding, a local Greens councillor, said the council had been trying since last year to get help with the bats and Mr Hunt's actions appeared to be prompted by political concerns.

"It's all about elections and making people look good," Ms Harding said, noting that both Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Premier Mike Baird had also toured the region lately. "All of a sudden we've got pledges for this, that and the other."

Ms Harding said Mr Hunt is likely to face legal challenges to his move: "He has to prove some national emergency [and] we're not convinced he can, actually."

Mr Hunt's office denied the minister had breached caretaker provisions, saying he had instructed the department to begin the process whilst still in government and before the election was called.

The Environment Department had advised that an exemption could be granted, the spokesman said, adding: "The matter was raised with the Shadow Environment Minister, Mark Butler."

Mr Butler's office said Mr Hunt had only raised the issue in a brief chat and other ministers had provided much more information about actions they were taking during the caretaker period.

Unusual move

Mr Hunt's move is certainly unusual. Only one other environment minister has issued an exemption to the EPBC Act during an election campaign when Mr Turnbull allowed the release of water from Lake Crescent in Tasmania for essential human and stock needs in 2007, according to the Parliamentary library.

Mr Hunt's move was followed a week later by the announcement Mike Baird's Coalition government would tip in $1 million to help manage bats statewide, and $2.5 million to disperse the Batemans Bay colony alone.

The area sits within the electorate of Gilmore, won by Liberal's MP Ann Sudmalis on a two-party margin of 52.6 per cent versus 47.4 per cent for Labor. Eurobodalla shire also extends into Eden-Monaro, another marginal seat held by Liberals MP Peter Hendy.

Michael Kennedy, director of the Humane Society International, saidMr Hunt's exemption "gives the appearance of being part of an election campaign [and] sets a perilous precedent".

"As far as we are aware, there is no evidence to suggest partisan support has been achieved with regards to the issue," Mr Kennedy in a letter to the PM's office

The Humane Society International is considering legal action as soon as Wednesday.
'Electioneering games'

​Greens animal welfare spokeswoman, Senator Lee Rhiannon​ said Mr Hunt was "playing electioneering games to garner votes with a species that is on the verge of extinction".

"This decision by Minister Hunt not only runs counter to the best interests of saving this species it could also be illegal," Senator Rhiannon said.

James Trezise​, a policy coordinator with the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the exemption during the election campaign raised concerns that politics rather than science was the key factor.

"The truth is we need stronger laws and genuinely independent decision making to avoid these types of circumstances arising," he said.

Mark Speakman​, NSW Environment Minister, said all councils from across the state would be able to apply for funds to manage "problem flying fox colonies".

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BATS. Megabats, Flying-foxes, Fruit bats and Microbats: Greg Hunt accused of breaching caretaker provisions over bats
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