Mike Baird is gone – and on his last day, it’s worth reflecting on the last two years: the good, the bad and the ugly.
After many years of pressure from thousands of Greenpeace supporters and our friends at the Boomerang Alliance, the New South Wales government finally announced a container deposit scheme, despite opposition from Coke. This will prevent tens of thousands of tonnes of bottles and cans from choking our seas and killing marine life. In his valedictory speech, Mike Baird said this will be transformational for the state – and we couldn’t agree more.
Years of growing land-use conflict around fracking of farmland and forests across NSW led to the NSW government pledging to buy back coal seam gas licences across the state, protecting vast swathes of land from underground water contamination and health impacts to local communities. Nevertheless, the government has still not prevented fracking in the Pilliga forest, which is the southern recharge for the Great Artesian Basin.
Last August, the NSW government announced it would buy back the Caroona coal mine license on the Liverpool Plains from BHP Billiton, after years of pressure from farmers and traditional owners. However, the Plains are still not safe, with Shenhua retaining a license famously granted to it by disgraced ex-mining minister Ian MacDonald eight years ago.
Mike Baird also offered to take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees as he made a public plea for the Australian government to do more to help the millions of victims fleeing Syria’s civil war.
The NSW Government has still not abandoned its ineffective shark netting trial, despite existing installations causing the deaths of dozens of dolphins, turtles and rays and the availability of alternative solutions. This is a mess which will be left to his successor to clean up.
Despite leadership from Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory in banning single-use plastic bags, the NSW government have dragged their heels on the issue. Every day that passes means more plastic ending up in the ocean – and globally, that means a garbage truck of plastic washing into our seas every minute!
Mike Baird’s former chief of staff, Stephen Galilee, is the head of the increasingly shrill NSW Minerals Council. He has clearly retained the ear of the Premier, having succeeded in lobbying for laws to “throw the book” at groups like the Knitting Nanas who use creative protest to protect the landscape from coal and coal seam gas. Baird’s anti-protest laws have been specifically designed to have a chilling effect on democratic protest – and they haven’t only been used to target climate campaigners.
Sydney residents opposed to the construction of Australia’s biggest and arguably most controversial infrastructure project, Westconnex, have been the recipients of heavy-handed police tactics using the new laws designed by Mike’s mining mates. The toll road is itself an environmental catastrophe, promising to increase the number of cars on the road and pollution in the air. Meanwhile, forward-thinking global cities are doing the opposite by providing sustainable public transport systems for their citizens. Like so many of Mike’s decisions, developers and big business are the main beneficiaries.
To rub salt into the wounds, Mike also oversaw the introduction of draconian cycling laws that have resulted in a decrease in the number of cyclists using this healthy, clean means of transport.
Prior to the NSW election, Mike Baird raised everybody’s hopes when he promised to take a “personal interest” in the village of Bulga, whose very soul as a community is threatened by the massive expansion of Rio Tinto’s Mount Thorley Warkworth mine, breaching an agreement they had made to protect the ridge between the mine and the village in perpetuity. Clearly “personal interest” meant something a little different to what you might think, as the mine expansion was approved several months after the election.
The Baird government also gutted NSW’s land clearing laws, weakening requirements to protect threatened species with a flawed system based on offsets. This will lead to an increase in deforestation and put iconic species at risk.
Despite coal-related corruption claiming the scalps of not one, not two, but three former mining ministers in NSW, and ICAC having led to the immediate resignation of his predecessor, Barry O’Farrell, Mike Baird sacked the anti-corruption commissioner Megan Latham and diluted the powers of the commissioner. This is not good news at a time when the concentration of ownership of coal mining and other developer interests is likely to increase the risk of corruption.
People power works
The highs and lows of the Baird era have made it clear that no matter how rich or powerful an environmentally damaging company might be, you can’t beat the people. As the state grapples with heat waves and droughts, we’re reminded of the pressing urgency to transition to a greener and more peaceful future.
The new NSW premier can break the cycle by introducing an immediate moratorium on new coal projects, re-introducing laws to prevent deforestation, rolling out non-lethal beach safety strategies, and banning single-use plastic bags. And as history shows us, when enough of us work together, we can be an unstoppable force.