Mr MICHAEL RICHARDSON
(Castle Hill) [8.24 p.m.]: Three years ago the Government introduced legislation to create the Bidjigal Reserve in my electorate by amalgamating part of Excelsior Reserve and Darling Mills State Forest. The legislation resolved a native title claim placed on part of Excelsior Reserve in an attempt to block construction of the M2 expressway. At the time, the then Minister for the Environment, Bob Debus, described the creation of Bidjigal as "welcome news for the whole community". When I spoke on the bill I was a little less effusive in my support for the proposal as past experience with this Government had taught me to be cautious—in this instance, with good reason.
The new reserve is managed by a trust consisting of local residents and a number of people appointed by the Minister for Lands. The current chairman is Carol Isaacs, although I understand she is shortly to be succeeded by David Wilmshurst of West Pennant Hills. David has been doing a fantastic job with bush regeneration both inside and outside the reserve. In my second reading speech on the Bidjigal legislation I spoke about the need for funding for the new reserve. Those comments have proved to be particularly prescient. Baulkham Hills Shire Council, which previously managed Excelsior Reserve, has primary responsibility for Bidjigal. The council has been attempting to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the Bidjigal Reserve Trust. The stumbling block has been money.
The trust has no ability to raise funds to maintain the reserve and is likely always to rely on government largesse. To that now has been added the trust's demand that the council must first consult with the Bidjigal Reserve Trust Board and approval must be given by the board prior to any work commencing within Bidjigal Reserve. The council believes that this would mean it would have to seek the trust's approval for even basic tasks, such as removing fallen branches from walking trails, which would be completely unacceptable. I feel sure this could be negotiated. The trust has sought to include this clause because earlier this year the council started to bulldoze a fire trail through a very steep part of the reserve without first consulting with the board, which was not appropriate and certainly did nothing to enhance relations between the trust and council. The council has been corresponding with the Minister for Lands, the Hon. Tony Kelly, about this funding matter. The Minister's last letter stated:
An application by the Bidjigal Reserve Trust for funding from the public management fund is still under consideration by the Department of Lands. Unfortunately, no money has been forthcoming.
The Minister also advised that the council should be aware of the autonomous nature of the reserve trust. This statement filled Baulkham Hills councillors with a sense of trepidation. The Minister seemed to be saying that the trust would make all the decisions on the reserve with the council picking up the tab. Perhaps not surprisingly, this went down like a lead balloon with the council, which last week adopted a recommendation from Group Manager Services Delivery, Michael Lathlean, that the council withdraw its offer of entering into a memorandum of understanding with the Bidjigal Reserve Trust and also resign its position on the trust effective from 1 December. Only one councillor, Larry Bolitho, dissented, recommending that the council continue negotiating the memorandum of understanding with the trust and continue seeking funding for the upkeep of the reserve.
The council's decision throws the whole plan for the creation of Bidjigal into chaos. The trust board has no funds of its own and few, if any, ways of raising them, yet it is effectively being asked to maintain this 300-hectare reserve by itself, right down to bushfire hazard reduction work. The council has looked after Excelsior Park since 1958, and Excelsior Park represents 90 per cent of the new Bidjigal Reserve. So it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the council should continue to contribute in a substantial way to the maintenance of the park. There should, however, be a one-off grant from the Government to cover costs associated with the name change plus ongoing maintenance funding. The reserve has more than 90 entrances which need signposting and the cost of doing this should be met by the Government.
I might add that the council has excised from Bidjigal Reserve the Ted Horwood and Eric Mobbs reserves, which contain sporting fields and other community facilities, and are continuing to maintain them. David Wilmshurst points out that the council was aware of the ramifications when it signed the Bidjigal Reserve deed of agreement in December 2003. He says it must have known that it would no longer be the land manager and that in the future it would be a legal requirement that the new land manager be consulted in relation to work taking place in Bidjigal. Why then did the council sign the deed of agreement? Did it do so on the basis that it would be able to slough off its responsibilities for managing the reserve onto the Department of Lands?
The losers in this game of brinkmanship between Baulkham Hills Shire Council and the Iemma Government are members of the community. Land must be managed to maintain its ecological value and to protect the community from bushfires. If the council walks away from Bidjigal, the whole community, but particularly those living on the interface of suburbia, will be affected. Therefore, I call on the parties involved in this dispute—both the State Government and Baulkham Hills Shire Council—to resolve their differences. The council must accept that under the new structure it will have to consult with the trust board before carrying out work in the reserve, and the Government must accept its funding responsibilities under the new structure. Both parties should stop grandstanding and think of the overall welfare of the community. As for Bob Debus's claim that the creation of Bidjigal was welcome news for the whole community, one can write that off as yet another grandiose claim from a tired, out-of-touch government.