The Hon. M. I. JONES [4.32 p.m.]: Last week the Southern Wilderness Comprehensive Regional Assessment [CRA] report was released for public comment. Initially wilderness areas are primarily assessed, extensive surveying takes place, area maps are prepared and released, an area is identified and ultimately the public is invited to comment. A secondary assessment then takes place of public comment. A recommendation goes to the Director-General of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Minister and Cabinet, and a declaration is made on an area.
During the previous Carr Labor Government under Minister Pam Allan the process of evaluating the public input can only be described as at best a farce, at worst corrupt. There are two reasons why I say that: Firstly, colleagues viewing the for and against wilderness submissions found submissions in the wrong piles and in one case a whole batch of children's art and craft class work, all of which stated "We love wilderness" complete with flowers and bunny rabbits, which were counted as individual submissions in favour of wilderness. They were obtained under freedom of information legislation. Deliberate misleading verbal advice made in front of witnesses by the then head of the wilderness unit on 14 December 1995 was given to me. On 18 February 1997 that advice was contradicted by the new head of wilderness, again in front of witnesses. That gave supporters of wilderness a very unfair advantage, during the 15-month period when many wilderness areas were assessed.
Secondly, the Mowong Falls in the Kanangra-Boyd Wilderness Area—a popular beauty spot—were omitted from the northern boundary when the plans were put out for public comment, yet they were included when the wilderness was declared. I have a further problem regarding the declaration of wilderness areas. Years ago, the Premier—when he was Minister for the Environment—released a policy paper stating that the minimum area of land that could be declared as wilderness was 25,000 hectares. Today I checked with the wilderness unit at the head office of National Parks and Wildlife Service and discovered that this minimum area requirement has shrunk to 8,000 hectares and as little as 5,000 hectares in some cases.
Surprisingly, no part of the Wilderness Act 1987, the National Parks Act 1974 or the regulations spells out this requirement. In answer to an inquiry from my office, a representative of the National Parks and Wildlife Service said that it was "a policy call". How convenient for the Minister to be able to have such flexible legislation to work with. Those ad hoc, so-called policy calls hardly make for open and transparent government. I return to my discussion with the head of wilderness in 1995. When I pleaded for a seven kilometre trail known as Carters Brush in Barrington Tops to remain outside the wilderness area, I was lectured on my ignorance of the requirement that at least 25,000 hectares was needed for declaration as a wilderness area—that was the sole reason for not granting my most reasonable request!
Last week the Southern Wilderness CRA was put out for public comment. Staff in my office phoned the Minister's office and the National Parks and Wildlife Service's Queanbeyan office regularly over the recent period when the issue had been deferred month after month. My office heard of the Southern Wilderness CRA report on our extensive grapevine. We contacted the Queanbeyan National Parks and Wildlife Service office to obtain information. My staffer was advised, and I will try to quote this precisely, "Briefings have been held for members regarding this issue, Whose office did you say you were from?" When my staffer answered, "Malcolm Jones' office", the National Parks and Wildlife Service officer replied "Oh, I'm sorry I cannot continue this conversation any further. You'll have to take up the matter with the Minister's office."
When we contacted the Minister's office for clarification, the Minister's policy adviser said, "Briefings were held only for members whose electorates were affected by the assessment process." The adviser offered no assistance. My electorate is the whole of New South Wales and my electorate is affected. The Minister's office has been well aware of my interest in this matter. In fact, I asked a question without notice on 17 November 2000 on this very subject. It appears nothing has changed. Many complains have been made by me to Minister Debus, his staff and National Parks and Wildlife Service officers about this process and I always receive the "I'll get back to you on this issue" comment. Guess what? I am still waiting. The Southern Wilderness CRA is now out for public comment and I hope the process will be open and transparent. I will closely monitor the process. I will report to this House if any of my fears are realised.