BY: EAN HIGGINS AND SALLIE DON From: The Australian February 11, 2011 12:00AM
The federal government yesterday suffered an embarrassing defeat on the floor of parliament over the fate of 250,000 flying foxes making life unbearable for 1100 students and teachers at a school on the NSW far north coast.
In what he described as a "historic day", the federal Nationals MP for Cowper, Luke Hartsuyker, won a battle to have the relocation of flying foxes around Maclean High School enshrined in legislation.
Mr Hartsuyker said the bill, which has now gone to the Senate, would break a deadlock in which the previous environment minister, Peter Garrett, conspired to keep the flying foxes in place.
The bill passed through the house by 71 to 70 votes.
The government rallied support from Australian Greens MP Adam Bandt and independents Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie, but West Australian Nationals MP Tony Crooke and independents Bob Katter and Tony Windsor voted with the Coalition.
The Department of Environment had nearly four months ago granted a special licence allowing the flying foxes to be relocated, but Mr Hartsuyker claimed it provided for removing only some of them and was not a permanent solution.
"The government opposed this bill because it was only about one school in one electorate and we know there many areas in Queensland as well as other parts of NSW that are also affected," Environment Minister Tony Burke said yesterday.
Mr Hartsuyker championed the cause under the banner of "people before bats", while the Labor MP for the neighbouring seat of Page, Janelle Saffin, proposed that the school be moved.
Maclean High School P&C president Lorraine White has been campaigning for the relocation of the flying foxes for more than four years. "Have you ever been near a bat colony when it's raining?" she said. "The smell is just awful."
Clarence Valley Mayor Richie Williamson said the community had significant fears for the children's health for a long time.
How the flying foxes will be relocated has not been revealed, but the expectation is the vegetation around the school will be cleared, and the creatures will naturally move elsewhere.