«Staff present: Mr R Hansen (Research Director) Mr P Douglas (Principal Research Officer) Mr K Holden (Inquiry Secretary) PUBLIC HEARING—INQUIRY ...»
Mr PERRETT: I will just put another question. I know you make the reference to red light cameras and the processes around that. The penalties that a court can impose with respect to contravening the legislation in respect of illegal clearing are significantly more than a fine with a red light camera. Given that some of these landowners do rely on the mapping and accept that the department get it right, and then the removal of mistake of fact if they do happen to go into an area where they don’t, I just wonder whether from your perspective you could be a little perhaps stronger in and around those comments because we have certainly heard a lot of emotional concern. I put that to you and see whether perhaps you could suggest more firmly that perhaps the department does have a role given the significant penalties.
Brisbane -3- 3 Jun 2016 Public Hearing—Inquiry into the Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill Ms Pointon: As I mentioned in what I was saying before, I consider the law of mistake of fact would not apply in the case where a map is incorrect because the department themselves—sorry, to step back. The law is in place under the framework that specifies when vegetation can be cleared and where and then the maps are simply a guide to specify the outcome of that framework. As I mentioned, the department makes clear that the maps are not necessarily always correct. There is a provision for the landholders to correct the maps. I consider that the reliance on an incorrect map would not even provoke the defence of mistake of fact. It would be a mistake of law for which there is no defence available. Reapplying the defence I don’t think would fix that circumstance myself.
Mr MADDEN: Thank you very much for coming in today. Could you explain the role of the State Assessment and Referral Agency with regard to vegetation management in Queensland?
Ms Pointon: Sure. We did put that in our submission, and I realise it is outside of the scope potentially of this bill, but we do like to ensure that our submissions cover the broad circumstances around the matters that are being dealt with in a bill. The State Assessment and Referral Agency is essentially a brand name for the department of planning. Obviously the committee would be aware that the department of planning is involved in the assessment of applications which concern vegetation clearing. Under our laws previously the Department of Natural Resources and Mines was a concurrence agency for planning related applications that concern clearing, being an area of state interest that they have specialist knowledge about. Under changes to our planning laws under the previous government, the State Assessment and Referral Agency was introduced in essentially the concurrence agency role which I should explain means that a department, a specialist agency like DNRM, could direct the planning department to put in certain conditions or approve or reject an application which concerned an area of state interest to them. That power was taken away and the power lies under the planning department only. The other specialist departments can provide technical advice but that advice does not necessarily have to be followed.
Mr SORENSEN: Time and time again it came up that the mapping was wrong. Why should the landowner have to pay to rectify those mistakes? Isn’t it the department’s responsibility to get it right?
That costs a lot of these people a lot of money. With the onus of proof, I spoke to a lady last night, it cost her $300,000 to prove their innocence. Why should landowners pay for incorrect mapping that can lead to this sort of thing? Why?
Ms Pointon: In regards to the costs that that woman unfortunately had to suffer, I would understand she would be able to seek to recover those costs.
Mr SORENSEN: You know as well as I do you don’t get all the costs back.
Ms Pointon: Sadly that might be the case or not. In terms of the obligation around the mapping, I understand it would seem to a landholder potentially burdensome, but I understand also that if it is an obvious change that needs to be made to the map that the landholder can simply call up the department and provide evidence of the incorrect nature of the map and that can be changed.
Mr SORENSEN: Without ground-truthing? It comes up time and time again that it costs thousands of dollars to get it changed. Why shouldn’t the department change the incorrect mapping?
Ms Pointon: I have not changed them myself, but I am aware of people who have been able to change the maps freely by simply providing evidence. Maybe it is worth investigating with the department this ability to actually, where there is a clear obvious error in the map, change the error without any charge. Ground-truthing obviously is a costly undertaking. At some point, the government being obviously paid by us as taxpayers, we are paying for the department to undertake that ground-truthing. Where that expense lies is at some point always being felt by the public. It could be also the case, I would argue, that if we were aware of which vegetation can be cleared where, and I understand obviously the mapping is made because it is an easier way of understanding the laws and how they apply to a site, but as I said the department makes it clear that those maps aren’t necessarily correct and a landholder does have to go and just double check them against the law that does apply to it. If you were aware of which vegetation can be cleared where, then potentially you would be able to understand better the map and how it applies without needing to correct it and be able to undertake it on that basis.
CHAIR: Our time is up for your questioning. Thank you very much.
SEELIG, Dr Tim, Queensland Campaign Manager, The Wilderness Society CHAIR: If you would like to make a short opening statement for us, please.
Dr Seelig: Thank you, Mr Chair. Thank you to the committee for the opportunity to present to you today. I wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that we are meeting on today, the Jagera and Turrbal people and I would like to pay my respects to their elders past and present. I would also like to table hard copies of our submission for the committee, as it was quite a dense document and had a lot of colour photos and colour charts in it, and I will be referring to it.
This submission highlights why and how land clearing is a fundamental policy issue in Queensland. The clearing of native vegetation, woodlands and trees is the biggest threat to biodiversity and native wildlife in Queensland. Land clearing impacts on habitats, land degradation, hydrology, soil erosion and drought. 300,000 hectares—that is 300,000 Lang Park football pitches, for the footy fans—were cleared in just one year alone the last year that we had data for. That follows a trend. The chart that is in our submission clearly indicates that. The last two or three years of data that are available show a rise back up in land clearing in Queensland.
Land clearing is also a major source of carbon pollution. Just under 36 million tonnes of greenhouse gases were released in that same one year from land clearing in Queensland. This not only contributes to climate change and negative weather patterns but also adds to local rainfall reduction. Again a chart in our submission tracks pretty clearly that clearing rates and greenhouse gas emissions are very closely correlated. The more you clear the more greenhouse gases you see emitted from land clearing.
The Newman LNP’s changes to the land clearing laws and enforcement since 2012, which contradicted earlier promises, have created a crisis that needs to be reversed. Land clearing is out of control again in Queensland. Stronger land clearing laws are urgently needed to protect wildlife and biodiversity, to keep landscapes intact and avoid erosion, to avoid carbon emissions, reduce drought and safeguard our economic and social welfare. The future of the Great Barrier Reef is in part tied to how Queensland deals with its land clearing.
In our submission we make nine recommendations. These include strong support for the bill, but we also highlight areas where the bill needs enhancement, such as removing the sustainable land use item from the purpose of the act, the need for greater concurrence powers across key government agencies and making greenhouse gas emissions a relevant factor in clearing approvals.
We also make proposals for further work on land use and carbon farming, which we believe have a place alongside climate mitigation work to reduce emissions, store carbon and create revenue streams for rural and Indigenous communities. You may have noticed in our submission we also address a series of myths and false claims about the impacts of stronger land-clearing regulation.
When the Newman LNP changed the Vegetation Management Act, they sought not only to allow new forms of clearing and to de-protect important native vegetation; they also attempted to change community attitudes about land clearing. The most recent Statewide landcover and tree study report, the SLATS report, states— Clearing trends were also likely to be driven by a shift in clearing culture and perceptions brought about by the change in government in 2012. The change in landholder perceptions was supported by a new compliance approach, introduced soon after the change in government in 2012. The Department of Natural Resources... shifted the priority to assisting landholders to undertake clearing rather than the previous priority on assessment and compliance.
This is an official government report, highlighting this. The Newman LNP’s intended cultural revolution meant that many farmers, who by AgForce’s own admission had essentially accepted the clearing laws as they had been, were now being told that clearing was good again and, in fact, was to be encouraged. There were risks that went along with that: fanning the flames on an incendiary issue, building up expectations among landholders, and chopping and changing laws and policies.
I note that AgForce and those that they supported to submit to this inquiry have made a big deal of the challenges of vegetation management laws constantly shifting. However, this did not appear to be a problem in 2012 for AgForce, when they themselves were the ones who lobbied for legislative change, incidentally also proposing the removal of ‘reducing greenhouse gas emissions’ from one of the purposes of the act.
The main effect of that lobbying was to create a surge in clearing and the expectation of being allowed to keep on clearing. In 2013 at a previous inquiry on the Vegetation Management Act, we warned that the Newman LNP’s changes would lead to a return to both broad-scale clearing via bulldozers and chains, and a dramatic rise in-clearing rates. The Newman LNP and AgForce together have created a big problem that the current government is now having to sort out. The current bill is needed to draw a line under the LNP’s regressive and terrible moves.
Brisbane -5- 3 Jun 2016 Public Hearing—Inquiry into the Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill This bill represents a cautious approach to slowing the clearing of native woodlands in Queensland. It will not stop all clearing, nor will it negatively impact on overall agricultural productivity.
Again, this is another chart in our submission. It has tracked trends in clearing rates with trends in agricultural productivity, both livestock and cropping. Unless you can see something that I cannot, there is no obvious connection or correlation between land clearing and land-clearing regulation and farm productivity.
The bill will not address the cultural issue yet, but it will restore a legislative line in the sand that, in our view, should never have been crossed. If this bill is not passed by parliament, we will see a lot more broad-scale clearing, we will see a rush on high-value agricultural applications, and we will see the mass clearing of high-conservation regrowing vegetation, all resulting in our overall clearing rates going through the roof. We believe this committee has an opportunity to stop all of that happening by supporting this bill. I hope that it takes that opportunity. Thank you. Happy World Environment Day for Sunday.
CHAIR: Thanks, Tim. On our journey around Queensland we have heard about clearing and replacement crops, for those high-value agricultural patches that they have done. A lot of the people who have been doing a bit of clearing around the place are saying that the land that they are clearing and the crop replacement is equal to if not better sometimes than the trees or what they call the rubbish trees. The crops that are there are better and hold the soil better than do the trees that were originally there. Can you give us some detail on that?
Dr Seelig: I have seen a number of claims in submissions and from reading the transcripts of claims that grass and crops are better carbon storers, are going to keep landscapes more intact and so on. I do not think you can compare crops and grasslands with established woodlands, either for carbon sinks or for the habitat of threatened species and generally something that is good for biodiversity. I think it is preposterous to argue that crops on riparian areas are a better way of protecting sedimentation and soil runoff than established riparian woodlands. Personally, I think that is a claim that is made without substance.
I have seen the crops that are being purportedly grown at Strathmore and Olive Vale. I think growing sorghum for cattle fodder, which has been grown through chopping down remnant woodlands, particularly in the case of Olive Vale in a Great Barrier Reef catchment area, the habitat of threatened species, is absurd and should never have been allowed.
CHAIR: We also heard concerns from those groups that the remnant vegetation that is there becomes thick and then becomes obviously too thick so native animals and wildlife do not make habitat in it. Also, because it is that thick, it is more susceptible to fire. When fire goes through it is very hot and absolutely destroys everything. Can you explain your thoughts on those comments?