«Staff present: Mr R Hansen (Research Director) Mr P Douglas (Principal Research Officer) Mr K Holden (Inquiry Secretary) PUBLIC HEARING—INQUIRY ...»
CHAIR: Thank you very much, Kirsten, for your time and your comments. Could you get that question on notice to us by the close of business, Friday, 10 June, please? I would now like to call on Gecko, Ms Rose Adams, please.
ADAMS, Ms Rose, Gecko CHAIR: I remind you to try to keep your opening statement relatively short as well as the answers to your questions, please.
Ms Adams: I appreciate the opportunity to address the committee. Coming last gives me a shorter opportunity. I will not repeat all the statistics that you have heard from the preceding speakers.
We, too, have reviewed the SLATS data and included it in our submission.
The summary of our concerns—why we support the passing of this bill is because it will result in increased protection of habitat for native wildlife, enhancement of biodiversity, reinstatement of the broader requirement for environmental offsets to be required for any residual impacts from clearing development, increased protection for riverine systems, reduction of erosion and loss of topsoil, reduction in runoff from cleared land entering the Great Barrier Reef marine ecosystems and other systems along our coastline and retention of vegetation for carbon sequestration.
Gecko is a community organisation based on the Gold Coast, so it is an urban group. We look after many issues. One of the chief matters that we look after in response to the concerns of our members is vegetation clearing and vegetation management. Like many, many environmentalists and people who love the land, we were utterly dismayed at the changes in 2013. The submissions that were put in for this hearing even exceeded the submissions put in for the 2013 vegetation management framework bill which, at over 600 submissions, was the largest number of submissions the committee had ever received. It is a matter of enormous concern to many people.
We believe that this bill has to be passed. Since the submissions were called for we have had increasingly disturbing amounts of news. It is reported that the clarity of the Great Barrier Reef has gone down. They are calling for urgent action to control siltation, run-off and residues from farms containing pesticides and nutrients which are all damaging the reef in addition to the impacts of climate change. We assert that in the face of a drying climate, rapidly increasing temperatures and a predicted future of increasing climate instability, the very short-term gains to be made in the agricultural sector for increased production activity are destroying not only Queensland’s biodiversity but its resilience and threatening the very industry it purports to benefit. At a time we are experiencing the starkest coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef ever, action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—a key purpose of the vegetation management legislation—is critical.
Brisbane - 16 - 3 Jun 2016 Public Hearing—Inquiry into the Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill Coming from an urban group we are presenting some Gold Coast perspectives. The vegetation management changes in 2013 not only impacted on broadscale clearing and farmers but very much on urban management. It was not very well protected at the best of times, but the protections disappeared almost entirely. We are concerned about the current regime of vegetation management, which is now reflected in our new city plan on the Gold Coast. Under the current framework, which allows greater clearing, koala habitat is less effectively protected, driving this beloved and iconic species ever closer to localised extinction in the wild. Prior to 2013, exemptions were provided for clearing under a development approval for a material change of use or configuring a lot if the loss was less than two hectares. In 2013 this was changed to five hectares, putting at extreme risk the few remaining patches of threatened regional ecosystems and wildlife species such as koalas and greater gliders which use these areas as refugia and will no longer be assessed.
That was an enormous concern to us, and I spoke about two issues that have arisen prominently since the bill was tabled. The second one is the plight of the koalas. A report released by the government shows that they could well be locally extinct in five years, and the government is now looking at fencing off habitat for koalas so the last remaining populations we have can be protected.
The enormous loss of our koalas, their decline and imminent localised extinction, is directly as a result of land clearing. Once the Vegetation Management Act changed, anything under two hectares could be cleared. There were no concerns expressed by council officers. Clearing in rainforest and clearing in known koala habitat is allowed to go ahead. Borobi, the blue koala, is the emblem for the Commonwealth Games which are shortly to arrive. We think he is blue not because he comes from the ocean, but because he is depressed.
Enormous sums of money have to be thrown at the problems that arise from too much clearing.
In our city, Coomera in the north was massively cleared for housing. The clearing should never have taken place and Coomera should have been located in farmland, but that was a fight from the 1980s.
Nonetheless, they did not set aside adequate land. The government has now introduced a task force and will again be putting millions of dollars towards protecting koala populations there.
Retrospectively fixing up the things we are doing now with too much vegetation clearing is only costly in the future.
Finally, we had some recommendations for the bill which we have put in our submission. We support the amendments to the offsets act which require offsets for any residual impact not only on prescribed environmental matters but rather only on significant residual impacts. We are strongly supportive of that, but we would like a review of those offsets and how they are managed. That too was a significant change in 2014 which negated the effects and the purpose of the Environmental Offsets Act, which is no net loss of biodiversity. We are seeing the results of these changes: we are losing biodiversity.
We would also like to see greater protection of endangered vegetation in urban areas, which I have touched on, and we certainly support the clearing of regrowth vegetation in watercourses. It is limited to a few catchments. We have recommended that the provisions apply to other catchments in Queensland; in fact, they should be applied to all watercourses. This was shown to be critical in the 2011 floods, which saw sediment flows in South-East Queensland catchments threatening our water supplies and seagrass beds in Moreton Bay.
Mr MADDEN: Briefly, the ultimate objective of this committee is to prepare a report which will be presented to the parliament. It will make suggestions with regard to possible amendments to the bill. You are proposing that one possible amendment would be that we revert back to two hectares— what was it?
Ms Adams: For a material change of use or reconfiguring a lot, yes.
Mr MADDEN: Should revert back to two hectares as it was pre-2013?
Ms Adams: Yes. I am not saying not clear lots under two hectares, but that they require a much higher level of scrutiny to see if they contain matters of environmental significance.
TAYLOR, Dr Martin, WWF Australia Dr Taylor: On behalf of our five million supporters around the world, our more than 200,000 supporters in Australia and our 40,000 plus supporters in Queensland, I thank the committee for the opportunity to talk to our submission. I will note in passing that we have one submission, but we also put up a template submission, No. 688. Our record is that 1,072 of our supporters put their signatures to that template submission.
The WWF is very interested in consensus on the environment. We do not like political footballs because we believe they are counterproductive. The first thing we looked at when we looked at the Vegetation Management Act is the fact that there is bipartisan consensus on the purposes of the Vegetation Management Act; namely, to regulate clearing so as to conserve remnant vegetation, so as to reduce greenhouse gases, so as to prevent biodiversity loss and land degradation and to allow for sustainable land use. This is an agreed position by all parties; it is in the purpose of the act. There is no provision in the current bill to change those purposes, just as when the previous government changed the act in 2013 it retained those purposes.
Whether the act is fulfilling or furthering these purposes is something that can be tested against empirical evidence. On the evidence at hand, is the act as it stands conserving remnant vegetation?
No, it is not. Remnant clearing tripled in the two years 2012 to 2014, according to the most recent SLATS report. The reinstatement bill will help repair this flaw by restoring the 2006 ban on broadscale clearing. If you recall—and it has been mentioned before—this ban was supported by Liberal party MPs and the Independent MP Peter Wellington in 2004 when the amendments were introduced during the Beattie government. It was reversed by the former government with regard to so-called high-value agriculture or high-value irrigated agriculture. The reinstatement bill will also help conserve remnant vegetation by restoring an effective compliance regime to stop illegal clearing. Illegal clearing, of course, undermines all the purposes of the act.
The reinstatement bill will not repair a very significant flaw in the act: self-assessable codes.
Under these codes remnant forests can be bulldozed on virtually unlimited scales with no permit required. I direct members to figure 7 and the associated section in our submission and the Cardno review of self-assessable codes, which was mentioned previously in earlier testimony. For the benefit of the committee, footnote 67 of our submission gives the link to the Cardno review of self-assessable codes.
Moving on to another purpose of the act, does the act reduce greenhouse gas emissions that clause global warming? Global warming just gave us the warmest autumn on record and a massive wave of coral bleaching and death in the Great Barrier Reef. No, the act as it stands is not reducing emissions from land clearing, which have doubled since 2011 according to the SLATS supplementary report.
Turning to the loss of biodiversity, does the act as it stands fulfil the agreed purpose of the act to prevent the loss of biodiversity? We do not see, Mr Chair, how it can when over 200,000 hectares of mapped habitat for Commonwealth threatened species was cleared in the two years 2012 to 2014 and while another 800,000 hectares lost protection under the previous government. Most of this area is due to the reversal of the 2009 amendments which regulated the clearing of high-value regrowth.
Turning to those 2009 amendments which regulated the clearing of high-value regrowth, this is a reform of which the AgForce president John Cotter said at the time, ‘The new legislation balances productive management while maintaining biodiversity values.’ Mr Cotter’s statement implies that the removal of protection from high-value regrowth on freehold land by the previous government in 2013 put land management out of balance with biodiversity values. We concur.
Mr Chair, the faunal emblem of Queensland is the koala, and four years ago the koala in Queensland was listed as vulnerable to extinction by the Commonwealth Government because the numbers in Queensland had dropped 43 per cent in two decades. The situation in South-East Queensland is even worse. Recent reports show that numbers have dropped by 80 per cent on the koala coast and have halved in Pine Rivers. It is a profoundly sad thought and an indictment on the ineffectiveness of our laws that in our lifetime the koala coast may have renamed the ‘no more koalas’ coast. The Department of Environment and Heritage Protection tells us why. They say— The biggest threat to koalas is habitat loss. Much of the koala’s habitat in Queensland overlaps with areas where significant clearing has occurred, and continues to occur, for urban, industrial and rural development.
Is the act as it stands preventing the loss of biodiversity, which is a purpose of this act and agreed on by all sides of politics? No, it is not. No, it is not when koalas are being driven to extinction by land clearing. No, it is not when the resurgence of land clearing is causing water and greenhouse gas pollution that is literally killing off one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on our planet: the Great Barrier Reef.
Brisbane - 18 - 3 Jun 2016 Public Hearing—Inquiry into the Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill Let us turn now to the final purpose of the act. Is the act allowing for sustainable land use—a purpose added in the amendments of 2013 but which is retained in this bill and with which nobody, as far as I know—and certainly we—do not have any argument. We do not see how land use can be called sustainable if it is accelerating the loss of remnant vegetation and greenhouse gas emissions and if it is driving biodiversity loss and the loss of the Great Barrier Reef. We would love to see Queensland become a world leader in genuinely sustainable production. Unfortunately, the Vegetation Management Act in its current weakened state puts Queensland at odds with the world’s major retailers, manufacturers, traders, producers and banks, who in 2010 committed to removing deforestation from global supply chains.
In response to the radical changes made to the act in 2013, WWF has reluctantly decided to add eastern Australia to the list of global deforestation fronts—an inglorious collection of places where 80 per cent of all future deforestation on earth in the next 15 years is going to take place. Thanks to the changes made to the act in 2013, Australia is now the only developed nation in the world on the list of deforestation fronts. In conclusion, the Vegetation Management Act as it stands is not delivering on its purposes—purposes on which there is bipartisan agreement. The reinstatement bill represents a sensible and effective reform which will go a long way to restoring consistency with these agreed purposes and we commend the bill to the committee.