«Staff present: Mr R Hansen (Research Director) Mr P Douglas (Principal Research Officer) Mr K Holden (Inquiry Secretary) PUBLIC HEARING—INQUIRY ...»
The committee has heard about the forgotten people—the people who are carrying the lonely burden of environmental expectation while facing economic disempowerment. You have heard from people like Cynthia Sabag, the 70-year-old Tully fruit grower, who spoke of the emotional and financial distress her family had been through over time, after more than a decade of vegetation management laws locked up the majority of her land. Cynthia spoke of being told she would have to pay $3.6 million in environmental offsets for a net gain to her farm of 3.4 hectares of land. Her whole property is worth $700,000, by the way. I do not think anyone in their right mind would think that is reasonable.
People like Colin and Noleen Furguson, who run Cardigan Station near Charters Towers, want to clear just 29 hectares to drought proof their property. They still want to leave 17,100 hectares. They have not actually asked for you to throw the VMA out, they just want to clear 29 hectares. They are happy to leave the rest of the country. They understand the role they play in the environment, but they want to do 29 hectares of clearing.
The reality is that Queensland farmers are world leaders in environmental sustainability and food safety. Queensland farmers are the true environmentalists. Unlike professional, career-driven environmental lobbyists we live, breathe and work in our environment every day. Queensland’s primary producers are directly engaged in conservation activities such as biodiversity projects, nature refuges, tree planting and the voluntary retention of category X vegetation that could be cleared legally. All these direct ecosystem are provided on behalf of and for the people of Queensland with no market reward. Carbon rights have been removed. This legislation removes more opportunity for producers to diversify their income streams with the expansion of category C and R vegetation. Every time you legislate away from producers you take away our carbon rights. You will do it in this case if this gets through.
Brisbane - 25 - 3 Jun 2016 Public Hearing—Inquiry into the Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill The committee has seen graphic examples of increased soil erosion from unmanaged reef gullies as a result of the legislation. You saw that in Roma yesterday with the demonstration from Anthony Dunn. Landholders need to be able to actively manage stream buffers which can be achieved voluntarily via fencing projects and management—for example, reef trust funding. Do not take away the right to manage the buffers.
Managing vegetation does not mean there are fewer trees in Queensland. The state government’s own figures show an increase of more than 400,000 hectares of new wooded vegetation cover for the period 2010 to 2014. They are not AgForce figures. They are figures we found from looking through the numbers.
Agriculture is the lifeblood of many regional and rural communities. Only last week agriculture minister Leanne Donaldson said that farmers’ value to the Queensland economy cannot be overstated. With the downturn in the resources sector, agriculture is even more important as an employer and economic driver in our regions.
The federal government’s white paper on developing the north focuses on unlocking the great potential and opportunities of North Queensland, with an expanded agricultural sector a priority for the federal government in that vision. The state government has also claimed it supports developing the north, but at the same time is introducing unfair laws like these that stifle opportunities for new high agriculture development.
The state government needs to either support new opportunities and take the lead on developing new priority agricultural areas or draw a line at Townsville—it could perhaps be called the regional area of disadvantage line, the TRAD line—and say no economic development is going to happen above there. That is the reality of what is going to happen if this legislation gets through—the TRAD line.
This government, like many before it, talks about how they want to creates jobs, jobs, jobs, but you do not create jobs by introducing laws that cripple job-creating opportunities. Townsville’s unemployment rate is 14 per cent. I do not know where you think jobs are going to come from if you keep shutting down agriculture.
Mr Chairman, it is AgForce’s belief that this legislation should be rejected by your committee and rejected by the parliament. Farmers are fed up with constant changes to veg management laws and being used as a political football. We want veg management framework that has bipartisan support so it stands the test of time. We need a framework that will provide certainty to landholders.
We want a framework that allows farmers to get on with the job of producing high-quality food and fibre for Australia and the rest of the world. We have not asked for the VMA to be thrown out; we just need sensible laws to get on with it.
CHAIR: We have not heard too much about self-assessable codes, which remain as part of this bill, but there has been some interest from other groups today about changing some of that to a permit system. Can I get your thoughts on that?
Mr Maudsley: We used to operate under a permit system. I have experience with it. The reality was that under the permit system it was time-consuming and it took quite a long time to get through.
To be perfectly honest, the permit system gave us more tree-clearing rights than the self-assessable codes do. One thing that has happened under self-assessable codes is we have had a few rights removed in terms of what we can clear, so it is tougher than the permit system because you have to leave more trees. We are obviously working under a framework that was developed by the Queensland Herbarium. This is not developed by AgForce or anyone else. It is developed by the scientists who say that these are the tree retention numbers you need on your certain RE type, whether that is 30 trees per hectare, 70, 90 or 150, and you thin to that extent to maintain the diversity of the system. We need the security to go forward. We have offered the process that was undertaken by DNRM.
Our thoughts on self-assessable codes are we believe the system is pretty good but we just need the certainty to go forward, because every time you fiddle with those laws people wonder where their rights are going next. We need sensible laws that stand the test of time so people do not feel like their rights are being taken away and clear something that should be cleared over a five-year period instead of a one-year period.
Dr Leach: The audits that were done, those self-assessable codes proved quite strongly that people were clearing as per what they were saying.
Mr Maudsley: They were actually leaving more trees than they were supposed to leave, so instead of leaving 70 they were leaving 150 just out of precaution.
Brisbane - 26 - 3 Jun 2016 Public Hearing—Inquiry into the Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill CHAIR: In the investigations we have done we have listened to a lot of farmers. As you know, we have heard from over 100 farmers as part of what we are doing. There is obviously a lot of emotion with this new bill, and I just worry about the difficulty there may be understanding self-assessable codes and what they can and cannot do. Someone would tell me a story, and I was thinking to myself that some of this might fit under self-assessable codes. Then we heard stories from farmers about how it is sometimes all just too hard or it is such a complex system, ‘I don’t know who to look to or who to turn to, so I just do it.’ Do you think that if there was more consultation from the government about these type of self-assessable codes or if it was easier to understand, that people might get an understanding of how to do it and the best practice to do it?
Mr Maudsley: Certainly when the self-assessable codes came out people were obviously very nervous of the ‘eye in the sky’ going over every 16 days, as you well know. As time has gone by important changes happened, and the whole notion of compliance and extension essentially came from the same people so that you knew the person who was going to do the extension and show you how maybe to do it on a test one-hectare plot. He would paint through and say, ‘Leave that tree.
Leave that one alone. You are allowed to touch these.’ That extension person was also the compliance person, so when they came back to audit you, you knew you were going to be audited. Because the trust has built up with the compliance and extension officers, they are very confident in asking them to come back and just check that they doing the right thing still because they don’t want to break the law. People do not like breaking the law. They know what the rules are so they act in good faith and openly, which is a totally different concept to the pre-LNP era where it was the tree police and no extensions.
Dr Leach: As you would have heard in Gympie there was a presentation that called for more extension, particularly with things like self-assessable codes that are reasonably complex for some people and helping them understand.
Mr Maudsley: They are complex.
CHAIR: Is there a belief that there are not enough of these people on the ground? Particularly in Gympie a few of the farmers said there was no-one to go to in any department to find out about codes or to find out what they can and cannot do or ask questions.
Mr Maudsley: The reality is that, in an environment of distrust and uncertainty and animosity and anxiety, some people do not want anyone near their property. That is what happens when this stuff comes in. The trust goes clean out the door and the last bloke you want on your place is a DNRM officer. However, there are good officers around the state who are good people who are happy to work with us on the process going forward. It is more of a cultural thing within the department about how you deal with your clients, and we believe in places there are some exceptional public servants out there who do a great job at helping us with what we need to achieve in our environment.
CHAIR: Do you think there are enough of these compliance officers on the ground?
Ms Finnegan: As a grazier I would say absolutely categorically no, there are not enough. I know graziers in our area who are reluctant to manage their vegetation, and this is a question of vegetation management; this is not about locking areas up and leaving them, because we all know what the perverse outcomes of that are. I think what happens is that perversely farmers now under the SACs particularly have such a fear of the audit process and what goes with that, that they do not manage areas of vegetation appropriately. Perversely we see further environmental degradation because they are not prepared to take the risk of having DNRM coming and knocking on their door and they fear getting fined or getting whatever the outcome might be. I think that is the irony here.
I have a science degree. I consider myself a highly educated individual, and I think the SAC are complicated and hard to follow. Certainly from the perspective of implementation it is onerous, time-consuming and the mapping does not support it. My biggest issue in the Scenic Rim is that I have hugely heterogeneous landscapes that I am dealing with, multiple REs on my property, and I cannot guarantee that the line where my PMAV protected X country finishes is there rather than 100 metres that way or that way. When I am telling my guys, ‘I need you to go up there and thin that area’, or ‘Take that lantana out’, or do whatever it is that I have to do to manage my land, I cannot guarantee that I am necessarily going to be within that grey area. That is a big problem for us as land managers.
That is me going in with the knowledge that I have.
I consider myself to be well across the regulation. I consider myself well able to navigate the regulatory landscape, and for most of my neighbours—who are ageing farmers who do not even have the internet, have no idea what that means and do not want to use it—they do not know what the rules are because the majority of the publications and the information that is out there regarding this Brisbane - 27 - 3 Jun 2016 Public Hearing—Inquiry into the Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill stuff is internet based. It completely excludes an entire category of farmers in Queensland, and we have an ageing population. I would like to see a situation where we create some equity for those guys. Most of my neighbours would probably be an average age of about 65 to 75. They are old boys.
They are trying to do the right thing, and nine times out of 10 they do do the right thing; they just do not realise they are doing the right thing. They are damn afraid of the government in terms of what might happen to them if they dare do this or dare do that.
Dr Leach: Is it okay if we give a bit of a presentation? I want to talk about two case studies.
CHAIR: We are running very short of time. It may come out during the rest of the questions from the committee, if that is all right. We are very short of time.
Mr Maudsley: You are the boss.
Mr PERRETT: Early this morning we had a lot of conservation groups come in and I put a series of questions to them around the carrot or big stick approach. Most of them supported the big stick approach, but not all. I just wondered about your thoughts around incentives for farmers to retain vegetation, whether it be compensation, whether it be ongoing payments for the greater community good, if it can be demonstrated that the retention of that for environmental reasons, be it habitat, be it greenhouse gas or other things that they mentioned this morning. I would just like some comment firstly around the carrot or big stick approach.