All current investigations into illegal vegetation clearing in Queensland have been placed on hold after the State Government yesterday launched a review into how vegetation clearing breaches are investigated and penalised.
Minister for Natural Resources and Mines Andrew Cripps said the coalition has long held concerns about the previous Labor Government’s “overly aggressive” policy of compliance and prosecution in relation to the Vegetation Management Act.
He said the review will be conducted independently by the Department of Crown Law and is expected to take six to eight weeks. The review process will determine whether or not a wider external review is required.
He said the Acting Director-General of the Department of Natural Resources and Mines has temporarily suspended current investigations of individuals and businesses over alleged breaches of the VMA until the review of penalty processes has been completed.
It has also withdrawn an existing appeal seeking an increase in penalty, launched under the former Department of Environment and Resource Management.
Mr Cripps said approximately 100 cases of unlawful clearing have been prosecuted in Queensland since the commencement of the VMA in 1999, with convictions obtained for the unlawful clearing of more than 40,000 hectares of land, resulting in approximately $1.5 million in fines.
He said the action did not signal changes to the Vegetation Management Act 1999.
"Rather, it is about delivering practical outcomes and certainty for landholders and industry in this area of government policy," Mr Cripps said.
Statistics showing the number of prosecutions and the scale of fines handed out for illegal begetation clearing highlighted a significant increase in recent years.
“Between the year 2000 and July 2009, there were approximately 77 cases, involving 25,000 hectares of illegally cleared vegetation, resulting in approximately $218,000 in fines," he said.
"Since July 2009, however, 23 prosecutions have been finalised for offences totalling over 15,000 he ctares of illegally cleared vegetation, resulting in approximately $1,282,000 in fines.
"This is concerning because there has not been an amendment to the VMA to provide for more extensive penalties for such offences.
"This noticeable change occurred largely at the same time that the former government merged the then Department of Natural Resources with the Environmental Protection Agency, to create the Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM).
"I am extremely concerned about the apparent inconsistencies in how the provisions of VMA have been applied since the formation of DERM."
The review comes as western Queensland landholder Trent Hindman is appealing a $110,000 fine handed down in the Charleville Magistrates Court last year for clearing 'not-of-concern' vegetation without a permit. (Beef Central's previous articles about Mr Hindman's case can be seen here and here)
Landholder groups have welcomed the incoming Queensland Government’s rapid action on the issue.
Grazing industry leaders have long expressed concerns that the previous Labor Government aggressively targeted graziers over breaches the VMA in order to appeal to green voters, while not applying the same degree of attention or penalties to mining companies that breach environmental laws.
Property Rights Australia, an organisation that raises funding to help landholders contest property rights issues and has funded court cases to help landholders to defend themselves against charges, said it believed many prosecutions under the previous Labor Government had been ill-advised.
“We have come across producers who have been subject to intimidation, fabrication of evidence and perjury,” PRA chair Joanne Rea said.
“We have approached the CMC with all of this evidence, and they seem to be unable or unwilling to do anything.
“The fines have been hugely ratcheted up so you have got family businesses being fined amounts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we have many examples of where mines which are mostly multinational companies are being fined $2000 for the unauthorised release of mine water into barrier reef catchments.
“So there just seems to be a disconnect between fines for the mining industry and fines imposed on the agricultural and grazing community.”
AgForce president Brent Finlay said the organisation had this week signed off the terms of reference for a committee that will deal specifically with the vegetation issue.
“We have certainly had concerns over the interpretation of the VMA, and we have said so through the election process that it became politicised.
“Where people have broken the law, well the law is there and we encourage people to inform themselves of what the law is and how it effects what they want to do on their properties.
“But we need this review to look at what has happened, how it has been interpreted, it is very much drawing a line in the sand, think they had to do that before we can move forward on vegetation management in this state.”
Mr Cripps said it was vital landholders had the right information about vegetation clearing to ensure a balance between environmental protection and allowing landholders to manage their properties responsibly.
He said landholders considering clearing vegetation should first check the Department of Natural Resources and Mines' online vegetation maps at www.nrm.qld.gov.au, which also features information about the types of clearing allowable.
Free maps were available which will indicate whether a particular property is captured by the vegetation clearing laws.
Landholders with questions about clearing on their property were also encouraged to call 13 74 68 for further advice.