Federal public servants have been accused of overreaching their authority and circumventing Government policy by sending warning letters to Queensland landholders who proceed with tree-clearing projects already approved by their State Government.
As reported by Beef Central last month, Queensland landholders who hold clearing permits granted by the Queensland Government received letters from the Federal Department of Environment before Christmas warning that their activities may still impact on matters of national environmental significance, and could attract substantial fines.
The letters have sparked anger within the Coalition, with Nationals accusing departmental personnel of overreach and of undermining the Turnbull Government’s policy commitment to develop northern Australia.
Queensland LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan said the warning letters were sent to landholders with “valid development approvals” for the clearing of native vegetation for high value agriculture.
He said the letters provided no clear instructions regarding how landholders should respond, nor did they explain whether landholders must make an additional application, or provide any indication of the additional parameters against which their already State-approved clearing projects should be further assessed.
“I am concerned that there are activist public servants inside the State and Federal environment departments who are not satisfied with the policy agendas of either governments and are looking for ways to circumvent the intentions of both governments,” Senator O’Sullivan said.
“The lack of information suggests these public servants are attempting to intimidate landholders… (and) are running a political agenda.”
The letters could also dent investor confidence in the development of Northern Australia, which was a central policy platform of the Turnbull Government, Senator O’Sullivan said.
Since forming Government the Coalition had spent a lot of effort trying to strip away “red tape, green tape and blue tape” to encourage a stronger business environment, he said.
“And now a couple of public servants with their own political agenda are attempting to wind back these efforts,” he said.
“It’s simply not good enough.
“Either this is a some sort of farce coming from a few activist public servants or this is a deliberate policy setting within the environmental departments at the state and federal level to actively resist government policy in relation to development permits.
“If this is the case, the Minister needs to take a seriously dim view of this activity and chop a few heads off.
“Landholders don’t know what is going on at the moment and the Environment Minister has to provide clarity as to whether landholders should ignore these letters or, failing that, explain what steps landholders need to take to ensure there is no breach of national law.
“All landholders want is stability and common sense. It should not be too much to expect that governments provide it.”
In response, the office of Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt pointed the finger squarely at the Queensland Government for not supporting his proposed one-stop-shop to reduce red tape around environmental approvals.
In a statement to Beef Central, minister Hunt said his department had a responsibility to ensure there are no breaches of environmental law, and early intervention was an effective way of preventing future breaches.
“Under Federal law it is a legal duty to administer the EPBC Act and the Department must implement the law,” the Minister’s statement said.
“As part of that duty, the Department has a responsibility to ensure that there are no breaches and early intervention is the best means of both protecting landholders against any breaches and also ensuring compliance with the law.
“We’ve already introduced a One Stop Shop for environmental assessments to cut unnecessary duplication between state and federal processes.
“It is disappointing that the Queensland Government has said it will now not support our reforms to streamline the environmental approval system which would assist farmers and provide them with certainty before permits are issued.
“The One Stop Shop reforms for environmental assessments have already made significant improvements, and we’ve cut federal processing times by up to 50 per cent.
“We are trying to fix the red tape, but the Queensland Government is standing in the way.”