Tree vote in Qld hangs in balance

James Nason, 18/08/2016

The likely outcome of a cliff hanger parliamentary vote to determine whether more stringent land clearing laws will be introduced in Queensland was too close to call as today’s news email went out to readers.

With a marathon debate underway, the result not likely to be known until later today or possibly tonight.

The Palaszczuk labor Government needs the votes of independent cross benchers Rob Pyne, Billy Gordon and speaker Peter Wellington, including all of its own members, to get the bill over the line.

At lunchtime today there was speculation that Labor MP Jim Pearce, the member for the central Queensland seat of Mirani, could abstain from the vote, which would likely derail the Queensland Government’s hopes of passing the legislation.

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Mr Pearce told The Courier-Mail this morning he had issues with the legislation but “was undecided” about abstaining from the vote.

If passed the laws will re-instate previous controls implemented by the Beattie and Bligh Labor Governments but wound back by the Newman LNP Government in 2013.

The Palaszczuk government says the changes are needed to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the “in danger” list. In the debate Deputy premier Jackie Trad said current tree clearing rates in Queensland were unsustainable, and said there was a “moral obligation to act for future generations”.

The LNP’s natural resources spokesman Andrew Cripps said Labor had vilified farmers, painting them as “cavalier vandals of the environment”.

The legislation would deny basic civil liberties and halt economic opportunities in regional Queensland, including for indigenous Queenslanders, he said.

Katter’s Australian Party MPs have stated they will vote against the laws.

Science sacrificed on political altar

The Queensland Government, in trying to justify its case for tougher veg management legislation, has been attempting to keep the debate focused specifically on the area of clearing that has occurred in recent years, as indicated by the recent SLATS reports.

In isolation the figure of 300,000 hectares per year presents as a scary number, particularly when framed in terms of football fields, which has helped the Queensland Government to frame land clearing to city voters as an issue of major environmental concern.

However, as scientists close to the issue have pointed out, the same SLATSs reports also contains crucial context that the Queensland Government is choosing to ignore as it tries to justify its case for tougher laws.

For example, information in the same reports show that woody vegetation in Queensland is actually increasing, even with land clearing.

Queensland’s total land area is 185,300,000 hectares.

The reports show a net annual increase in tree cover in Queensland of 437,000 hectares.

In fact, at current rates, clearing would have to increase by nearly 1.5 times just to maintain the status quo of vegetation cover Property Rights Australia’s Dale Stiller points out.

It is also important to consider the type of clearing included in the 300,000ha figure.

65 percent was clearing of regrowth performed under approved property maps of assessable vegetation (PMAVs). 20pc was clearing under approved permits in cases where landholders did not have a PMAV.

Of the clearing under permit, the majority was clearing of mulga for drought fodder.

A study by the University NSW, Australian National University and CSIRO involving two decades of work and satellite sensing data reported last year showed that Australia is “greener” today than it was two decades ago, despite land clearing and urbanisation (see article here)

Respected former senior Queensland Government principal scientist (now retired) Dr Bill Burrows attempted to inject science into the debate six months ago when this new push for more stringent veg management legislation began gaining momentum – (earlier article here) – but his points, sent to every member of parliament, appear to have been all but overlooked in Queensland Government’s position on the issue.

His submission to the recent inquiry into the proposed new tree laws draws on knowledge he has gathered in more than 40 years as State Government woodland ecologist in Queensland.

Key points he raised include:

  • Most members of Queensland Parliament do not understand the scale and nature of the woodland management problem confronting rural landholders.
  • Nor do they appreciate the implications of the proposed legislation bill for future sustainable management of grazed woodland communities and agriculture enterprises dependent on them.
  • There is compelling evidence that woodlands are thickening, not reducing, because of livestock grazing and management activities in Queensland, and will continue do so
  • Arguments that bans on clearing are needed to minimise carbon emissions lack factual basis. Recently published scientific evidence shows Australia and Queensland withdraw, on average, more carbon from the atmosphere than they add to it.
  • There are many situations where clearing thickening woodlands and regrowth can benefit threatened fauna and restore habitats lost to thickening
  • Sediment loads reaching the Great Barrier Reef Lagoon include a large component that has been a natural function of the landscale, well preceding agricultural land use.

(Link to Dr Burrow’s full submission line here)

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