Relations between rural landholders and Anastasia Palaszczuk’s Government in Queensland, already heavily strained by the resurrection of stringent vegetation management controls in the State last year, have sunk to new lows over the introduction of reef protection laws that will further impact agricultural operations in one third of the State.
A last minute decision this week not to proceed with a planned consultation process has further inflamed tensions.
The Environmental Protection (Great Barrier Reef Protection Measures) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 was introduced to Queensland Parliament by the State’s Minister for the Environment and Great Barrier Reef Leeanne Enoch on February 27.
Farming groups say the proposed legislation vilifies agriculture based on ‘shaky science and cherry-picked facts’. They believe it unjustifiably places all blame on agriculture for Great Barrier Reef water quality issues, and penalises farmers and graziers for management that is beyond their control due to last year’s changes by the Palaszczuk Government to the Vegetation Management Act 1999.
But they were doubly incensed when they were told a consultation process to review the likely impact of the legislation, due to run from March 18 to 22, was cancelled earlier this week.
The chair of the committee overseeing the review, Duncan Pegg, has stated the committee has granted a two-week extension so hearings can be undertaken in regional areas throughout the Reef’s catchment, however, there are no confirmed no details yet on if, when and where those hearings will occur.
The committee’s web page states that a public hearing will be held at the Parliamentary Annexe in Brisbane this coming Monday, 25 March, from 9am to 11am, to be followed by a two hour departmental briefing. It only refers to possible other hearings “to be confirmed”. For more details see the committee web page here
Reaction from AgForce Queensland left no doubt as to how strained tensions have now become between one of Queensland’s key export earning sectors and the State Government.
AgForce described the lack of a consultation as a “sham public review” that demonstrated the Queensland Government’s contempt for the views of primary producers and an indication that its agenda has been hijacked by “urban-dwelling Greens”.
“The sham public review – allowing just two weeks for written submissions after the surprise introduction of the bill into Parliament on 27 February – does not even include any consultation sessions in the affected regions as originally promised,” an AgForce statement said.
“The only consultation session planned is in Brisbane, making it virtually impossible for farmers and regional Queenslanders to have their views considered.”
AgForce CEO Michael Guerin said the “pretend consultation” showed the Government’s true colours – that they don’t think farmers are worth talking to despite the fact that the burden of this legislation will fall on them.
“It also highlights the Government’s reluctance to expose the shaky science and cherry-picked facts on which they have based their legislation to public scrutiny,” Mr Guerin said.
What will be the impacts of the new reef legislation on farmers and graziers according to AgForce?
The group says the proposed regulations would saddle all cattle, sheep, grain, fruit and vegetable, and cane farmers in the six reef catchments – an area that covers about a third of the State and extends as far as 300 kilometres from the coast – with restrictive practices that will severely hamper their operations and involve onerous record-keeping and reporting.
“It is absolutely criminal that the Government believes it can introduce these laws without even talking to the very people and communities that it will so badly effect,” Mr Guerin said.
“Such arrogance is breathtaking. What happened to democracy? I thought they were supposed to be governing for every Queenslander, not just those living in the south-east corner.”
Mr Guerin said the “most frustrating thing” was that farmers had real-world information and advice that would lead to a more effective, practical and realistic solution to protect the reef at a lower-cost – but no-one wanted to listen.
“The saddest irony is that farmers love the reef and want to do their part to preserve it, but are being prevented from doing so by hard-nosed environmentalists, whose impractical, ideologically motivated demands will actually do more harm than good,” he said.
“In their current form, the proposed laws impose on farmers unnecessary, expensive red tape and regulation that won’t provide any benefit to water quality or the Reef’s long-term well-being.
“This is a significant burden for farmers, many who are still recovering from floods or who are still in drought.”
Mr Guerin said the fact that primary producers weren’t even aware of the proposed legislation until AgForce informed them indicated “very poor communication by the Government and a clear lack of consultation”.
The Queensland Food Future group, a landholder advocacy group which was behind the widely shared ‘A True Story: From the heart of Queensland’ campaign during the State’s vegetation management debate last year, said farmers and graziers were again being vilified and face “ridiculous levels of regulatory burdens” under the new laws.
“The Bill proposes legislation that squarely places a disproportionate blame for water quality and sediment run off on Queensland farmers and graziers in six Great Barrier Reef catchments,” Qld Food Future president Josie Angus said.
“The Queensland Government has invested $330 million of Qld taxpayers’ money to implement this legislation in a false hope of achieving an election promise. Queensland farmers and graziers are again being blatantly vilified.”
Mrs Angus said the proposed legislation seeks to further burden already heavily regulated farmers and graziers with more satellite monitoring.
She said it will assess all catchment farm land every September, the driest month of each year, with no allowance made for seasonal, climatic, natural disaster or weather events meaning assessment could be made off the back of floods causing erosion and result in a landowner receiving a failed score.
The legislation now includes cattle grazing, horticulture and cultivation of crops in the category of an “Environmentally Relevant Activity” – a definition previously applied to regulate mining and factory practices.
“This is being applied while the Queensland Government is letting the mining industry pump untreated water into rivers and undertaking further dumping of dredging materials onto the Reef.
“It is basic common sense that farmers and graziers want to retain their soil and keep their land in pristine condition in order to operate successful and profitable businesses.
“No farmer or grazier wilfully or recklessly lets profit allegedly wash away into the Reef and in fact land owners invest money continually to prevent erosion, eradicate weeds and improve ground cover and soils.
“This legislation makes no allowance for good land management and no allowance for events outside of a landowner’s control yet the blame rests with farmers and graziers.”
She said the proposed legislation was largely based on modelling and limited outdated data.
She said it also directly conflicted with changes to the Vegetation Management Act 1999 last year.
During that time landholders argued that the proposed changes to that legislation, now passed, would lead to additional erosion and run off in the long term, leaving landowners with their hands tied.
Under the new reef protection legislation farmers would now face penalties and restoration plans.
“In 2018 we argued that elements of the changed vegetation management legislation were actually detrimental to the land that we manage, particularly with respect to erosion and run off to the Reef,” Mrs Angus said.
“This Reef legislation directly conflicts with vegetation management legislation in that it also prescribes greater than 70 percent ground cover yet land owners cannot achieve this with some land types due to vegetation management restrictions and legislation and weather events such as drought beyond our control.
“The 2018 changes resulted in an additional 1,700,000 hectares, including 405,000 hectares specifically along stream banks in the reef catchments, being locked up and taken out of our management.
“And now we will be fined for not managing grass cover on that land when the same Government took our management away from that last year.”
She said the issue provided further evidence that the production of food had become political in Queensland, with farmers being crippled with inoperative legislation to satisfy election commitments and party promises that did not even achieve desired outcomes, due to lack of industry consultation.
“We do not want to be scapegoats and at the mercy of false propaganda and scaremongering campaigns simply for political parties to gain a few votes,” she said.
“It is discriminatory and is going to affect the future of food production in this State.”
In introducing the new laws In February Queensland Minister for Environment and the Great Barrier Reef Leeanne Enoch said the new laws would further protect the Great Barrier Reef and “give our natural wonder the best chance of survival”.
She said the Reef was facing two major threats: climate change and water quality.
“While we need national and global action to tackle climate change, water quality is something that we can tackle right here, right now,” Ms Enoch said.
“Here in Queensland, we have the privilege and responsibility of having the world’s largest coral reef on our doorstep.
“And with the effects of climate change accelerating and the impacts of poor water quality becoming more evident, it is clear we are at a tipping point.
“That is why the Palaszczuk Government is turning the dial and accelerating our efforts to improve water quality and address all of the remaining areas that the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce said needed to be tackled.”
Ms Enoch said the new laws focus on reducing run-off from agriculture and direct sources of pollution from intensive land uses, such as sewage treatment plants, aquaculture and mining.
“A range of stakeholders including farmers and conservation groups have been closely involved in consultation on the legislation for two years and I thank them for their collaboration.
“There will be a range of grower and grazier tools to support the staged roll-out, including a transitional program providing a financial rebate to help farmers get the advice they need to meet minimum practice standards.
“We know Queensland communities love the Reef and many farmers, councils, community members and industries have voluntarily invested their own time and resources to reduce water pollution flowing to the Reef.
“While this work has been instrumental, unfortunately progress has not been fast or widespread enough to safeguard Reef health into the future.
“We will continue to support voluntary efforts through our record $330 million investment in the Reef, with $261 million of this going to water quality programs, but we also need regulation to drive progress towards the targets that will create long-term change.
“If we don’t shift the dial and make major changes, the Great Barrier Reef will continue to deteriorate.”
She said the proposed regulations will:
More information on the regulatory proposals including the Decision Regulatory Impact Statement and the Bill is available online: https://www.qld.gov.au/environment/agriculture/sustainable-farming/reef/reef-regulations/strengthening-regulations