Parliament will sit for the first time since the state election next week. An early priority in the returned Labor Government’s agenda is likely to be the reintroduction of stronger vegetation management laws.
It is sometimes necessary and appropriate to review and amend regulatory frameworks to ensure they are current and better align with the objectives of the government of the day. However, there have been few long-term winners from the countless changes that have been made to the vegetation management legislation since 1999. The Australian Government Productivity Commission singled out Queensland’s vegetation management legislation as an example of how ongoing changes to regulation had created uncertainty, unnecessarily restricted farm management decisions, reduced investment and led to perverse outcomes.
Farmers, regional communities and the environment deserve a stable, workable framework. With a clearly defined electoral mandate, the government has the opportunity to do this, but it must work with all key stakeholders to realise it.
Changes should not be made to the framework without properly considering which elements work well and why. Clearing provisions for high-value agriculture (HVA) and irrigated high-value agriculture (IHVA) are a good example. HVA and IHVA provisions are already the most regulated part of the Vegetation Management Act 1999, and clearing can only occur with expressed approval, following a detailed application process. Vegetation can only be cleared for cropping or irrigated pasture, where it can be demonstrated that landholders have suitable land, and sufficient water (licence or allocation) in the case of IHVA, available and they have met clearing performance outcomes.
From 2 December 2013 to 5 February 2018, there were 67 agricultural development approvals under these provisions – 35 HVA and 32 IHVA. Together, approvals over this 4-year period will only see 114,512 hectares cleared for high value agriculture. To put that figure in context, that is only about 0.08% of the area currently used for agriculture, and only 0.066% of the land area of the state.
Nearly all these 67 approvals have been for small areas of clearing for specific purposes and will accommodate shifts in the agricultural footprint to combat climate change, realise better environmental outcomes, and increase farm flexibility and profitability.
Put simply, the HVA and IHVA clearing provisions are a policy success. They have enabled responsible, small scale clearing to realise best management practices and positive environmental outcomes.
Something that has been missing from the framework is the recognition and remuneration of the ecosystem services farmers provide. Farmers also have a fundamental role to play in land carbon projects and de-carbonising the economy. The government’s ‘Land Restoration Fund’ could potentially start to fill this gap, but only if we get the design, development and implementation of the fund right.
The new Parliament presents an opportunity for the government to work with all key stakeholders to deliver workable and sensible legislation that finds the common middle ground. It is incumbent on governments to create and foster a stable business environment that enables short, medium and long-term business planning, and encourages the investment required for responsible growth.
The government claims to have a long history of balancing environmental protection with growing the agricultural sector. QFF shares a responsible approach to growing our sector and protecting the environment – people seem to forget that farmers are the frontline environmentalists and custodians of 84 per cent of the state. How the government goes about implementing changes to the vegetation management framework will tell if these claims are justified.