Regulations are essential for the proper functioning of society and the economy. QFF fully supports and accepts that there is a need for effective regulation. When well designed and implemented it has a positive impact on our sector. Conversely, when it is not warranted or appropriately targeted, or not well communicated or clearly understood, perverse outcomes arise. The Environmental Protection (Great Barrier Reef Protection Measures) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 recently introduced into the Queensland Parliament falls into the second category.
While it is accepted that climate change is the greatest threat to the Reef, with some scientists now claiming the Reef has no future following the latest IPCC report, poor water quality continues to threaten its health and resilience. If passed, the new reef regulations will see a greater regulatory burden placed on Queensland’s farmers when they can least afford it while not guaranteeing any benefits for the Reef.
The main justification for increasing the regulation of farming activities to all reef catchments is based on data, some quite dated, that the take-up of best management practices has been too slow. Much of the focus has been on the cane industry. But consider this, over the years the industry has drastically changed its practices with 80 per cent of the crop now cut green leaving a mulch blanket on the paddock, and 80 per cent of growers now using fallow rotations to protect and nourish their soil between cane crops. Where best management practices are concerned, the industry has gone from 0 to 70 per cent of the state’s sugarcane area being benchmarked in the Smartcane BMP program in under five years. Too slow?
Reef protection regulations have been in place for the cane and grazing industries in three of the reef catchments for some time. However, a proper analysis on how effective these regulations have been to date, how much they have cost to implement and enforce, or the benefits they have delivered to the Reef, has not been undertaken. Without this analysis and understanding, how does anyone know what the full economic, social and environmental costs of expanding the regulations will be or what benefits they will deliver to the Reef?
Agriculture by nature is highly regulated, with a complex array of legislation imposed across all levels of government relating to land use, water, animal welfare, technologies, agvet chemicals, biosecurity, transport, food, labour, competition, foreign investment and exports. But for many farmers, the proposed reef regulations appear tokenistic and based merely on the political demands of environmental stewardship in a diverse, complex and meteorologically exposed ecosystem without regard to fairness or efficiency.
Agriculture has been and remains committed to doing its bit for the Reef. Governments have and continue to invest substantial amounts of taxpayer dollars in this effort, but so have farmers. At last count, for every $1 that governments invested, farmers invested $1.55. And consider that the strongest push for increasing the regulation of farming activities comes from the non-farming sector, who appear unwilling to invest at this level.
Regulation is a high cost, simplistic instrument that supports minimum standards of compliance at the expense of true practice change. It does not encourage a culture of innovation and excellence, which for the Reef’s sake, is what we need.