Melaleuca Media
The Chain Gang

History and science both warn of calamity if Queensland rural landowners don’t stop denuding the landscapes of vegetation. Phil Dickie looks at a decade of governments failing to find a solution.

Putting the brakes on the bulldozers

Barely 70 kilometres from Brisbane, a small creek starts its westward flow from the slopes of a prominent crag on the Main Range west of Boonah. But Condamine Creek, later to become the Darling River, doesn’t flow far before entering the battleground that is land clearing policy and practice in Queensland.

Unfortunately for the creek, the first private land it encounters was owned by a militant farmer who let the bulldozers loose on his steep slopes in the height of the initial rural fury over the Beattie government’s proposed Vegetation Management Act. The farmer would never discuss his clearing – his only public comment remained his demonstration placard “Give me my land back”.

On the heights across the river, another farmer had to pause his sudden and savage assault on rainforest remnants to call in the surveyors so the bulldozers did not blunder into a national estate reserve for the endangered Albert Lyrebird.

If this was panic clearing, it was unnecessary. Local officers in the then Natural Resources Department did not believe there was anything in the proposed legislation that would have stopped the clearing anyway.

To add to the insanity in this small confined valley, as some farmers cleared their slopes others were planting them. The taxpayer, via Landcare, was putting $168,000 into the replanting project.

According to report after report and scientist after scientist, ending the continuing large scale broadscale clearing of Australian vegetation and putting water back into Australia’s rivers are the nation’s most urgent priorities.

The choices are stark – in the words of the Wentworth Group of concerned scientists which includes the (almost) household names of Australian ecological science, we will leave a legacy of “dustbowls and drains” if we do not stop the continuing damage to our landscapes.

Prevention, as ever, is better and much, much less expensive than cure. The Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council emphasised that it is cheaper – by factors of anything from 10 to 100 – “to maintain natural systems than it is to pay the repair bill resulting from inadvertent damage or to suffer the resulting loss of production”.

When it comes to clearing, Australia is up there with the worst of the third world. According to international environmental group the World Wide Fund for Nature, only four countries clear more than our estimated annual total of 680,000 hectares of bushland a year – Brazil, Indonesia, the Congo and Bolivia. Two thirds to three quarters of Australian clearing takes place in Queensland.

At this point, it is customary to blame the farmers and blame their farming practices, or even blame the weather. What is also apparent is political failure on a grand scale. The Wentworth Group, convened by WWF and including some of the favourite scientists of both John Howard and Peter Beattie, notes: “Our continent is falling apart and it is not caused by drought – it is caused by poor policies and poor management.”

The Courier-Mail has learned that while Canberra blamed Brisbane and Brisbane claimed Canberra for Queensland’s world class land clearing, around $100 million sat around for three years in Federal Government coffers waiting to be put towards some workable scheme for reigning in the bulldozers.

The money, originally about the amount Queensland initially said it would require to address the issue, was still there until quite recently. But it is now being “dissipated” into other programs.

Canberra’s problem has always been that State premier Peter Beattie wanted to address clear State responsibilities by demanding Federal cash without accepting anything much in the way of Federal conditions.

The cash was there – but Queensland had to come up with some mechanism to stop its more feral landowners from pocketing the cash and continuing the clearing. “We were waiting - are waiting - for Queensland to actually put something on the table,” said one Federal official.

The view looks different from Brisbane. The State claims it has legislation in place for both leasehold and freehold land. There is little disagreement that Queensland’s vegetation mapping and monitoring systems have few equals anywhere.

But Federal State negotiations from the levels of Premiers and Prime Ministers down to departmental officials have been going on and going nowhere since 1999. Queensland Natural Resources and Mines Minister Stephen Robertson puts this squarely down to “policy incoherence” at the Commonwealth level.

“The Commonwealth has not put a consistent position to Queensland,” he said. “It has ranged from outright refusal to be involved, suggestions of matching funding, and positions agreed to but then abandoned.”

The clear villain nominated by State Labor is the National Party. Robertson said the Prime Minister had “offered to explore a cap on clearing to achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions” but this offer had stagnated because the Commonwealth made it conditional on “stakeholder (read National Party and Agforce) acceptance”.

Queensland was “tiring of the Commonwealth’s strategy of megaphone diplomacy where issues are raised privately but then released to the media, and even then only selectively”, Robertson said. Agreement between the Federal Liberal and National parties and a consistent approach from Canberra would help both levels of government “get this issue off the agenda once and for all”.

Premier Peter Beattie probably doesn’t care to be reminded that on his second anniversary in office, he ticked off land clearing as one of the problems his government had solved. The claim dissolved into chaos as the satellite eye in the sky said clearing was accelerating from alarming to extraordinary levels. It further dissolved when the government then watered down the legislation that was the basis of the claim for the cure.

It is now nearly a decade since a Queensland government – that of Wayne Goss – provoked rural landholders into the current spiral of panic clearing by announcing an intention to do something on the issue.

The sudden firing up of the bulldozers should not have been a surprise to anyone. South Australia (1983), Victoria (1989) and Western Australia (1995) were fairly quick to use bans, threats and other big sticks to stop or dramatically slow clearing while something more permanent was nutted out. Only South Australia thought it necessary to pay landowners something that had some resemblance to compensation.

It wasn’t pretty, but it mostly worked. The States with the significant land clearing problems, the continuing bitter controversies and the increasing not decreasing repair bills now are Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania.

The Queensland way has been to cause maximum alarm to the landholders without reigning in their excesses. The Goss government consulted interminably before tightening permit requirements in legislation in 1995 – but then it neglected to proclaim the relevant provisions into law.

The Borbidge government proclaimed the legislation, complete with its fatal flaw – permits with five years of currency which could be refused mainly on the basis of scientific assessments that were not available. The permits were handed out over small country counters by public servants with backgrounds in rural extension advice and real estate valuation.

Little wonder then that incoming Labor premier Peter Beattie launched himself into the issue with characteristic fervour by observing “the State was on fire yesterday” after a memorable trip in the ministerial jet.

The tough talk didn’t long survive the encounters with angry farmers and their placards, although there was a resurgence recently as the Premier turned his attention to the problem of the rising salt that seems to inevitably follow the reckless clearing.

The Queensland system now is a complex legislative and regulatory framework which on leasehold land protects vegetation where the regional remnant is less than thirty percent of the pre-European cover and on freehold land protects vegetation with less than a tenth remaining.

Critics contend this is a system for protecting not much on an individual property scale, and for setting up an incentive for landholders to be among the first in their regions to get in for their doze, slash and burn.

The assessment guidelines, the assessors and the available scientific backing for assessments have improved. But there are still notable stuff-ups, one glaring case being the approval in a sensitive catchment emptying into the Barrier Reef of major clearing for the purpose of replacing bushland with ponded pastures from the national register of noxious weeds.

The Wilderness Society compiles information on permits and – with much more difficulty and delay – on approvals through a Statewide program called Dozerwatch. They have fears that a current application to clear 8000 hectares of high salinity risk river flats adjacent to delicate National Park on the Culgoa (Darling) river is likely to be approved under old guidelines - despite the Premier’s recent tough talk on salinity in the Murray Darling basin.

Currently, according to Dozerwatch, the State is assessing 326 applications to clear about 220,000 hectares, in blocks ranging up to 31,000 hectares in a single application.

Another huge problem, privately acknowledged by State officials, is the sheer amount of outstanding permits where no clearing has yet occurred.

A spokesperson for Natural Resources minister Stephen Robertson put a rush on permits over the last few years down to “loose ministerial talk” from Canberra of a possible buy-out of permits. “It is not going to happen,” he said. But he did concede that if the State wanted to cancel a permit, then compensation would be payable.

“I’m pleased to hear that,” said Agforce deputy chief executive Paul Bidwell. The rural lobby no longer uses the term compensation much in connection with the landclearing debate in Queensland; Bidwell saying the narrow legal meaning of the term was not quite appropriate to the circumstances. However, Bidwell said Agforce was involved in the National Farmers Federation and National Party push to put broad - and compensatable - property rights over environmental entitlements on to the agenda of the Council of Australian Governments.

For tree clearing, the preferred terminology is now “a funding mechanism for a structural adjustment package to assist landholders required to forego development opportunities in the community's interest”.

The “structural adjustment” element of the reformulated request does attract some support from the scientists and some of the green community. WWF policy specialist and Wentworth Group convenor, Peter Cosier, said the South Australian model where payments were made to farmers to care for native bushland had been a “a proven success.”

The sums being bandied about are not huge, amounting to half a Paradise Dam or one third of a Lang Park stadium. The eventual repair bills if the investment is not made start to amount to a few years of defence spending, if repair is still possible.

Is the Queensland approach now starting, just starting, to bite? So far, as the figures come in with a year or two lag, we have clearly provoked more clearing than we have prevented. Figures for the satellite photography based assessment of Statewide clearing for 1999-2001 were originally scheduled for an October release.

Some insiders alleged an amended release strategy of “dribbling them out catchment by catchment”. Not so, said Robertson’s office, returning after some internal consultations to announce a release date soon after Christmas.

What they show is one of the most closely guarded of State secrets. But already released figures for the Murray Darling basin show a huge increase in clearing prior to the Vegetation Management Act taking effect and a near halving of clearing in the following year.

The government, which presumably knows what is in the rest of the document, is making only cautious claims of success on these early returns. The cynics point to a natural slowing of clearing when the clearing is mostly done, and are looking to see what is happening in other more marginal and fragile areas.

Long awaited draft regional vegetation management plans for many areas are starting to flow in – the minister took delivery of three this week. The government hopes this will enable it to further fine tune the issue of permits. Agforce – and others – complain the process has not been well resourced. Scientists and green groups have real fears of the plans providing the basis for another panic rush of clearing.

What Canberra wants, however, is the dramatic reduction and the reasons are located as much around Kyoto as anywhere else. Although the Federal government has no intention of ratifying the international climate change convention until the United States does, it is still committed to at least try to achieve the targets.

A big reduction in adverse “land use conversions” offers a potentially very good return for the emissions reduction buck. For the Federal government, it also must have at least initially seemed more politically preferable than trying to coax Australians from their cars or put the hard word on party supporters in the executive ranks of industry.

A new package for Queensland is now on its way to Federal Cabinet, with the buckets of money and outcome requirements linked to greenhouse, National Heritage Trust and salinity programs. But the cash is, as always, highly conditional.

The State, according to Robertson, wants the Prime Minister (and presumably the National Party leader) to stand beside Mr Beattie and join in announcing some initiative to which the Federal government is a willing and reliable contributor.

So, front of house, its still business as usual. The politicians are still fighting, the farmers still clearing and the damages bill is still mounting.

State never applied for Commonwealth money during land clearing wrangle (By Phil Dickie)

While the Queensland government publicly and repeatedly blamed Canberra for its inability to reign in rampant landclearing, around $100 million sat in Federal coffers for three years waiting for a State application that never came.

The revelation comes as the Federal government puts the finishing touches to a new package to offer Queensland, which is expected to be considered early in the New Year.

But Queensland is already jacking up in negotiations over some elements of the proposed package. The Commonwealth, which is seeking a big reduction in clearing to achieve greenhouse gas emission targets, also wants Queensland to tighten its legislation to protect more vegetation on freehold land.

The Beattie government watered down its Vegetation Management Act before it was proclaimed, blaming a Commonwealth refusal to contribute to a $103 million package partly intended to compensate landowners.

But the Courier Mail has learned Queensland never submitted an application under the widely advertised Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme (GGAP) for the earmarked money.

The Commonwealth now wants “of concern” vegetation, where regional remnants total less than 30 per cent of the original cover, put back into the Queensland legislation as a condition for further funding from the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT).

The State now wants the package to cover off greenhouse and salinity outcomes, though they are concerned about a “blended” package conditional on outcomes from Canberra under three different funding mechanisms, the NHT fund, GGAP and the National Action Plan for Salinity.

Natural Resources and Mines Minister Stephen Robertson, said in relation to the $100 million in greenhouse funding that “at a bureaucratic level” the Commonwealth offer had “been impossible to pin down” in discussions with two different Federal departments.

Mr Robertson said there had been “assertions at various times from Canberra that Commonwealth greenhouse reduction funding is and is not available and is and is not suitable to fund vegetation clearing controls”.