Fears that the reinstatement of vegetation management laws in Queensland would cruel northern investment were aired at the Darwin Food Future conference recently.
The Flinders River Agricultural Precinct, whose contribution to the northern Australian agricultural industry was recognised at the conference with the presentation of the Future Farmers Award, was outspoken about member concerns.
Project officer Sara Westaway said the group received the award because “we operate in the space, we turn up, we communicate and we have a presence”.
“There is hardly anyone in Queensland giving our region the time it deserves for agriculture and the extreme green view could turn our water release upside down without even visiting our region or speaking with our landholders,” she said.
According to Sara, the conference focused heavily on investment for all three northern regions, in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and north Queensland.
She said the Western Australian presentation was led by a dynamic, proactive and passionate team, explaining the main challenges of native title/tenure and market remoteness to farming in the north.
“The very professional hosts, the NT Farmers Association, involved all levels of their government, media and farmers, reiterating the message of their regional roadshow in Hughenden last year – start small, learn from your small mistakes and then grow.
“The NT team really highlighted past, present and future opportunities.”
By contrast, Sara said that while DAF Queensland’s Gareth Jones and Greg Mason gave a great overview of the Flinders River and Gilbert River catchment areas, Queensland’s Agriculture Minister and Director-General lacked passion and knowledge for their subject.
“A key message for us was that investors don’t like unstable political spaces,” she said. “With the current proposed vegetation management reinstatement, this is another set of alarm bells that Queensland is a volatile investment space and another repellent for anyone wanting to invest in the region – domestic or foreign.
“FRAP brought this to the attention of Minister Donaldson through the Food Futures panel.
“After a lengthy defence, she finished by saying she believed the new vegetation management reinstatement would encourage people to be innovative.”
Sara said the consensus was that this was an insensitive thing to say in front of farmers in northern Australia who had spent millions of their own dollars to provide food and fibre to the world, and who are affected greatly by overnight policy changes.
This was weighing on the minds of those who had tendered for Flinders River water allocations as well, according to Sara.
“We have landholders in the Flinders River catchment who have been pushing to unlock water in this region for decades, to drought-proof and diversify their beef operations, to be ‘innovative’ and sustainable.
“Finally, the second major water release for the catchment of 239,650mL is currently going through the tender process with DNRM and is due to be allocated by end of June 2016.
“While landholders in the district are eagerly waiting to hear if they will be offered this valuable commodity, the volatility of the Queensland government’s vegetation management reinstatement is heavily lingering in the back of their minds.
“If they purchase the water, will they be able to use the land for irrigation? Will they invest millions of dollars into this unstable state of Queensland?”
Sara said the government was “happily charging for water where there is no infrastructure supplied” and no current industry, “hoping for some economic development”, while on the other hand were trying to tie up the legs and arms of landholders to not be able to do anything with it.
“It makes no sense whatsoever and it is far from creating any sort of innovation in the region,” she said.
After listening to the issues and advice at the conference over the couple of days, Sara said Queensland had the “most incredible” opportunities.
“We don’t have the native title and tenure issues of our neighbours in WA and NT. We have a thriving, growing port of Townsville that is going ahead in leaps and bounds.
“We have existing agriculture developments in the north that we can build on and borrow from. The only thing we have lacking is foresight, interest and passion from our Agricultural Ministers and so-called leaders.
“The people in the region are ‘growing’ plants in the environment and repeatedly, making it a sustainable practice.
“It’s not as though we are clearing vegetation to put in millions of houses that use plastic lawns and jam five people on a 450m2 block who live in a throw-out society of incredible wastage.
“We are managing the environment we live in and we are making it brilliantly productive, on so many different levels.”