Reef rules risk another vegetation debacle: industry

Great Barrier Reef legislation the new regulation battle


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Sugarcane farmer Vince Papale at his property at Home Hill, 90 kilometres south of Townsville, in 2016, where he built a wetland that traps and filters pollution off his farm. Photo by Jason South.

Sugarcane farmer Vince Papale at his property at Home Hill, 90 kilometres south of Townsville, in 2016, where he built a wetland that traps and filters pollution off his farm. Photo by Jason South.

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Bureaucratic intrusions, regulations that cause more problems than they solve, momentum undermined - these are a selection of the comments that agricultural industry bodies have greeted the introduction of new Great Barrier Reef protection laws with.

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Bureaucratic intrusions, regulations that cause more problems than they solve, undermining momentum - these are a selection of the comments that agricultural industry bodies have greeted the introduction of new reef protection laws with.

The Environmental Protection (Great Barrier Reef Protection Measures) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 was introduced in the Queensland Parliament last week, accompanied by claims from Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch that it would support the staged roll-out of enhanced protection for all reef regions and relevant industries.

According to Ms Enoch, while many farmers, councils, community members and industries had voluntarily invested time and resources to reduce water pollution flowing to the reef, progress hadn't been fast or widespread enough.

Despite the record $330m government investment, $261m to water quality programs, regulation was needed to drive progress towards 2050 targets, she said.

“If we don’t shift the dial and make major changes, the Great Barrier Reef will continue to deteriorate.”

It's a case of deja vu for primary producers and industry groups that fought the introduction of punitive vegetation management legislation last year, in the face of years of study groups, consultation that was ignored, and a big brother approach to managing environmental stewardship.

Repeating the call to consult widely with actual stakeholders, AgForce president Georgie Somerset said not to do so would risk another "vegetation management debacle".

Current regulations will be extended to grain growers as well as graziers, and all six reef catchments will be included, vastly increasing the number of farmers that would be affected.

"For starters, this may stifle plans to expand the grain industry in northern Queensland by restricting new farms," Ms Somerset said.

"And as with all such regulations, the administrative and financial onus for compliance is on the producer.

"The necessity for graziers to develop a stocking plan and a schedule of activities to improve areas in poor land condition, and to keep records for six years, is a significant impost on many recovering from floods or still in drought."

Related: Woodleigh a water quality winner

The record keeping would extend to fertiliser sellers, agronomists and the like - anyone who advised agriculture, according to Property Rights Australia president, Joanne Rea.

Noting there will be a sediment level and dissolved inorganic nitrogen level set catchment by catchment, she wondered how they would take heavy rain events into consideration.

"No amount of regulation or preparation will reduce the amount of sediment and fresh water that flows to the reef from a significant rain event," she said. "How are they going to set a baseline, and manage it? It would vary between floods and droughts."

The state government said the proposed regulations would:

  • Eliminate outdated, higher risk practices and help drive improved land management and industry practice
  • Set catchment pollution load limits for nutrients and sediments for the 35 Reef river basins. The limits will be based on the water quality targets in the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan
  • Set regulated commodity-specific minimum practice standards that limit nutrient and sediment runoff from sugar cane, grazing, bananas, grains and horticultural activities
  • Ensure there is no decline in water quality from new development.
  • Provide a regulation-making power about collecting data from the agricultural sector
  • Broaden the reach of current Reef protection regulations from sugar cane to include more areas and a broader range of agricultural activities.

The bill's ability to allow the state government to demand information from any advisor or company working with cane farmers rang alarm bells for Canegrowers chairman Paul Schembri and the sugar industry's supply chain.

“Nothing will be safe from the cold hand of the bureaucratic big brother," he said.

The environmental impact statements that mining companies are subjected to are also on the horizon, for farmers with an area of land that hasn't been cropped for some time.

“This amounts to the Labor Party telling us we can’t expand our industry onto land our growers already own and manage, without government approval," Mr Schembri said.

He pointed to the independently assessed best management practices program, Smartcane BMP, as an example of growers taking their responsibilities towards reef water quality seriously.

“The program has recorded real and positive momentum with participation going from zero to 70 per cent of the state’s sugarcane area within five years."

In the most sensitive area for reef water quality, the Wet Tropics, Smartcane BMP involvement has been strongest, with over a third of the area now independently accredited at operating at or above industry best practice.

Across the state, 90pc of growers engaged with Smartcane BMP are now applying fertilisers underground to prevent any washing away, 80pc of the cane is cut green with a mulch/trash blanket left on the paddock, and 80pc of growers use fallow rotations to protect and nourish their soil between cane crops.

While Ms Enoch said a range of stakeholders had been closely involved in consultation for two years - a range of peak bodies representing everything from banana growers and sugar millers to cattle producers and horticultural bodies were included - Canegrowers said the government's intention was always to expand regulations.

“What we should be seeing is the removal of regulations in the areas where growers have proven the highest commitment and results towards reef water quality," Mr Schembri said.

“Huge changes have been made and the sugarcane growers of Queensland should be congratulated.

“But instead, with the introduction of this bill, the Labor Party is telling growers that no matter what you do, how much you spend or change the way you run your farm, we will shift the goal posts on you again and again.”

Benefits not guaranteed

Both Canegrowers and the Queensland Farmers’ Federation said the proposed new reef catchment regulations couldn't guarantee any benefits for the Great Barrier Reef.

QFF president Stuart Armitage described regulation as a high cost, simplistic instrument that supported minimum standards of compliance at the expense of true practice change that did little to encourage a culture of innovation and excellence.

Voluntary management improvement programs such as the Reef Alliance’s Growing a Great Barrier Reef project were starting to deliver results and had good buy-in from farmers.

Read more: Landholders drive reef protection blueprints

"Increasing regulation is likely to undermine this momentum and will come at significant cost," Mr Armitage said. "It would be far better to invest that additional cost in existing voluntary programs that are working.”

PRA's  Joanne Rea said some of the rules were simply ridiculous.

"There's one about fencing saltwater creeks. Cattle aren't going to drink from it but you fence it off and you create a fire hazard."

The LNP's spokesman for Agriculture, Tony Perrett, said that unlike Labor, the LNP didn't treat farmers like villains.

“Farmers have been blindsided with these regulations without proper consultation," he said. “These laws are an attack on farmers' property rights and they go well beyond getting the balance correct."

More information on the regulatory proposals including the Decision Regulatory Impact Statement and the Bill is available online.

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