August 24th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Biological and transgender worldviews are mutually exclusive

CANBERRA OBSERVED Can you have too much of a renewables thing?

FREEDOM OF SPEECH Professor Augusto Zimmermann addresses NCC WA on freedoms

NSW ABORTION BILL Clear and present danger to women's health

RURAL AFFAIRS Land-clearing laws render productive land useless and worthless

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Why an indigenous referendum is misconceived

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY The post-liberal way: Make good use of the time in the wilderness

ASIAN AFFAIRS Hong Kong defies its obtrusive overlord

SPECIAL FILM REVIEW Danger Close: Australia's fiercest battle of the Vietnam War

HUMOUR Rage against the baked bean

MUSIC Riff wrap: The thing that makes it go 'pop'

CLASSIC CINEMA Dr Strangelove: Helpless fear turned to laughter

BOOK REVIEW The epic awfulness of Mao and his 'isms'

BOOK REVIEW From slave to son of the Church




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Land-clearing laws render productive land useless and worthless

by Chris McCormack

News Weekly, August 24, 2019


  • Federal and state clearing laws usurp private property rights
  • Hundreds of farmers face prosecution for clearing land
  • The Queensland Government is rendering people’s land worthless

State and federal laws regulating land use in Australia are analogous to totalitarian control, where landowners are fined and jailed for utilising their own land.

The difference an exclamation makes:
The view on the left seems to be
being promoted rather vigorously.

In Queensland, bureaucrats can lock up swathes of a person’s property, rendering their private land unusable and potentially worthless. Central Queenslander Colin Dunne told the ABC he recently viewed the protected plants flora survey trigger map, which shows blue dots “identif[ying] high-risk areas where endangered, vulnerable or near threatened native plants are present or are likely to be present” and discovered the Government had placed so many blue dots on the map, it rendered 93.6 per cent of his 4,500-hectare property unusable. Last year, the trigger map showed no blue dots on his property.

AgForce chief executive Michael Guerin said the map, designed by the Department of Environment and Science, overrode the Property Map of Assessable Vegetation (PMAV) overseen by the Department of Natural Resources, which had been a document set bet­ween landholders and the government. Mr Guerin said if anyone grazed stock on blue areas, they could be fined up to $400,000 for a Level 1 offence. The only option available to use the land is to hire ecological surveyors at an estimated cost of $10,000 a day to “certify that they found no endangered, vulnerable or near threatened plants in the area – nor within 100 metres of the area”.

Guerin, speaking to The Weekly Times, said it could drive down property prices “by millions of dollars” and that “there appears to be no available scientific, ecological or cartographic rationale for how these new maps … have been developed.”

An article in Queensland Country Life, “Palaszczuk’s trigger mapping exposed as a joke”, on June 18, 2019, shows Brisbane landmarks on the map deemed to be “high-risk areas” include Suncorp Stadium, the “Gabba”, the Convention and Exhibition Centre and man-made Southbank Parklands.

Elsewhere, the Dalby TAFE, High School, airport runway and nearby cultivated areas, canals on the Sunshine Coast, the Charleville and Blackwater airports and mines and coal stockpiles in Central Queensland are nonsensically singled out for “high risk” classification. A Bundaberg real estate agent said blocks in the area that had blue dots on them were now unsaleable.

A disclaimer on the map says: “The Department of Environment and Science makes no representations or warranties about its accuracy, reliability … and disclaims all responsibility and all liability … for all expenses, losses, damages … and costs which might be incurred as a result of the information being inaccurate or incomplete in any way and for any reason.”

So, with a tap from a bureaucrat’s keyboard, landholders’ property rights, life savings and future livelihoods are destroyed, with zero accountability from government.

It seems Queensland’s ALP Government is whipping up the perfect storm to destroy farming, in what is “part of a suite of initiatives the Palaszczuk Government is delivering to protect our environment, tackle climate change and reduce carbon emissions”, Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch said.

On May 3, 2018, the Vegetation Management and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2018 (Qld) passed Parliament, after previously failing in 2016. Clearing permits for high-value agriculture and high-value irrigated agriculture and other mapped categories can no longer be obtained and new permits must be obtained for clearing in a watercourse. New restrictions now apply to tree thinning with maximum fines for “illegal” clearing having tripled to more than half a million dollars.

Further restrictions have been placed on how farmers can harvest mulga. The mulga tree is ubiquitous in central Queensland and pushing the tree over allows stock to access the leaves, a saviour in times of drought. If left to grow unchecked, mulga can become impenetrable, choking out any other vegetation. Charleville farmer Dan McDonald was hit with a $112,468.82fine for “carrying out development without a permit”, after pushing trees to feed his cows.

Broadcaster Alan Jones, who has highlighted the case, has told him not to pay the fine. For McDonald and many other farmers coping with years of drought, mulga is the only feed remaining for stock so malnourished that, in some cases, stock transporters have refused to load them to take to market.

Last December, the Palaszczuk Government also closed the stock routes indefinitely, removing another avenue of last resort for farmers short on feed in times of drought.

The New South Wales Berejiklian Government relaxed clearing laws in 2017 by scrapping the ALP’s Native Vegetation Act, after a backlash from farmers and a 2014 review of biodiversity legislation saying the laws were complex, confusing and onerous. Numerous farmers had been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for clearing their land. In one case, a farmer facing prosecution by the Office of Environment and Heritage murdered an environment officer.

An article in The Land (“Hundreds of prosecutions still in wings under old veg laws”, July 5, 2019)suggested that more than 100 farmers are facing prosecution under the old land clearing laws. However, Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall said he was working on negating “dated” prosecutions still in the pipeline. Under the old laws, landowners could have areas of their farm locked up for between 25 and 100 years for “illegal” clearing.

But there are still problems with the new codes, which mistakenly identify the introduced noxious weed African lovegrass, as native pasture. Despite the code allowing block areas of woody weeds to be removed, the Audit Office is recommending nil soil disturbance, which means only individual woody stems can be removed. If its recommendations are adopted, it would destroy the trust between farmers and Local Land Services, one farmer said.

In a further threat to landholder’s rights, the Nature Conservation Council is agitating for another review and the immediate suspension of code-based land clearing.

The federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) also places restrictions on land use if it is likely to impact on a “matter of national significance”, which includes specific species such as Carnaby’s cockatoo, listed migratory species, ecological systems such as Ramsar Wetlands, and any environmental value declared to have World Heritage Properties. The Banksia Woodlands of the Swan Coastal Plain in Western Australia is one area so identified.

The draconian land-clearing laws in much of Australia seem to be aimed at maintaining “biodiversity”. In effect, it is state control of private land. Why is the private landholder forced effectively to surrender use of their land and bear the brunt of financial losses in government’s pursuit of “biodiversity”. Surely, once a person has purchased land with their hard-earned savings, they should be entitled to do with that land what they wish.

The way I see it, one of two things should happen. The federal and state governments should concentrate on maintaining crown-land areas where biodiversity can flourish (the NSW Government has outlined a $45 million, 20,000-plus hectare koala habitat being added to national parks), while allowing landholders complete control of their land without any need for clearing permits. Or, if the federal and state governments are determined to enforce biodiversity on currently private land, they should offer to purchase areas of land that have been refused a clearing or development permit and pay compensation at least equivalent to the value of the surrounding land, with loss of future income for the landholder also factored in.

Of course, the landowner would not be obliged to accept any offer. If landowners lose the right to utilise their land, at least this would ensure property rights were not lost without compensation to the owner.

In Victoria, the Andrews ALP Government tightened laws around vegetation removal in 2017 with changes to the native vegetation removal regulations. Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) Land Management Committee chairman Gerald Leach said: “The regulations have never considered agricultural productivity and the changes to the regulations in December 2017 have actually made it more difficult than previously … [The regulations] are designed to stop people clearing, not designed to enhance native vegetation … as they make it too difficult to provide offsets.”

Offsets allow farmers to clear vegetation in one area and offset this with added vegetation somewhere else. He advocated an incentives-based rather than punitive-based approach, enabling farmers to be fairly compensated for creating clearing offsets, which would benefit both the landholder and the environment.

Mr Leach said a problem affecting many farmers was the inability now to remove isolated paddock trees (scattered trees where there is no understorey providing a wildlife corridor and which have reduced lifespans, in any case, because of their isolation). This prevented farmers using modern GPS and auto­steer technologies when cropping by having to steer manually around isolated trees, thereby adding expense by “double sewing” and “double spraying”, as well as extra time spent cropping.

Apart from isolated trees, Mr Leach said the regulations also prevented farmers from sewing crops on land where native grasses were present.

Another problem he identified was that the federal EPBC Act identifies the red-tailed black cockatoo, among others, as a threatened species and prevents farmers from utilising land where the species is present.

In relation to the Victorian regulation changes in 2017, he said: “It’s meant to be difficult to follow. I don’t think the farmer could comply with those regulations now without engaging a consultant.”

Mr Leach said the regulations create a lose-lose situation whereby the environment and agricultural productivity are the losers, and that he receives regular complaints from farmers unable to clear land. The VFF advocated with the National Farmers Federation (NFF) for a “one stop shop” for landholders to go to when applying for a native vegetation-clearing permit, whereby federal and state requirements could be made clear in a single application. That proposal has not been implemented.

In Western Australia, in response to farmers being fined and jailed for land clearing described as just “good farm management that needed to happen”, the Barnett Coalition government in 2013 changed land-clearing regulations by increasing the amount of land able to be cleared per financial year from one to five hectares. Landowners also were given 20 years instead of 10 to develop land previously cleared lawfully, without re-applying for a clearing permit.

Prior to the change in regulations, Esperance farmer Maxwell Szulc was jailed twice for land clearing, on one occasion for 15 months for ignoring a court order prohibiting him from continuing to clear a firebreak around his property. Kukerin farmer Matthew King spent $100,000 on legal fees and was fined $23,000 for “illegal” clearing prior to the new regulations, after unsuccessfully applying five times for a clearing permit.

Other instances of West Australian landowners facing charges for clearing their land prior to the regulation change abound, and, while the new regulations have made it better, there are still state and federal restrictions that inhibit landowners’ ability to use their land in the way they see fit.

In Australia, we seem to have quasi-private land ownership. You may have paid for it, but it doesn’t mean you can actually use it. The totalitarian federal and state government regulations around land use make “investing” in property a highly risky proposition.

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