THE MOST ANTI-FARMER, ANTI-AGRICULTURE & ANTI-RURAL BILL EVER
One of my most personally satisfying reforms as Natural Resources Minister in the former LNP Government, was our landmark reforms to the Vegetation Management Act (VMA). After more than a decade of constant ideological persecution by successive Beattie and Bligh Labor Government’s (driven by several election preference deals with the Greens), the LNP’s changes delivered some much needed relief to landowners and some common sense to the legislation.
Last week, the Palaszczuk Government introduced the Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 into the Queensland Parliament, to deliver on the pre-2015 state election preference deal between Labor and the Greens. The provisions of the bill are undoubtedly draconian and will unleash a new level of pain on the agriculture sector. Labor’s action has cast a dark shadow of uncertainty over Queensland’s regional communities.
Lead by left faction boss, Deputy Premier Jackie Trad and supported by her political lap dog, Environment Minister Steven Miles, Labor’s proposed changes are more extensive and aggressive than simply overturning the LNP’s 2013 changes. This 2016 bill is the most anti-farmer, anti-agriculture and anti-rural community document ever presented to the Queensland Parliament. Considering the record of the Beattie/Bligh era, that’s certainly saying something.
WHAT HAPPENDED LAST WEEK?
As Shadow Minister for Natural Resources, last week I took the unprecedented step of voting against the introduction of a bill [Labor’s Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016] into the Queensland Parliament. I make no apologies for doing so, because to me, this bill embodies a decade and a half of repugnant, state-sanctioned property right theft and unjustified political violence against Queensland’s farmers and landholders.
Unfortunately, the bill proceeded with the support of all Labor MPs and all Independent MPs, including Cook MP Billy Gordon, Cairns MP Rob Pyne and the Speaker, Nicklin MP Peter Wellington. It was then referred to a parliamentary committee. Labor proposed a committee reporting date of 15 April 2016. The LNP successfully moved an amendment to set a reporting date of 30 June 2016 – passed with the support of the Katter Party and Cairns MP, Rob Pyne.
THE CONTENT OF THE BILL
In 2013, the LNP restored the right of landowners to manage regrowth vegetation on freehold and indigenous freehold land and established a number of self-assessable codes for routine land management practices such as managing encroachment and woody weeds, fodder harvesting and thinning. These codes have been very successful at reducing the time and cost of complying with and administering the VMA for landowners and the Queensland Government respectively.
However, arguably our most import reform was the new purpose for High Value and High Value Irrigated agriculture. This mechanism provided a pathway for the sustainable growth of Queensland’s agriculture sector that was not previously allowed under Labor’s proscriptive and inflexible VMA. A robust assessment process was established and successfully used to expand existing and create new high value and irrigated agriculture projects across Queensland.
The Palaszczuk Government’s bill completely repeals the important High Value Agriculture and High Value Irrigated Agriculture pathway. This threatens to bring the sustainable expansion of Queensland’s agriculture sector and future economic growth in regional Queensland to a screaming halt. At a time when Queensland’s agriculture sector as a leading domestic and export producer of quality food and fibre is in focus, this change – to be polite – is counter-intuitive.
Freehold and indigenous freehold landowners will again be stripped of their rights to manage regrowth vegetation on their properties – a restriction introduced after the squalid Labor/Green preference deal struck ahead of the 2009 state election. Once again, absolutely no compensation is provided for in the Palaszczuk Government’s bill, which again seizes the private property rights of rural landholders to manage vegetation on their properties, supposedly in the ‘public interest’.
Category R vegetation restrictions adjacent to watercourses are currently in place for the Mackay/Whitsunday, Burdekin and Wet Tropics catchments – another legacy of the 2009 Labor/Green deal. This 2016 bill proposes to extend Category R vegetation restrictions into Eastern Cape York Peninsula, Fitzroy and Burnett/Mary catchments, impacting thousands of rural landholders for the first time. This is a huge area of Queensland placed under new regulations.
CIVIL LIBERTIES, FUNDAMENTAL LEGISLATIVE PRINCIPLES & RETROSPECTIVITY
The LNP’s 2013 changes addressed some long standing matters in the VMA that were offensive to people’s individual rights and established fundamental legislative principles of the Queensland Parliament. This included correcting the reversal of the onus of proof, making ‘mistake of fact’ available as a defence and removing the compulsion to give evidence against oneself from the Act. Regrettably, we had rarely heard any civil libertarians advocating for Queensland farmers.
A number of severe breaches of civil liberties and fundamental legislative principles are now proposed to make an inglorious return in Labor’s bill. This includes the re-instatement of the reversal of the onus of proof – meaning farmers will again be considered guilty until proven innocent – and removing ‘mistake of fact’ as a defence for alleged offences involving vegetation management activities. Criminals in Queensland will again have more rights than landholders.
While the provisions in the Palaszczuk Government’s bill are extensive and aggressive, horrifically, they are also retrospective to 17 March 2016. Despite not being agreed to by the Queensland Parliament, these proposals are effectively in place as of the date of introduction into the house. Existing rights to manage vegetation and procedural rights that normally accrue with respect to lodged applications on foot, have been unceremoniously thrown out the window.
NORTH QUEENSLAND PAYS THE HIGHEST PRICE
As a North Queenslander, I particularly lament the fact that North Queensland will pay the highest price if the Palaszczuk Labor Government’s proposals succeed – a particularly cruel blow given opportunities on the Cape and in the Gulf were set to be key economic drivers and job creators. Also in North Queensland, indigenous communities will face yet another barrier, denying them the opportunity to develop their freehold land for the economic and social benefit for their people.
At a time when the Federal LNP Government is pushing to develop Northern Australia, the Palaszczuk Government – in conjunction with ideologically driven extreme green groups – is absurdly doing the opposite by moving to block opportunities in North Queensland to pursue new agriculture projects and precincts which involve soon to be prohibited vegetation management activities. This Labor-Green alliance is conspiring to deny North Queensland a chance to grow.
FAILURE OF CONSULTATION
The positive steps forward taken by the former LNP Government on Queensland’s vegetation management framework are under serious threat from Labor, due to yet another pre-state election preference deal with the Greens. Late last year, Premier Palaszczuk humiliated her Natural Resources Minister, Anthony Lynham, by stripping him of his responsibility for the VMA and handing it over to a green left wing ideologue, Jackie Trad – an ominous sign for landowners.
Minister Lynham’s supposedly iron clad commitment to Queensland’s agriculture peak bodies and landowners – that Labor would only make changes after a consultative roundtable process produced a report with recommendations – lies in tatters. The roundtable met only once and has not produced a report, or any recommendations. Reportedly, the extreme green groups refused to attend the roundtable discussions, underlining the political emasculation of Minister Lynham.
Instead, the extreme greens lobbied the Palaszczuk Government directly, demanding Labor implement their preferred changes to the VMA. This is a disturbingly familiar course of events for the agriculture sector. In a Matter of Public Importance speech in the Queensland Parliament last week, I outlined the complete failure of this consultation process as a key reason why the LNP Opposition would take the unprecedented step of voting against the introduction of the bill.
THE CHALLENGE AHEAD
Labor’s indifference towards agriculture and Queensland’s regional communities is once again on display. If the provisions of the Palaszczuk Government’s punitive vegetation management bill are agreed to by the Queensland Parliament, it will send a violent shudder through the confidence of our agricultural sector and cripple the prospects of significant investment in Queensland’s regions. However, in the current hung parliament, the result is far from certain.
The LNP delivered much needed, common sense changes to the vegetation management framework in 2013. The LNP stands resolute and absolutely committed to defend those reforms. As Labor gears up for another assault on the property rights of landowners in Queensland, I want it make it very clear that both I and our entire parliamentary team will fight them every inch of the way. However, we do need your support and assistance to spread the word and raise awareness.
While the LNP fought for and secured extra time for the parliamentary committee to take submissions and prepare a report on the bill, its provisions were obviously prepared by the extreme green groups. They have insider status with the Palaszczuk Labor Government. We need landholders and regional communities to reach out to urban residents and metropolitan communities to help bridge the gap between the cities and the bush. This is a call to arms.