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ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION (CLEARING OF NATIVE VEGETATION) AMENDMENT REGULATIONS (NO. 2) 2013 — DISALLOWANCE
Pursuant to standing order 67(3), the following motion by Hon Robin Chapple was moved pro forma on 20 February—
That the Environmental Protection (Clearing of Native Vegetation) Amendment Regulations (No. 2) 2013 published in the Government Gazette on 3 December 2013 and tabled in the Legislative Council on 12 December 2013 under the Environmental Protection Act 1986, be and are hereby disallowed.
HON LYNN MacLAREN (South Metropolitan) [5.33 pm]: I am speaking on behalf of Hon Robin Chapple, who is away on urgent parliamentary business. As this motion was put on the notice paper some time ago, I believe it is important to give a bit of background about where we are at here.
Hon Paul Brown: Are you withdrawing?
Hon LYNN MacLAREN: No, sorry! We do not want to withdraw this.
On 3 December 2013 the Western Australian Minister for Environment, Hon Albert Jacob, announced that there would be amendments to the Environmental Protection (Clearing of Native Vegetation) Regulations, the purpose being to reduce red tape for farmers and land managers by making changes to the clearing rules for native vegetation. Hon Robin Chapple moved this motion to disallow those regulations following briefings that he and I had from the department on this matter. The changes to these regulations were in part brought about by a review undertaken by the Department of Environment Regulation to streamline approvals, which we know has been a theme of this government, and also to respond to the increase in the number of prosecutions against farmers who were in breach of the EP regulations. Members may recall the notable high-profile case of Max Szulc, a farmer who was imprisoned as a result of his actions, so there may be a bit of awareness in the wider public about concerns that farmers have about these clearing regulations.
The changes to these regulations took effect on 4 December last year and they potentially unlock significant areas of agricultural land throughout WA for the purposes of farming, as well as avoiding the need for clearing permits to be obtained in certain circumstances. The changes include increasing the time for owners and occupiers to maintain previously lawfully cleared areas for pasture, cultivation and forestry without a clearing permit from 10 to 20 years. They also include an increase in the total area allowed per financial year per property for prescribed clearing from one hectare to five hectares. “Limited clearing” means clearing to construct a building, for firewood, to provide fencing and farm materials, for woodwork along the fence line, for vehicular tracks, walking tracks and for isolated trees. The practical implications of such changes are significant insomuch as it will avoid the situation in which the beneficial use of land zoned for rural purposes is lost because the land has historically been underutilised by the increase of the maintenance provision to 20 years. The changes will also result in the reduction of red tape for land managers in respect of the requirement to obtain a clearing permit for clearing under five hectares in any given financial year in the circumstances I have just identified. Following the amendment, it is incumbent on farmers and managers alike to review the opportunity for clearing to maximise the beneficial use of their land holdings in accordance with the EP regulations and to ensure that all necessary precautions are taken in order to take advantage of these latest amendments. Members may not be aware, but the Environmental Protection Authority recently released environmental protection bulletin 20, which sets out its views and expectations for the design of urban and peri-urban development proposals. The bulletin applies to structure planning, scheme amendment and subdivision development proposals in WA, and it is of considerable value if we want to understand the expectations of the EPA.
That brings us to trying to disallow these clearing regulations. The government has advised us that the changes will deliver improvements to the regulation of clearing without causing any significant risk to the environment. They will reduce the administrative burden on farmers and land managers and implement a targeted education compliance and enforcement program to complement the introduction of the amended regulations. The government is also considering amendments to the Environmental Protection Act that, on this theme of streamlining, will continue to streamline approvals and improve regulatory effectiveness. The government has said several times that it is committed to new biodiversity conservation legislation that will replace the Wildlife Conservation Act. I am really looking forward to seeing that new legislation.
That is what the government says. This is what we say: the announcement of these recent approvals will see the doubling of the area of native forests destroyed by logging and a five-fold increase of clearing on farms. It is not just us saying that, and several organisations such as the Conservation Council of Western Australia are saying the same thing. Over the past 30 years, hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding has been spent on
restoring and replanting degraded farmland and native vegetation in order to tackle salinity—one of WA’s big crises—soil erosion, drying lands and to provide habitat for native wildlife. We have spent a lot of money and invested a lot in replacing what we have already cleared, and now the state government wants to allow further clearing of native bushland in the very areas that have been supported by these expensive Landcare and Natural Resource Management programs. This is insanity at its boldest. This assault on our environment by the Minister for Environment will accelerate the loss of native wildlife. In 2009, the Auditor General stated that the reason we are seeing more and more threatened species is due to a loss of habitat. So here again, what do we do? We go about destroying more habitats.
I have a particular concern that these clearing regulations will impact on the population of numbats, which is one of our state emblems, and on black cockatoos. In areas that have already seen a 25 per cent decline in rainfall, further clearing is only going to exacerbate the impact on farmlands, which are already feeling the effects of lower rainfall. We have had the debate on how clearing impacts rainfall. Research from the University of Western Australia illustrates this point. If members have not yet taken the time to examine the research from UWA that shows how clearing has impacted rainfall, please take the time to do so.
The Conservation Council of Western Australia is onside here. It believes —
Several members interjected.
The ACTING PRESIDENT (Hon Liz Behjat): Order!
Hon Ken Travers: Good to know that you are all awake.
The ACTING PRESIDENT: That “Order!” was for everyone.
Hon LYNN MacLAREN: Thank you, Madam Acting President. I appreciate that because it is important to put on the record what the Conservation Council believes.
The Conservation Council believes that the changes will allow a fivefold increase—Hon Colin Holt was holding up his hand as a five, questioning whether that is true, and several members have also questioned that verbally, whether or not Hansard has been able to record them—in clearing that will occur on farms, which puts at risk no less than three decades of effort to restore degraded lands. We know that we need to do more to combat climate change, and the Conservation Council thinks that too. This means protecting remnant bushland and habitats for wildlife, and this policy does the opposite. Over the last 30 years, the overwhelming tide of government policy has been to restore vegetation on farmland in order to tackle salinity and soil erosion. Programs provided by the Conservation Council that we have put a lot of taxpayers’ dollars into that have had good results include the state salinity strategy, a decade of Landcare, John Howard’s 1 Million Trees program, the Rudd government’s biodiversity fund, and even the current Prime Minister’s Direct Action program to tackle climate change. These programs have spent millions of dollars trying to restore our degraded lands. New data released by UWA researchers shows that the clearing of vegetation directly leads to a reduction in rainfall. That data was released last year, and was debated in this place.
In some regions less than five per cent of the natural vegetation remains in small remnant pockets on farms. Anyone who has taken the time to drive through the wheatbelt knows what I am talking about. I am talking about those long landscapes, looking out over the horizon, where only pockets of native vegetation remain. In some regions it is now critical habitat for endangered wildlife that are already on the brink of extinction. These pockets of land can now be cleared without a permit. I know the minister’s representative is about to say why the government thinks this a good idea, but already through questions on notice we have learned that the proposed changes to land clearing laws will increase the area of native vegetation that can be destroyed by landholders, without any control, from one hectare to five hectares per year. Clearing native vegetation has been the major destroyer of biodiversity in the south west and agricultural regions, and WA is currently spending millions of dollars on repair works as a result of previous clearing in the wheatbelt and the south west. From July 2008 to June 2013 the government authorised the destruction of 91 220 hectares of land. Given that conservatively there are 4 500 farming businesses in WA, that means an extra 18 000 hectares can be cleared each year. I understand that there has been no effort—I would be interested to hear the parliamentary secretary’s response to this—to quantify the area that has been cleared under exemptions to the clearing permit system.
From time to time I have asked questions and received a whole heap of information about the clearing permits and how much land has been exempted. I wonder if any government officer has actually counted up the number of hectares—all the square metres—to work out exactly how much native vegetation has already been cleared. The Department of Agriculture and Food’s report card on sustainable natural resource use in agriculture from 2013 reveals that WA farmers already forgo $344 million every year from land lost to salinity. Up to 4.5 million hectares of productive agricultural land is currently under threat.
As is the Greens’ way, when we move to disallow something, we also want to let the government know how we think it could be done better. Instead of the unfettered clearing proposed by this change to the clearing regulations, we have referred to the Environmental Defenders Office of WA and believe its guidelines for clearing should be put in place. I quote the guidelines —
Native vegetation should not be cleared if:
(a) it comprises a high level of diversity of plant species;
(b) it comprises the whole or part of, or is necessary for the maintenance of, a significant habitat for fauna indigenous to Western Australia;
(c) it includes, or is necessary for the continued existence of, flora declared to be rare under the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950;
(d) it comprises the whole or part of, or is necessary for the maintenance of, an ecological community declared under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) as threatened, endangered or vulnerable;
Hon Robyn McSweeney interjected.
Hon LYNN MacLAREN: If these pieces of land that I am describing with the quantities that they have are not under threat, then it should be of no consequence if we add these to the requirements.
Hon Robyn McSweeney: With what you have just said to me, it could be anything. You read what you just said back to me; it could be anything.
Hon LYNN MacLAREN: Well, I will give the member a copy of it. I am happy to distribute this.
The guidelines continue —
(e) it is significant as a remnant of native vegetation in an area that has been extensively cleared;
(f) it is growing in, or in association with, an environment associated with a watercourse or wetland;
(g) the clearing of the vegetation is likely to cause appreciable land degradation;
This is a good principle. I quote —
(h) the clearing of the vegetation is likely to have an impact on the environmental values of any conservation park, national park, nature reserve, marine nature reserve, marine park or marine management area;
(i) the clearing of the vegetation is likely to cause deterioration in the quality of surface or underground water; or
(j) the clearing of the vegetation is likely to cause, or exacerbate, the incidence or intensity of flooding.
These are good principles and I am sure if members had them in front of them they would see that they make the most sense for protecting native vegetation by prohibiting clearing in these circumstances. If in the Department of Environment Regulation’s opinion there is a good reason for making a decision that is seriously at variance with the clearing principles, then we say that DER must publish those reasons.
The Greens would seek to disallow these amendments to the clearing regulations. We believe that they will have a detrimental impact on our environment. There are principles we can put in place to ensure that our land can be passed on to future generations in a decent condition and without impacting on the fragile wildlife that we are already destroying in alarming numbers. We believe that the amendments to the clearing regulations put forward go too far. They relax the clearing permit system far too much. We need guidelines in place so that we do not lose anything else that is of value to the land or its native animals. These principles will also result in healthier farming land from which people who make their living on farms can sustain future generations.
This is not therefore a lose–lose situation. We are asking the government to continue the win–win situation and disallow this unfettered clearing. I know that if Hon Robin Chapple were in this place, he would make this case most passionately for his electorate of Mining and Pastoral Region. However, even I, as a member representing the South Metropolitan Region and with a view to planning systems that create a liveable city and a liveable place for us to inhabit —
The ACTING PRESIDENT (Hon Liz Behjat): Order!
Hon LYNN MacLAREN: As I was saying, even I, as a member representing a city electorate, recognise the potential detrimental impact of unfettered clearing in our state. I am therefore hoping that members will see the sense of this, having had an opportunity to reflect on what is potentially at loss here, and that they will turn back the clearing regulation changes. Unfortunately, in the way that the government has done this, it is a regulation that must be entirely disallowed for us to put in an amended clearing regulation. There is no opportunity for me at this late juncture to amend that regulation to put in place these safeguards we are proposing. I am therefore asking members to disallow these regulations to try to save what is left of our terrific biodiversity in Western Australia, and to find other ways to assist farmers, if they are having trouble sustaining their livelihoods on their land, without clearing any further native vegetation. If it were up to me, I would like to see much stronger controls and much stronger protections for native vegetation. Unfortunately, this clearing regulation takes us in the other direction. It is a big concern for all of us in the environmental movement that we could potentially lose what little we have left in some areas that are very degraded. With that, I ask that members support this disallowance motion.