The Palaszczuk government’s proposed regulations on native vegetation attack responsible farming and threaten agricultural development in regional Queensland.
The changes, being considered by a parliamentary committee, reverse a policy that allows farmers to clear high-value agricultural land to put it to productive use.
Those laws were a sensible attempt to find a balance between environmental conservation and agricultural development. They allowed farmers to extract value from their land while still requiring them to minimise over-clearing by self-assessing their activities against codes of conduct.
The proposed laws are a further step away from balance in favour of environmental absolutism. The presumption underlying the effective prohibition of agricultural land-clearing is that environmental protection cannot coexist with agricultural development.
Indeed, it suggests that there is no situation where the benefits of developing land could ever outweigh the costs of clearing shrubbery and trees from farmland.
This is extreme and ignores many economic benefits — to farmers and the state and the nation — of releasing land otherwise locked up by the government. It is not surprising over the period 2012-13 to 2015-16 the gross value of agriculture commodities produced in Queensland increased by almost 30 per cent — about double the national increase — and it became Australia’s most valuable agricultural state.
By comparison, the gross value of agricultural production in NSW and Victoria over the same period increased by just 7.9 per cent and 12.46 per cent respectively.
A number of other assumptions are clouding the land-clearing debate. Claims that land is being cleared at Brazil-like levels since 2013 are overblown. In 2015-16 just a quarter of 1 per cent of Queensland’s land area was cleared. And about two-thirds of vegetation management carried out by farmers is to control regrowth areas that had previously been cleared, for routine farm maintenance such as the erection of fences and tracks, and to stop encroachment of trees and shrubs into naturally open grassland areas.
And this doesn’t say anything at all about the extent of vegetation that has grown back since 2013. As The Australian reported yesterday, the Department of Science remote-sensing centre leader Dan Tindall has conceded that the satellite mapping of regrowth is a “very difficult thing to do” and that “the possibility exists” that more trees are growing back than are being cut down.
The reason why land-clearing has not been occurring at reckless rates under laws enacted by the former Newman government is because farmers know how to get the most out of their land in the least destructive way.
This leads to the other assumption underlying environmental absolutism: the idea that farmers don’t know how to manage their land so it must be publicly managed. In other words, the public interest in environmental conservation means private property rights are irrelevant.
But property rights give land owners an incentive to care for their land — they know their livelihoods depend on environmentally sustainable practices. This may mean economising land use or the use of more efficient and environmentally friendly machinery and technology.
They certainly don’t need city-based bureaucrats, professional politicians or coastal activists to tell them how to do their job.
The government also transfers the cost of protecting the environment from the public to the landowners. This distorts how people understand the costs of environmental-protection regulations. For instance, the explanatory notes for the new proposals estimate the “financial cost of administering the legislation (to be) cost-neutral”, but ignores the very real cost to farmers in lost agricultural production, a cost that flows to consumers across Australia.
Sterilisation of farmland may feel good but it will make life much harder for our farmers. Nor will it put food on the tables of families already struggling to keep up with the cost of living. IPA research last month illustrated how government-regulated and subsidised sectors are driving up the cost of living. Wage growth has slightly outpaced the increase in food prices since 1997, but this will be more difficult if governments continue to pile regulations on food producers.
Red tape costs the national economy about $176 billion each year in lost economic output. The Palaszczuk government needs to ignore the environmental absolutists’ low-growth agenda and start cutting red tape to unleash prosperity for Queenslanders.