Speech on Native Vegetation Amendment Bill 2014
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM [8.46 p.m.]: I will inject some reason and science into debate on the Native Vegetation Amendment Bill 2014. It is a sad state of affairs if the Parliament has to rely on me for reason and science, but this issue more than any other in this State should be depoliticised. This is a matter of science, a matter of ecology. As a student of ecological agriculture at the University of Sydney my favourite topic of study was ecological restoration and ecological history.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: What is your degree in?
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: Land management and ecological agriculture.
The Hon. Trevor Khan: I thought you were a stonemason.
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: Yes, that is right. I have also been to university—although I do not crow about it. I did land management at university and the issue is—
The Hon. Duncan Gay: So you passed?
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: Of course I did. The issue is—
The DEPUTY-PRESIDENT (The Hon. Jennifer Gardiner): Order! It is difficult to hear Mr Jeremy Buckingham’s contribution.
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: Most people engaged in the debate about native vegetation do not know what they are talking about, because in this State we do not have the data on which to base a rational, reasonable, scientific, ecological argument. I bring the House’s attention to the most recent data in the “NSW Annual Report on Native Vegetation”, which refers to the state of native vegetation in New South Wales. It states:
- The report does not identify gains in woody vegetation due to planting and natural regrowth.
That means there was no assessment of planting and regrowth. The report’s summary of native vegetation in this State concludes that there was a total reduction in the area of woody vegetation in New South Wales in the past year of 117,000 hectares. How can the Office of Environment and Heritage [OEH] say that when we have not measured regeneration and revegetation? I learned at university that vegetation change is constant. When we look at the oil paintings of the Central West done at the time of the pioneers and early mining leases, we see that the hills were denuded. We do not know what native vegetation was like in 1050, in 1750, in 1850 or in 1950. We are making it up, and it is a sad indictment on this State that we are still making it up. There are some things that we do know. I disagree with some in the environment movement—
The Hon. Duncan Gay: Not many of them.
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: The Hon. Duncan Gay would be surprised. I believe most of the vegetation clearing that has occurred in this State is historical. For example, who cleared the Lachlan Valley? It was Chinese miners. Once the gold ran out they were employed to ringbark trees around the State. I have had the good fortune to talk to many farmers in and around the Lachlan Valley and the Macquarie Valley over the past 20 years. Some of those old fellows, and a lot of them have passed on now—
The Hon. Niall Blair: And women.
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: No, it was not the women. These fellows were out there ringbarking. Some of them spent 30 or 40 years ringbarking trees all over the countryside. They were told that that was the best thing to do. The suggestion that all vegetation clearing has occurred in more recent times is just not true. In my opinion nothing cleared vegetation out of this country more than the introduction of sheep. Sheep and grazing in the latter part of the nineteenth century, especially in the Western Division, denuded the landscape. But it is now recovering. It is shameful that we are having this debate about the state of native vegetation in New South Wales when no-one—not the Office of Environment and Heritage [OEH] and not anyone in this Chamber—can state what the true situation is. I draw the attention of honourable members to the issue of Bald Knob.
The Hon. Rick Colless: Careful!
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: I am not talking about the Hon. Niall Blair—some people may have thought I was. The issue is that all over this State there are places called Bald Ridge, Bald Hill and Bald Knob but they are not bald anymore: They are covered in vegetation. The case in point is the area behind Murwillumbah. I used this as a case study when I was at university. It is now a World Heritage area and covered in rainforest, because no-one can stop that vegetation regrowing. We need to take the heat out of this debate. Coming into this place and throwing rhetorical rocks at each other in debate on native vegetation is wrong. The debate should be based on science. We should consider the historical record—what we know was there and what has happened over time. We know that the ecology of Western New South Wales has changed. We need to manage it, and I think the property vegetation plans [PVPs] are a good way to do that. In 2010 half a million hectares of vegetation was approved for clearing in New South Wales under PVPs. Since the inception of PVPs four million hectares of land—or 5 per cent of the State—have been approved for clearing under the plans.
The majority of farmers do not need to clear; they are doing the right thing. The majority of good country that is suitable for agriculture and that is productive and producing is already cleared. But some changes need to occur. We need to consider the issues and ask some questions. Should we allow farmers to farm? Do the plans work with modern machinery and the like? I believe the bill represents a massive step backwards and, in the absence of that data, is entirely unnecessary. Should we know how much vegetation there is in this State? Yes. Do we know that? No. The majority of farmers I have met who entered into PVPs said they were good, they were not onerous and they delivered a productivity outcome—dealing with woody weeds—and a biodiversity outcome.
Birds Australia is recording a massive recovery in most of the threatened and endangered species of woodland birds in New South Wales because the vegetation is coming back and because farmers recognise the value of native pasture species. That is one of the silly things about this bill: There is no recognition of the value and productivity of danthonias, kangaroo grasses, wallaby grasses and similar types of grasses. I have spoken at length about that with the NSW Farmers Association and its representatives in different regions; indeed, I speak to farmers about it all the time. This issue is my grand passion. Absolutely fundamental to how we deal with the environment in New South Wales and in Australia is how we manage vegetation on farm.
I think this bill is a step backwards. We need to take the heat out of this debate. We know there is too much heat in this debate because we have the big, bold promises from The Nationals. The Lane review into native vegetation regulations made some sensible recommendations. But we did not have a chance even to draw breath before that review was trashed by the Leader of The Nationals and we had another review. We had a review immediately after a review because the first was not good enough and the Government wanted to create a holding pattern. What happened during that period? The NSW Farmers Association, frustrated, went to work with the Shooters and Fishers Party—as is their right. I agree with some of what they say; I do not agree with a lot of what has been said.
Whether it is the Total Environment Centre or the NSW Farmers Association, how can we talk clearly about the state of the different ecosystems, the different ecotones and the biodiversity of this State if we are not mapping it? The Office of Environment and Heritage has not produced a native vegetation report for the past two years. There is no doubt about it: Historical land clearing, which from day one was done with good intentions in order to open up the country and introduce agriculture, had a massive negative impact on biodiversity, soil and so on. But it is not just a linear equation. Certain areas of the State have been transformed—especially since the 1970s and 1980s when we expanded the national park estate and started to develop an understanding of our ecology and the management of our forests. The Hon. Duncan Gay will know that areas around Crookwell and Tuena—vast areas that are in private hands—are regenerating. These areas were traditionally given over to mining and sheep farming. But those operations are no longer viable and the areas are regenerating.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: With the exception of one national park, it is still farming land in my area.
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: Kanangra-Boyd National Park, adjacent to that area, is one of the largest ecological restorations in the State.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: You haven’t been to Crookwell. That national park is not in Crookwell.
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: It is not far as the crow flies. It is not on the other side of the world; it is only a couple of kilometres down the road. There has been a massive change in the landscape there. Despite what the Hon. Duncan Gay says, there are not as many farmers out there and the intensity of agriculture is not as great. We should be assessing the results. Rather than rushing off to our respective corners and coming back with cant and rhetoric every single time someone mentions native vegetation, we need to base this debate on ecology. We need to do a proper assessment. The Office of Environment and Heritage would classify some parts of the State as semi-arid savanna. But anyone who goes there will see that it is now grassy woodland. It has changed; it is restoring. There is no doubt about it. But no-one is monitoring it. I return to the point I made earlier about Bald Ridge and Bald Hill. These places were cleared and now they have regenerated. This bill is a retrograde step. It is entirely unnecessary. Politicians should leave this issue alone; I think we should leave it to the ecologists.
The Hon. Luke Foley: Mr Jeremy Buckingham should take the lead then.
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: I certainly have taken the lead. The major parties do not like it because it is not in their political interests. This issue is the horse that the Government flogs and flogs, and then gets bad outcomes. Government members incite the community and inflame tensions. That is what happened at Croppa Creek. This bill is about wind back. Those opposite would not act; they beat up the issue and then left it to the Shooters and Fishers Party. This bill is a retrograde step. Winding back penalties for the clearing of native vegetation is entirely unnecessary. The majority of farmers are doing the right thing and it annoys the hell out of them that people doing the wrong thing will receive a reduced penalty.
New provisions that basically put all vegetation, all ecosystems, all ecotones into one category will mean the clearing of wetlands, grasslands, savanna, woodlands and important species. In certain areas it may be be highly fragmented and remnant vegetation and it is all categorised as one and may be potentially destroyed. New South Wales, which has a massive land mass, has an opportunity to be at the forefront of carbon farming and carbon sequestration. If the Government listened to the pioneers and the visionaries behind the carbon farming initiative, particularly Louise Kylie from Carbon Farming Australia and some of the scientists based in the University of New England in Armidale—
The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps: Carbon farming?
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: It is your policy now—direct action. You are funding it; you just put $2.5 billion into it. Congratulations, but you need the science to do it. One of my achievements in this place of which I am the most proud is the legislation in relation to local land services when I moved an amendment that the Government adopted in the objectives of the Act. One of the key objectives for local land services is to find financial incentives for farmers to manage and retain vegetation. That is how we solve this problem. We look at it and say, “Let’s map it.” We have the satellites and the science. The Office of Environment and Heritage and the Department of Primary Industries should get together and map the country and work out what is changing and how it is changing, because it is changing.
Basically in a generation one-third of the State will be free of most agriculture. There will be a little bit of agriculture in the Western Division and that is an area that will have to be properly managed. We can do that and we can make farmers productive. We can create a mosaic of vegetation. But we cannot do it by allowing a free-for-all in one area and in the absence of proper science. The key part of my contribution is that we need to look at the vegetation we have now and see how long it has been there. Why would we have a section in the Act that allows clearing of any vegetation that has regrown since 1983? Clearly, that will be valuable vegetation. It will be of a size, a canopy and a density that will help us deal with soil degradation, soil compaction, salinity, biodiversity and so on.
It is incumbent on government to give the community the information they need to make decisions. The property vegetation plans are a case in point. There are four million hectares of invasive native scrub property vegetation plans [PVPs]. Under thinning to benchmark PVPs hundreds of thousands of hectares are cleared. Those farmers are getting a good outcome from them. I toured Lightning Ridge recently with a member of the NSW Farmers Association, Wayne Newton, and looked at the productivity on a farm running Boer goats or dorpers.
The Hon. Matthew Mason-Cox: Are you a member of NSW Farmers?
Mr JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: I was; I am not anymore. The issue is that they had been allowed to clear cypress pine. It had stopped the soil erosion and had created a mosaic. It was a fantastic landscape—full of macropods and birds. It was a healthy, recovering environment. It is not mutually exclusive. To wind back paragraph (b) in the objects of the bill and say that broadscale clearing of native vegetation has to be in the economic interests of a region will clearly gazump everything else. Clearing should be in the interests of the environment, the community and the economy. That is the change that the Government seems unable to acknowledge in so much of its legislation, whether it relates to mining or agriculture.
I agree with the Hon. Steve Whan that The Nationals have failed to deliver for their constituents. They have vacated the field, and that is a big mistake. On strategic regional land use planning policy and this policy area they have failed, failed, failed. They are not basing their decisions on science, on aquifer interference policy or on real data. The farmers and ecologists, city and country, understand that The Nationals are guided by political science. The Nationals promised big for the election, they beat their chests, but afterwards they could not deliver because they were rolled by the Liberal Party. That is good because hopefully it gives us an opportunity to take a breath, step back and base our decisions on reason, science and ecology.
The Hon. Niall Blair: If you ever say that I incited Croppa Creek again I will deadset come after you.
Mr David Shoebridge: Point of order: I have not heard a physical threat like that issued in the Chamber before.
DEPUTY-PRESIDENT (The Hon. Trevor Khan): Order! All members will calm down, including Mr David Shoebridge.
Mr David Shoebridge: I am quite calm.
DEPUTY-PRESIDENT (The Hon. Trevor Khan): Order! If Mr David Shoebridge continues to interrupt he will be placed on a call to order. The Hon. Rick Colless has the call.
The Hon. Amanda Fazio: Point of order: From my understanding of previous Presidents’ rulings and of the standing orders, it is unparliamentary for any member in this Chamber to threaten physical violence against another member. I suggest that you ask the Hon. Niall Blair to withdraw that comment.
Mr David Shoebridge: To the point of order—
The Hon. Niall Blair: I withdraw the comment.
Mr David Shoebridge: To the point of order—
DEPUTY-PRESIDENT (The Hon. Trevor Khan): Order! The Hon. Niall Blair has withdrawn the comment.
The Hon. Niall Blair: I apologise. I was not aware that the member took any offence and if he has I also apologise.
Mr David Shoebridge: A physical threat in the Chamber and you were not aware he had taken offence?
The Hon. Duncan Gay: Go and put your head in a bucket.
Mr David Shoebridge: You’re not defending him, are you?
DEPUTY-PRESIDENT (The Hon. Trevor Khan): Order! All members will calm down. The Hon. Rick Colless has the call and will proceed.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: Point of order: I cannot hear the member speak because of interjections from Mr David Shoebridge.