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Wednesday, 25 May 2011
Page: 4617

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (MaranoaSecond Deputy Speaker) (17:55): I rise tonight to speak on the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011 and cognate bills. I join this debate with a background, unlike the member for Blair, as a farmer for many years, having to farm the land to ensure I could pay the bills, feed and educate my children. So I have a very close affinity with the soil and the land, as did my parents and my grandparents before me. So I come to this debate with a background knowledge, having been a working participant in a productive farm.

I also come to this debate as the member for Maranoa, which has a very large agricultural base, from the edge of the Simpson Desert in the west of the electorate to the highly productive Darling Downs soils, where we have real pressure at the moment from mining companies and coal seam methane gas companies. But I did not hear any mention of that from the member for Blair. I want to talk about the competition between both those sectors in my address tonight.

I also come to this debate tonight as having observed farming practices not only across Australia but also in other parts of the world. I particularly refer to my studies as a Nuffield scholar in the United Kingdom and Europe, observing some of the farming practices in some of the oldest farming lands of the globe, apart from those perhaps in the Middle East and North Africa. Interestingly, when we talk about carbon sequestration, that has been going on for centuries and centuries. When you think about it, probably the best carbon sequestration is the old golden hoof fertiliser—the manure from the feedlot, the organic matter being returned to the soil.

That is what this bill seeks to achieve: to convert atmospheric carbon into soil carbon. Of course, when you think about it, golden hoof fertiliser does that daily. It returns organic matter back into the soil, which will break down over time Crop residues are of course a part of that breakdown into soil carbon.

Carbon sequestration to improve productivity on the land is a good idea. The coalition supports that. Contrary to the spray we have had from the member for Blair, we do support that. We support the target. But it is how we get there that is important. Our amendment wants to put a stop on this legislation until we see the regulations that will be attached to this legislation. It is like asking us to buy a pig in a poke: site unseen, and committing to a Carbon Farming Initiative without all the regulations in place. As I said, carbon sequestration to improve productivity and soil structure is a good idea. I have seen it in many parts of the world. We have practised it—without legislation I might add—on our own farm. In fact, after my Nuffield scholarship year, I purchased imported farming equipment so that we could better utilise our crop residues. Much of the farm machinery that had been used in Australia was incapable of retaining crop residues on top of the soil and planting new crops, so we bought farming equipment from importers who had bought it in the United States of America.

The other aspect of this is that we are concerned that this legislation could lead to the wholesale transfer of prime agricultural land, some of our best land, to growing trees that cannot be harvested for 100 years. If they are going to be used for carbon sequestration, they are going to have to be locked away for 100 years, locking up the land as well. That is a genuine concern that I have, that farmers in my electorate would have and that I am sure the National Farmers Federation would have. It is biased towards tree plantations, as the regulations are now, and native vegetation will not be allowed to be included under this bill.

In my own electorate, we saw the Queensland Labor Party lock up large tracts of land when they put a ban on tree clearing. Farmers still come to me and say, 'I wouldn't mind locking up some of my land, but I can't get anything for it.' I am talking about native timbers, native vegetation. It is particularly in western Queensland that these farmers come to me. They may have bought their land in good faith, wanting to develop it over their lifetime and perhaps their children's lifetime. But the ban on tree clearing in Queensland locked up, in some cases, up to half or two-thirds of that land, and they can never go back to developing it while that ban remains in place. And they cannot participate in this Carbon Farming Initiative because it is native vegetation. I understand that the state government has claimed that under the Kyoto protocol, and that has already been counted, but these farmers are not able to continue to develop their farms. They would have done it responsibly, as I am sure the member for New England would agree. We know there have been mistakes made in the past, and we have all learnt from the mistakes, but there are farmers out there who have got native vegetation and who will not be able to participate in what is proposed in this legislation.

I mentioned the issue of our prime agricultural land and the conflict that we have in some cases with the resource companies, particularly calcium methane gas and large resource companies, wanting to mine coal. I have already got an international company in my electorate that wants to buy up to 80,000 hectares of land that is actually mapped on the Queensland prime agricultural land or strategic cropping land map as being strategic cropping land. They want to basically open it up for an open-cut coalmine. That is 80,000 hectares of magnificent cattle-producing, grain-producing, food-producing land. It will be locked away as this coalmine moves through it over the next 30 years, taking prime agricultural land out of food production.

I have already got a gas company in my electorate that is growing trees as part of its strategy to deal with the water that has been extracted as part of the coal seam methane gas process. If you are going to extract coal seam methane gas, you have first got to de-water the aquifer where the coal bed is. The water comes up and you have got to do something with it; you have got to make good with it. This company have decided that they are going to grow trees. They have purchased a property, formerly a very productive cattle property. This water is a by-product that they thought they might have been able to just let run away down the creek somewhere, but they have got to do something more with it. What are they doing with it? They are using it for a timber plantation. I do not know whether the company are going to try and sell carbon credits on this land, but it is a very good example of taking good agricultural land out of food production and using it for a timber plantation.

This raises questions about what land will be used and, if this legislation goes through, what restrictions there will be in the Carbon Farming Initiative on plantation timber being planted on good food-producing land in Australia. Sixty-odd per cent of Australia's farming land is owned by Australians. The other 40 per cent is owned by foreign interests. Will foreign based companies want to come to Australia to buy some of our prime agricultural land, our food-producing land—it could be strategic cropping land or good grazing land, pasture land—convert it to timber and then receive a carbon credit for planting a timber forest that is an offset to emissions that they have to deal with in another part of the world? Will they be receiving the carbon credits? Will they be investing in some of this land?

The mining companies have got far more available money to buy land than the farmers can ever hope to have to keep their farms in their own possession. I have got very near family members right now dealing with a gas company. In the negotiations that people near them have been going through, it really ends up with the farmer saying, 'We're not going to be able to coexist with the gas company because they want to almost take over the land for the next 30 years,' as they have in some areas. As I said earlier, they have planted trees on what was once a cattle-producing farm. One example I know of is that for the last nine months this farm that is very close to my family has backgrounded some 2,000 head of cattle. It is part of the food-producing chain to background cattle to put into a feedlot and from the feedlot process it into food for Australians and also for export. But they do not believe they are going to be able to coexist with that company. What will they do if they buy it? They have bought quite a lot around the place near them. Are they going to convert it, like another company north of Roma has, into a plantation because they might be able to sell carbon credits from it with the water that they have extracted without a licence from underground as part of the coal seam methane gas extraction process? The coal seam methane gas is then sent to Gladstone. We know it is all about great wealth and new jobs—we understand all of that—but what are they going to do with all the land as they continually buy these wonderful food-producing areas? Because of this legislation, they might be going to see an opportunity: 'Well, we'll put it down for trees. We've got water that we've got to deal with. It's a bit of a problem this part of the coal seam methane gas extraction. We'll grow plantation timber and get a carbon credit for it and take it out of food production.'

I want to touch on the carbon tax. The carbon tax that this government wants to introduce is going to do untold damage to the viability of many rural farming enterprises across Australia. The tax is going to drive up the price of electricity. You cannot get away from having to use electricity in most farming operations that I am aware of, whether it be dairy, feedlot, the wool industry or the beef-processing sector. It is essential element of either the primary or the downstream processing side of the agricultural food production.

What this carbon tax will do is drive up the cost of electricity. The tyranny of distance has always been a factor. I am sure the member for New England would concur about the tyranny of distance in Australia, given we have one of the largest geographic areas of the countries in the world. We have populated it with great farmers with great skills across this large land mass, but the tyranny of distance means the transport sector will be hit by this carbon tax. How will farmers respond as their costs go up? They are going to have to drive their land harder. When it comes to crop rotation or pasture renovation, because of the cost increases they are going to look at the bottom line and say, 'Well, we can't afford to do that.

We have actually got to drive our soils harder. We're going to have to use more fertiliser rather than rotate our land into a break crop or have a crop rotation and get out of a mono culture'—as I see increasingly. So, whilst we on this side of the House support the initiatives to look at carbon sequestration—and farmers do—our point is that it is how you get there. The regulations are not with this bill. We still have not seen the CSIRO or ABARES studies which are due out on this whole issue of carbon farming. We should wait for those reports before we vote on this bill. That is why this amendment is so essential and this bill should not proceed at this stage tonight. (Time expired)