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Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Page: 2809

Mr MITCHELL (McEwen) (10:39): I rise today to support the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities against the motion moved by the member for Gippsland to disallow the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Regulations 2011 (No. 1). I do so because, from what we have heard today, the facts seem to be far from the romantic view that those opposite are trying to put forward about cattle grazing. I was involved in the Victorian task force that ended the licences for cattle in the Alpine national parks. I actually spent time up there—days and weeks—with the cattlemen, with people whom I really admire, with people like Simon Turner and Harry Ryder, cattle producers, who are really good blokes. This is the thing that seems to be getting lost in the mystic romance put across by those on the other side.

Mr McCormack: It's called heritage.

Mr MITCHELL: The member for Riverina yaps in and says, 'It's called heritage.' Mate, when was the last time you had a bushranger in Wagga Wagga, apart from you? We do not have that anymore. We have got to be serious about this. This is purely about cattle farmers. They are beef producers; they are not some romantic, mystic people that sit around the camp fire and sing. I have been through this before because I have sat in the chamber with some people who have been directly related to mountain cattlemen.

Mr Schultz: You don't think history is relevant in this country?

Mr MITCHELL: History is very relevant—you are still sitting there; I consider you relevant.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr KJ Thomson ): Order! Members on my left will cease interjecting.

Mr MITCHELL: We went through this whole thing. At the end of the day we are talking about cattle farmers. That is what they are and that is what they do, and they do it pretty well.

What this is about for the Nationals is protecting eight family farms. Now, thanks to the member for Gippsland admitting it, we find out that these are people who have contributed to National Party campaigns. The Nationals sit there and say, 'We've got to protect farmers.' Why would you protect eight farmers at the cost of everyone else? During the 12 years of drought in Victoria, where people were paying an absolute fortune—hundreds of dollars a week—to get agistment to keep their cattle farms going, to keep themselves in business and to keep themselves going, eight families, including those directly related to the Victorian Premier, were allowed to agist their cattle on public land for $5 a season, for 16 to 20 weeks. While everyone else was going out the back door, going broke in the middle of a drought, a select handful of people on hereditary licences were virtually given a taxpayer funded agistment, and it was wrong. It was wrong then and it is wrong now.

The Victorian task force I was on travelled everywhere, from Wonnangatta Station right up through the Bogong High Plains, right through Victoria's high country. We went and had a look at things. I am sure the minister will agree: I am probably not the greenest person in this place; I am probably the brownest one on our side. When I first became a member of that task force, I said, 'What are we doing this for?' By the end of the four or five weeks we spent up there, it was clear as day that some of the issues caused by cattle in the high country were such that we could not morally stand by and let them happen.

We spent days walking through the high country. There were places up there with sphagnum moss in the bogs. We came across two bogs that were not affected by cattle. Cattle are pretty heavy. They have got small feet and they punch a hole straight through the moss. This moss is used to filter the water that goes into our rivers—the water that we use to drink and to live off. When the snow melts and it rushes, the moss that is punctured gets pushed away. It takes many, many years for it to grow. It acts like a sponge to filter the water. The name of the grass in the bogs escapes me, but every person we met—the environmentalists, the cattlemen—all said the same thing: this particular grass that grows in the bog is like chocolate to cattle. They love it. They cannot get enough of it. So they are prepared to go through the bog to get to this grass. In doing so, they wreck the bog, which then wrecks the filter system for the waters that flow into our rivers. As I said, we saw only two that were not affected by cattle. I actually kept the photos because I had never seen a pristine one before. It is something that I still keep, because it is an amazing sight. They are beautiful places that should be enjoyed by more people, not locked up for access by a small number of people.

We also looked at environmental issues. We looked at the native grasses, the introduced grasses, the weeds and pests. Guess how the weeds got up there?

Most of the weeds in the cattle grazing area have got up there because they are driven up there and dropped off. We are not talking about the men from Snowy River who herd their cattle up there on horseback over five days; the grasses that are eaten elsewhere are taken up the mountains when the cattle do their droppings. By the way, this is how the Victorian government does scientific experiments to know what the impact is—they are out there counting cattle dung. That is their scientific experiment. It is just an absolute joke. So all those weeds that come in, they are in the cattle droppings and they spread through these areas and include things like blackberries and couch grass. They are up there and they are not native to high country ecosystems.

I also want to talk about the fires because this has been an interesting one. We get this romantic view of 'cattle grazing reduces blazing'. But not one cow would eat bark, twigs or leaves, which is what causes the fuel load, which is what causes the intensity. I know this because—it is a pity the member for Hume is not here—I sat through the hearings on the 2003 alpine fires where parts of the cattle-grazed area were burnt and parts were not, and parts in the areas that were untouched were burnt and other parts were not. Things like weather conditions, including the wind conditions, caused the changes in the fire. Not one person, including the people from the CFA or environmentalists, agreed that cattle grazing reduces blazing. Cattle eat grass. Grass does burn with the same intensity as twigs, bark, fallen trees and all those things. So the theory that cattle grazing reduces blazing is just quite simply rubbish because it does not. It was proven it does not and you cannot run that argument seriously and say, 'Look, I'm being honest, hand on heart, this is what it is about'.

This is about the protection of eight families. That is all it is about. If you want to be fair to farmers and give them all a fair go, you would not allow eight farmers to go through drought conditions and fatten up their cows and get top prices while every other farmer on the low plains and on the low ground is getting nothing for their animals and going out the back door and relying on drought support. You cannot do that. Rather than having a hereditary license in which you have to marry in to get one, we looked at whether it is an option to the auction them off. This was quickly dismissed both by the mountain cattlemen and by us because people would go up there and do as much as they could to get as much as they could out of the grass.

In the end it was a decision that was made looking at things such as ecology, fire, cattle and heritage. We looked at a whole range of things and came to the conclusion that cattle grazing was not compatible with a national park. We concluded that it was not compatible with the native flora and fauna that is up there or with other users of the national park. The state government then offered the cattlemen more state forest land, extra amounts of land to use for grazing. But they said no. It was either all or nothing, so they got nothing. We went out of our way to help them; we tried to keep things going. It is not ending the tradition. It is not ending the heritage. There are still high plains up there in state forests that get grazed all the time and there is no problem with that. But this is about the use of the national park, which is not compatible with cattle grazing.

The other thing that seems to have been overlooked is that the cattlemen received $5 million in compensation from the Victorian taxpayers. That is a more than generous amount of money, but now, because of direct relatives of the Premier and friends of the National Party, they are back in there. Where is the money? Did they give the money back? No. According to the member for Gippsland, they financed National Party campaigns with it. That is absolutely wrong. You cannot stand there and say, 'We're doing the right thing'.

Mr Chester interjecting

Mr MITCHELL: You basically have said that they paid for their opinion to be heard.

Mr Chester: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker: I ask the member to withdraw.

Mr MITCHELL: For what?

Mr Chester: The suggestion that a member's vote can be bought by political donations.

Mr MITCHELL: I will withdraw if it makes you happy, but I would just ask you to read your own Hansard later and tell me if I am wrong.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The member for McEwen might assist the House by simply withdrawing.

Mr MITCHELL: I will withdraw again. When we look at this issue before us today, quite clearly it is about mates and not about national parks or about ecology. We know that cattle damage moss beds, which are very fragile. Cattle pollute waterways and create tracks. We saw an example of this during the time we spent up there with the cattlemen and the environmentalists—and this is going to be a good slap at environmentalists. A cow had died in a bog and it was decomposing. It affected the bog. The environmentalists were very quick to say: 'Look, the cow's died in a bog. It's bad.' But at no time did any of them think: 'You know what? We should remove that and protect the environment'. No, they slapped the cattlemen. I brought it to their attention and said: "Well, this is rubbish. If this is so important, why wouldn't you just remove the carcass?' That was the right thing to do, to remove it and to ensure that it did not impact any further on the moss beds. But what if we take away all the arguments that have been put forward by those opposite and sit down and ask: 'What's important? What do we want from the national park?' We want it to be open for a lot of users, for a lot of people to use it and to use it freely.

A fellow that the member for Gippsland and I both know, Mr Devers, will tell you about the time he was chased by cattle through the park when he was bushwalking. Mr Devers is a very good bushwalker and also does alpine rescues. You cannot go to the areas that are okay to camp in because of the cowpats that are everywhere. We have to use it for as many purposes as possible. This includes Wonnangatta Station. I went there and I remember hearing, 'Have a look at it, it's a mess'. If you looked at it as a paddock to put your cows in to graze then it probably did look a mess. But if you looked at the native grasses that were growing there, the kangaroo paw et cetera, in their native environment it was looked pristine. We do not lock people out of there. There is a place there called the widow-maker where the four-wheel drivers go up and down. That is part of it. There are bush tracks for people to walk through and huts for people to stay in when they go fishing and camping.

Mr Christensen: Four-wheel drives but not cows.

Mr MITCHELL: The honourable member says 'Four-wheel drives, not cows' but there are four-wheel drive tracks in the national parks and there have been for a long time. I am sure someone like yourself has probably never been in one and would not understand that. It is about ensuring that you get a balance for all users and not lock up lots and lots of areas just for eight families to protect their interests. I know the member for Gippsland is on the charge for his buddies down there but the reality is that he is wrong. This motion is wrong and the minister is right that we do not take steps backwards and turn a national park into a private farm for a handful of graziers.