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Wednesday, 25 May 2011
Page: 4529

Mr TEHAN (Wannon) (12:11): As I rise to speak on the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011, I would like to state at the outset that to me the key component of this bill is to make sure that the government is not introducing a scheme which will artificially distort markets in respect of agricultural land use or impose barriers on food and fibre productivity output. That is the key test for this bill: what is the government seeking to do? If it is seeking to change land use away from productive purposes then this bill either needs serious amending or should not be supported at all.

On the weekend I went to a farm near Beaufort of 6,000 acres in what is prime sheep and cropping country. Three thousand acres of that property had trees put on it. That should not have happened. The land is not suitable for that. There are some areas that are suitable for trees to be grown on but there are some areas that are not suitable. But there is a scheme that distorts land use and it has led to large areas of agricultural land being put to trees. So what we have is a small businessman, a farmer, having bought those 6,000 acres, now having to spend a considerable amount of money on uprooting all those trees, burning them and trying to put that land back to productive use. As he goes about doing that he will have to go into debt. He is doing that because he believes that in the future there will be a need for Australian food and fibre.

I take my hat off to him and his family for doing that because there are going to be global shortages of food and fibre and we have to make sure that we do everything we can to maximise the efficient use of our land. You do not do that by distorting the way that land is used. You let the market dictate how that land should be used. So if this bill in any way seeks to distort land use I will have considerable concern about it. That is why I am very worried that the bill has been introduced without us seeing any of the regulations, because the regulations will hold the key to whether this will be land distorting or not.

I will go to three or four points on this matter. Natural resource management plans will be a key component, and we have to make sure that these natural resource management plans are done on a regional basis because we have to ensure that the impacts on regional communities, water and biodiversity are taken into consideration when plans are put in place to dictate land use. At the moment the bill dictates that the minister will have ultimate control over regional land use. To me, this is dangerous. A minister sitting in Canberra dictating what regional land use policy should or should not be is the wrong way around. Those organisations on the ground who know intimately the resources in their areas should be the ones who are dictating.

The Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority recommended in its submission on the design of the Carbon Farming Initiative:

… Regional NRM bodies (eg CMAs in Victoria) should be provided with sufficient resources to develop the appropriate “natural resource management plan” that would involve regional decision making on land use planning and priorities. This plan would take into account environmental, water and biodiversity impacts in determining the applicability of eligible activities to appropriate subregions.

I support this idea wholeheartedly. It is important because currently in Victoria there are no state regulatory requirements for farm zoned land that would need to be assessed as part of any approval process for the CFI, so potential impacts of the carbon offset projects would not be assessed on a state or a regional basis.

Notwithstanding the coverage of the scheme, the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency may exclude projects that could have significant adverse impacts on water availability, food production, local communities and conservation of biodiversity or employment. These impacts may be in, or in the vicinity of, the project area or any of the project areas for that kind of project. The intention is that 'the vicinity' may be interpreted broadly, including water resources availability in associated catchments. This is all good in theory, but it is the minister who has the ultimate say; it is not the regional communities. And it is the regional communities that should have the say. They should be resourced to put the plans together and they should then be asked to provide advice to the minister.

There are also issues with this bill regarding the international dimension. There is uncertainty about the international rules that Australia will be operating under—for example, whether Australia will include additional land management activities such as forest management towards future mitigation commitments. For the first commitment period under the Kyoto protocol, between 2008 and 2012, some of the land sector forestry activities such as management of forests, crop lands and grazing land are voluntary. That is article 3, at point 4. This means that countries can decide if they will elect to take on additional commitments for the sector. Australia has chosen not to include emissions or removals from any article 3(4) activities and hence has not elected to be subject to article 3(4). This means that actions to increase soil carbon or reduce logging sit outside accounting for Australia's Kyoto target for the first commitment period.

What are we doing for the second commitment period? I will use this opportunity to ask: what are we trying to do to get some international movement in the whole area of climate change? We seem to have completely gone to sleep at the wheel with our diplomatic initiatives to get any future international action in this area. The more we focus domestically on introducing this insidious carbon tax, the less we seem to be doing internationally to get international agreement so that the globe moves forward. So I use this opportunity to ask the government to get back on track with focusing on where the international negotiations are and to make clear what its policy will be for the second commitment period in this area. While uncertainty lies around that, this bill remains something that we on this side will not be able, in all good conscience, to support.

There is also the issue of permanency. While acknowledging the importance of permanency, my view is that it should be treated in a flexible manner in order to properly promote abatement. Just saying that we are going to lock areas away for 100 years seems completely nonsensical to me. If we get more carbon abatement from growing timber in the first 30 years, why then after those 30 years should we not be able to harvest that timber and then start again, replanting and locking timber away for another 30 years? The idea that we should just lock something away for 100 years and not look to get any productive output from it just seems completely nonsensical to me. It also goes back to the key component that I mentioned at the start that what we want to see in this Carbon Farming Initiative is that government is going to encourage the productive use of agricultural land and not impose barriers on food and fibre productive output. Also, what we need to see—and once again it is not clearly spelt out in the legislation as it was put to us today—is what the actual compliance costs are going to be to our farmers. Are we going to reach a situation where the offsets and the benefits that the farmers will get will be outweighed by the compliance costs of measuring the offsets? What will be the cost to the farmers of the on-farm auditing? How onerous will it be? How much paperwork will be involved? How much red tape will be involved? None of this is clearly spelt out in this bill. Given that this government has increased compliance-cost red tape in the four years that it has been in power, we need some serious statements from the government that the compliance and administrative costs to farmers of participating in this program will not outweigh the benefits of doing the right thing by putting more carbon in soil, or by other measures they undertake.

I would also like to see what this legislation will mean for biochar and biomass. For a start we need to see greater work on research into options such as biochar for carbon sequestration. Biochar is a stable form of charcoal produced from heating natural organic materials in a high-temperature, low-oxygen process. In some cases biochar can remain stable in soil for hundreds or thousands of years. So biochar is an important use of technology that recognises that carbon is not a negative factor in our environment but actually enriches the land. Biochar could be used to enrich soil, simultaneously improving soil productivity and storing carbon. What will this legislation do to continue to help us to encourage the use of biochar and biomass as a way of getting more carbon into our soil? I will be looking to the regulations to ensure that it is going to benefit our efforts to increase our biochar and biomass industries.

In summing up on the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011, what we have before us is not a bad idea in principle. As a matter of fact it is pretty much a carbon copy of the ideas of our direct action plan, which the coalition put forward at the last election. But, sadly, like everything this government does, the implementation leaves a lot to be desired. From where it stands now it is a bit of an unmitigated disaster. We have no regulations before us. We have no faith that this government could implement anything, and yet we have to come in here now and speak on this bill in blind faith. Well, on behalf of the farmers in my electorate, I cannot give this government the benefit of the doubt on anything. We have been bitten too many times. For this bill, it will be a matter of waiting to see what the regulations are, what the Senate report comes out with, and looking at what I think will need to be significant amendments that will be necessary to make this a working document. Then we can decide which way we need to go. But as it stands now I have grave, grave, grave reservations about this bill.